Processors affirm plans to drop eco-label, MSC fires back

A public statement by seafood processors handling the vast majority of Alaska’s salmon harvest supporting the Alaska Seafood Marketing Institute’s responsible fishery management certification has been met with a new attack by the eco-labeling organization struggling to keep the fishery as one of its marquee species.

In an “open letter to the editor” released May 18, the heads of 27 seafood companies that handle upwards of 80 percent of the annual Alaska salmon harvest said they will stick with ASMI’s responsible fishery management, or RFM, certification of the salmon fishery after their participation in the Marine Stewardship Council eco-label program expires this October.

The letter was a response to the MSC’s announcement in April that the Seattle-based Purse Seine Vessel Owners Association would become the latest client for its Alaska salmon fishery certification.

“The announcement by PSVOA and the speculative statements that followed have created some confusion in the marketplace. We would like to clear up any misunderstanding,” the letter declares. “We have no intention of supporting MSC certification for salmon beyond the 2012 production. While we recognize that PSVOA has the right to become the client for MSC salmon, it should not be construed that we have changed our minds about this decision.”

Five of the 27 companies, Trident, Icicle, Ocean Beauty, Peter Pan Seafoods and Kwik’Pak Fisheries, occupy the processor seats on the ASMI board. These and three others, Alaska General Seafoods, E & E Foods and North Pacific Seafoods, usually buy 75 percent or more of Alaska’s annual salmon harvest.

The MSC has pressed seafood retailers, with some success in Germany and the U.K., to demand its blue eco-label on all their products. Alaska salmon processors say that gives the eco-labeler control of market access and obscures product origin, the premier hallmark of Alaska salmon.

In response, Kerry Coughlin, the MSC’s regional director for the Americas, issued a statement downplaying the processors’ letter and attacking ASMI.

“ASMI has been clear for some time that they are lobbying against the MSC option for Alaska fisheries. In the course of promoting their own industry scheme, ASMI continues to say inaccurate and misleading things about the MSC program,” Coughlin said in what was described as an exclusive interview with Intrafish, a seafood news website owned by Norwegian farmed salmon producers.

Requests over several weeks for an interview with Coughlin or another MSC spokesperson in her Seattle office have been rejected, as was a request for clarification of what she asserted were ASMI’s inaccurate and misleading comments.

“She was referring to the corrections that we put out in late January,” wrote Mike DeCesare, MSC’s Americas’ communications director in a May 25 email.

MSC issued two public statements in January, both in response to the announcement by the Alaska Fisheries Development Foundation in Kodiak that it would drop its relationship with the MSC this fall after barely two years.

AFDF became the client for the MSC’s Alaska salmon certification after the Alaska Department of Fish and Game dropped that role in 2010.

A Jan. 17 MSC news release contained no mention of ASMI. It quoted Coughlin declaring, “While there are other sources of MSC-certified salmon, Alaska was an early and important leader in the MSC program. We hope that this fishery will re-enter assessment, maintain the market advantage of MSC certification, and continue to showcase their sustainability.”

That was followed by a lengthy Jan. 20 statement in which MSC declared, “We are compelled to respectfully respond to certain ASMI statements with correct and factual information.”

The ASMI statements referred to by MSC were its explanation of its new RFM certification program at a variety of public events.

ASMI’s program is based on the United Nations Food and Agricultural Organization’s Code of Responsible Fishery Management. MSC’s certification system is based on the same code, as interpreted by its board of directors.

The MSC rejected ASMI’s program as equivalent to its eco-label and said MSC is concerned “about schemes that are not scientifically credible, rigorous, independent and third-party, because of their potential to undermine real environmental change.”

Although the MSC was founded, and largely funded, by Unilever, at the time the world’s largest seafood importer, MSC’s Jan. 20 statement said, “With no reference to any specific fishery intended, an industry-led standard cannot achieve the level of independence, scientific rigor and credibility that ensures that fisheries are genuinely sustainable.”

The Jan. 20 statement also said ASMI’s system handled by Global Trust is not a legitimate third-party certification.

Global Trust, an internationally recognized auditing firm, is among several that have been approved by MSC for use by its eco-label clients. Under the MSC method, the client, until recently at least, paid the auditor’s expenses for site visits and other review costs.

The MSC is paying at least 75 percent of PSVOA’s certification costs and will make up the gap between its remaining costs and fees the group will charge processors that continue to use the blue eco-label.

Updated: 
05/31/2012 - 12:56pm