FISH FACTOR: Alaskans give Walmart full-court press on sustainable salmon

Walmart reps were in Juneau last week to learn more about Alaska’s salmon fisheries, and to make sure management is up to snuff with the company’s sustainability criteria.

Alaska’s salmon industry opted out of the high-priced certifying program that Walmart uses as its seafood purchasing standard, the London-based Marine Stewardship Council. Alaska instead adopted the UN-sanctioned Responsible Fisheries Management, or RFM, program for “well managed” certification, a label that has become practically a requirement in most seafood buying and selling today.

That put Walmart in the problematic position of finding Alaska salmon outside the bounds of the company’s seafood sourcing guidelines. When word spread last summer that Walmart might not stock it on its shelves, Alaskans went ballistic. Thus, the trip to Juneau.

Seven Walmart officials met for several days with Gov. Sean Parnell, state officials and seafood industry experts and scientists. The mood was friendly, said John Renner, vice president of Cordova District Fishermen United, who spent time with the group.

“All parties want to get something done. And Walmart wants to get itself out of the box it got itself into,” Renner said. “They were eager to learn and impressed by what they saw. I really got the impression that they came away with a better understanding of Alaska’s management and the fisheries themselves.”

Renner said he came away with “a positive feeling that something will happen shortly after a couple of tweaks are made to the written criteria and allow others besides the MSC.”

Parnell said he welcomed the company’s pledge to work toward a policy that supports Alaska’s commitment to sustainability, rather than a particular brand of seafood certification.

David Baskin, Walmart’s vice president of meat and seafood, said the company “remains committed to buying Alaska seafood, and we’re excited that the Alaska Seafood Marketing Institute has agreed to work with us to ensure the RFM standard meets the principles for credible sustainable fisheries programs as developed by The Sustainability Consortium. The Consortium is expected to release its principles in the coming days.”

Along with the lessons in good management, the Walmart group also took home the message that they are dealing with thousands of independent small fishing businesses, said John Renner.

“Everyone in Alaska rallied as one,” he said. “This was the first time in these kinds of battles we’ve seen such a coming together of processors, fishermen, the state and congress got behind what it saw as a major threat to our salmon market and took steps to alleviate it.”

 Fish angst

Any child’s chemistry set will show that our oceans are becoming more corrosive. It stems primarily from the ocean’s absorbing larger amounts of carbon dioxide caused by the global burning of fossil fuels for energy, especially coal. The increasing acidity prevents shells and skeletons from growing on marine creatures. Now scientists have found that ocean acidification,  or OA, also changes fish behavior.

Normal fish are used to moving between the shaded and light parts of a kelp forest, for example, looking for food or interacting with other fish. Studies by Martín Tresguerres, a marine biologist at the Scripps Institute of Oceanography in California, show that OA affects their neurons in a way that makes them feel more threatened, and they prefer to stay more sheltered.

Tresguerres’ team studied the brains of juvenile rockfish living in acidic waters. Rockfish have predictable behaviors, he said, so it’s easier to detect changes. When placed in a tank with one dark and one white wall, a rockfish exposed to the corrosive waters stayed close to the dark wall, as did a fish that had been given an anxiety-inducing drug. That might not sound like a big deal, but it is.

“Depending on the species, if they normally go offshore at a certain period of time, or they might go to a certain area to spawn and reproduce, it might affect the way they interact with other fish. So the potential implications are pretty big,” Tresguerres told KUCB/Unalaska.

The behavior changes could eventually shift the entire ecosystem, said study co-author Trevor Hamilton.

“What could end up happening is the fish will spend less time leaving their safe environments,” Hamilton said. “So there is potential for them to get caught by fewer nets and get eaten by fewer predators. It could have an effect all the way up the food chain, as well as for general fishing for humans.”

On a related note: An Australian study showed that increased acidity affected the sense of smell in clownfish.

Laine Welch lives in Kodiak. Visit or contact [email protected] for information.

01/15/2014 - 12:20pm