FISH FACTOR: Sodexo latest to snub Alaska salmon over eco-labeling

Alaska salmon continues to get snubbed by ill-informed, far away big wigs who believe they are best suited to make the seafood choices for their customers.    

Last week Sodexo, one of the world’s largest food purveyors, said its policy is to only serve seafood certified by (you guessed it) the London-based Marine Stewardship Council. In this case, the fish is targeted to the U.S. troops.

Sodexo, a Fortune 500 company based in France, has an eight-year contract to provide food services to U.S. military mess halls, including $22 million worth of seafood each year. It’s likely that many other Americans also are not benefitting from Alaska seafood, as Sodexo provides foods to hundreds of federal, state and private hospitals, schools, prisons, assisted living centers and other facilities across the country.

In a letter to Sodexo USA CEO George Chavel, Sen. Mark Begich called the salmon snub “outrageous” and an “appalling insult.” 

“This company has decided that because of some labeling issue, they don’t think Alaska fish products meet their standards,” Begich fumed during a phone conversation as he was leaving a fisheries hearing in Kenai. “We believe the certification we have through Global Trust, the same that Canada and Iceland receive on their fish products, is as high a standard, if not higher, than what Sodexo wants.”

The MSC spearheaded the sustainable seafood movement in 1997 — showcasing Alaska’s salmon fishery as its first big certification success. The Alaska salmon industry opted out of the MSC program last year, due to growing logo and licensing costs and concerns over inconsistent standards.

Sodexo follows Wal-Mart and the U.S. Park Service in the fish fight about excluding Alaska salmon because of an eco-label. Both were quick to claim “salmon love” but admitted they do not have a clear understanding of Alaska’s new third party certification standards.

Members of the Alaska Seafood Marketing Institute, or ASMI, and other industry stakeholders are scheduled to meet with Wal-Mart at its Arkansas headquarters next month.

“What we are really asking is for ASMI, and others who are closely involved in the industry to educate us and give us more information,” said Chris Schraeder, Wal-Mart’s senior manager of Sustainability Communications, adding that it is the first time Wal-Mart has found itself in this type of eco-incident.

Similarly, Begich said Aug. 23 that Sodexo USA had called him to say they want to work with Alaska and resolve the seafood spat.

“They understand now that there are issues they were unaware of about Alaska’s sustainability programs, and how we track our products. We are happy to educate them,” Begich said.    

He added: “In a backhanded way, all of this lets us tout the benefits of Alaska fish, and make something positive out of an adverse situation. I feel it is my responsibility to promote seafood for Alaska and all U.S. fisheries and this gives me a chance to contact these companies directly.”

As chairman of the Senate Commerce subcommittee on Oceans, Atmosphere, Fisheries, and Coast Guard, Begich said he is ready to add eco-labeling clarifications to the Magnuson-Stevens Act as it undergoes reauthorization.

People put down

People magazine is the next up to receive an irate letter from Sen. Begich and other Alaskans for its recommendation that farmed fish is “a better choice” than wild caught fish.

In his blog this week titled “The best fish to buy,” fitness and health food guru Harley Pasternak wrote that the many benefits of farmed seafood include “a reduced likelihood of contamination from mercury and PCBs,” which “are not as much of a risk in a controlled, farmed environment.”

It is gratifying to see that readers gave the guru’s fish recommendations a big thumbs down.  Nearly all of the 60 comments bashed Pasternak — “a hit job on our fisheries”... “a shill for the farm fish industry”... think he’d eat it with a 10 foot pole?”... “real fish don’t eat pellets” ... “farm raised is genetically modified food”... and chastised him for a poorly researched article that will likely scare people away from eating more seafood.

Who fishes where

Many people are surprised to learn that 80 percent of Alaska’s seafood landings come from federal waters, meaning from three to 200 miles offshore. Oversight falls to the North Pacific Fishery Management Council, and its staff has compiled a booklet profiling the fishing fleets through 2010, with an addendum for 2011 that includes names of every boat.

Some highlights for 2011: 81 trawl boats and 16 catcher-processors fish in the Bering Sea; 98 trawlers fish in the Central and Western Gulf of Alaska. There are 67 groundfish longline vessels, 137 pot boats, and 118 vessels in the jig fleet.

The Bering Sea/Aleutian Islands crab fleet has 77 boats, there are four scallopers and 1,457 boats fish for halibut and sablefish.

While most people imagine huge vessels in the federal water fisheries, 80 percent are less than 60 feet. By far, most of the boats were built in the 1970s and 1980s.

Most of the catch in 2010 — 54 percent — was Alaska pollock, followed by flatfishes at 18 percent and cod at 15 percent. Halibut and sablefish were just one percent of the total catch; shellfish at 2 percent. 

As to where the fleets call home — most of the large at-sea catcher processors report Seattle as their homeport; most of the catcher boats that deliver to shore plants hail from Alaska.

Major ports for groundfish are Kodiak, Homer and Sand Point. For halibut and sablefish, top homeports are Homer, Kodiak, Juneau, Petersburg and Sitka. Find a link at

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

08/29/2013 - 10:35am