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Global Retail: Charting a new course
European retailers deal with Alaska salmon sustainability certification change
By Jason Holland
April 03, 2012
In retail terms, Alaska salmon is something of a global phenomenon in that it’s recognized and coveted the world over. Europe is certainly no exception and despite a proliferation of good quality farmed Atlantic salmon, wild Alaska salmon is the iconic American fish that has captured the hearts and palates of consumers.
However, the strength of that endearment will be put to the test over the coming months in the wake of the announcement from the Alaska Fisheries Development Foundation (AFDF) that it won’t renew the five-year Marine Stewardship Council (MSC) sustainability certification for the salmon fishery. AFDF serves as the client for the certification, which has been held since 2000. Instead, the state has secured Responsible Fisheries Management for Sustainable Use, via independent, third-party assessment conducted by Global Trust Certification Ltd. of Ireland. The program received formal ISO 65 accreditation in late February.
As soon as the announcement was made there were critics on both sides of the certification camp. The Alaska Seafood Marketing Institute and representatives from Iceland Responsible Fisheries, which has 100 registered users of the IRF logo, addressed attendees of the International Boston Seafood Show last month on the evolution of sustainability in the marketplace, which helped dissolve some of the misinformation that had circulated since the announcement was made.
“Having choice in certification makes sense,” said ASMI Executive Director Ray Riutta.
The task at hand for seafood buyers is that the MSC is at the core of many European retailers’ sustainability targets, being a consumer-recognized badge of sustainable fisheries, and so the salmon producers’ move means buyers must either revise these plans or drop many highly popular products.
From an end-market perspective, the United States is the third-largest exporter of salmon to the United Kingdom, behind the Faroe Islands in first place and second-placed Sweden, although most of Sweden’s fish is of Norwegian origin. According to the U.K. seafood authority Seafish, the market imported 12,010 metric tons of U.S. salmon in 2011 for a value of £59.5 million (€ 71.2 million/$94.3 million), a 17.7 percent increase over 2010.
Another major market for Alaska salmon is the Netherlands. According to National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration statistics for 2011, the Dutch market with a population of just 17 million imported an impressive 5,121 metric tons of salmon products directly from the United States with a value in excess of $23.4 million (€17.7 million). This is close to the import figures recorded for the considerably larger French and German markets.
The first retailer and wholesaler in the Netherlands to sell Alaska salmon was Fishes, and the company’s founder Bart van Olphen introduced the fish to his customers nine years ago.
“It took a while to get going,” recalls van Olphen. “When customers would come into the store looking for Norwegian farmed salmon, we’d let them try sockeye and from there the choice was made. In the beginning we sold 90 percent farmed salmon but after five years it had become 90 percent sockeye. And we achieved that despite it being 30 percent more expensive.”
Three years ago, van Olphen co-authored the book “Fish Tales” with renowned U.K. chef Tom Kime in which the pair visited sustainable fisheries around the world and wrote about the people they found working there. He experienced fishing for sockeye (Oncorhynchus nerka) at Cook Inlet and for chum (Oncorhynchus keta) and coho (Oncorhynchus kisutch) with Yup’ik natives from the remote town of Emmonak on the Yukon River.
Of the Yup’ik, he was astounded how their lives are so intertwined with nature, and particularly with the salmon.
“I’ve travelled all over the world, but whenever anyone asks me what experience impressed me most it’s my time on the Yukon River,” he says. “It’s very special; it’s not about catching as much as you can — they really care about the fish and are proud of the work they do. And it’s certified as sustainable by the MSC. It’s a great story and personally I find the taste that much better than farmed salmon.”
The products now sold in Fishes’ five stores include fresh chum and sockeye (whole fish and fillets), frozen chum and sockeye portions, smoked sockeye, salmon pâtés and salads. Meanwhile, the wholesale part of the business, which is now owned by the Kennemervis processing group, manufactures Fishes-branded products for many supermarket chains, including Albert Heijn and Jumbo.
All Fishes products bear the MSC logo. In fact, all wild fish sold by members of the Dutch retail association (CBL) must now bear the eco-label (see What’s in store). Therefore, the decision taken by Alaska’s salmon processors to not renew the MSC certification beyond October when the current certification expires has created a dilemma for European retailers.
Van Olphen believes Alaska has made a poor decision in opting to drop the MSC eco-label in favor of the Responsible Fisheries scheme.
“The Alaskans have a beautiful product, but they forget it’s different in Europe,” he says. “It’s not about what they think is sustainable; it should be a decision made by an independent third party, and what the European retailers and consumers have chosen is MSC.
“So as long as it’s a wild product and it’s MSC-certified it can go on the shelf. Fishes, for example, has just entered four new Alaska salmon products into Dutch retail. As soon as the MSC logo disappears we won’t have that product anymore because every single Fishes product must be MSC-certified. And the consumer chooses the Fishes brand because of this.
“But it’s not just the Dutch; it’s retailers in Germany, Switzerland, France, Spain and others. I’m 100 percent sure [Alaskan processors] will lose business because of this [decision].”
Tyson Fick, communications director for ASMI, says the decision to drop MSC certification “doesn’t affect the science-based, robust management” of Alaska’s salmon fisheries. He points to the fact that since statehood 53 years ago, Alaska has been mandated to manage its natural resources to abundant, sustainable levels and it’s the only U.S. state that has conservation laws written into its constitution.
“The sustainability of Alaska salmon is fundamental to the fabric of Alaska society. Everybody feels they are a piece of this fishery because it’s so iconic,” he says.
And yet the credibility of the new certification is being called into question. The Sustainable Fisheries Partnership (SFP), for example, says the new standard lacks important definitions. The Seattle non-governmental organization says that as a result, the ASMI-backed scheme cannot support a sustainability claim. Those retailers seeking third-party verification of sustainability without a consumer facing eco-label or claim could encourage ASMI to adopt a higher standard with equivalent technical performance to the MSC, says SFP.
Fick, however, thinks it’s important that there’s not a single arbiter of what is and what isn’t sustainable. “The most relevant things to look at in terms of fisheries are how is the fishery doing; and is the management system strong enough and are fishermen following it?
“We hope retailers will take the time to understand the Global Trust management program and what it means,” he says. “It is a viable alternative and the cost of certification won’t be passed on to the processors.”
While Fick concedes that processors and buyers are aware there might be some difficulty initially, he says they’re confident this is the best decision in the long term for the salmon fisheries.
“We’re hearing a lot of misinformation and that’s unfortunate, but we are moving on and there are others that are looking at the same kind of thing,” says Fick.
For the time being, and a lot can happen in the next six months, many retailers are saying the decision to sell Alaska salmon post-October will be based on careful consideration and they will only continue to do so if they can be satisfied with the state of the fisheries that their suppliers purchase salmon from.
In ASMI’s favor, the new certification is almost identical to the standards introduced for Iceland’s important cod, haddock, saithe and redfish fisheries under the IRF eco-label, and these products continue to sell very well in European retail.
It’s also expected that Canada will follow Alaska’s lead and certify its salmon through the Global Trust standard. Therefore, if European retailers were to stop sourcing Alaska salmon, they are left with the challenge of finding an alternative supply of wild salmon, and the options are thin.
Taking Alaska and Canada out of the supply equation leaves only producers like Russia and Ireland, but would there be sufficient, sustainable volumes to satisfy the growing European demand?Contributing Editor Jason Holland lives in London