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Top Species: Wild salmon

Sustainability certification move has industry abuzz

By Joanne Friedrick
May 04, 2012

The face of Alaska wild salmon is changing, now that the state’s leading salmon processors have chosen to switch sustainability certification programs to the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO)-based model from a long-standing pact with the Marine Stewardship Council (MSC). 

While the switch won’t be finalized until 2013, discussion of the decision will be ongoing. “It has been a topic of conversation,” acknowledges Ray Riutta, executive director of the Alaska Seafood Marketing Institute, who adds there are plans to sit down with all producers over the ensuing 18 months “and work them through it.”

After the announcement in January, Riutta says the response has been “generally positive,” with questions coming from involved parties such as distributors, processors and retailers as well as observers like non-governmental organizations. 

Alaska is following the example set by Iceland, which also adopted the FAO-based certification program, says Riutta. And the Alaska legislature has supported the move as well, he adds.

Gov. Sean Parnell, who addressed a luncheon at the International Boston Seafood Show, told the group, “It’s no surprise that we (Alaska) would be one of the first, just after Iceland, to put forth a choice in certification. The Responsible Fisheries Management model is based on the most recognized and internationally accepted set of guidelines.” (See POV written by Gov. Parnell in our May 2012 issue, page 5.)

Under the FAO-based model, he says, the documents used provide a balanced framework for fisheries eco-certification; it’s also the only formal ISO accredited fishery-certification program. No logo licensing fees are required of the participants, says Parnell.

About 75 percent of producers have agreed to the change, with discussions continuing with a “small number of producers who may want to stay with MSC,” says Riutta.

Tom Sunderland, VP-marketing at Ocean Beauty Seafoods in Seattle, supports the Alaska decision to revisit its certification process. “Sustainability should be something that isn’t owned or branded or belongs to anyone,” he says. 

“I don’t think there should be a premium for sustainable fish,” he adds, noting “it’s incumbent on us to put sustainable fish into the market. There should be the expectation that all fish is sustainable.” 

Sustainability is also top of mind with BJ’s Wholesale Club, which announced in March its commitment to purchase seafood from suppliers identified as sustainable or on track to meet sustainability standards by 2014. The company is partnering with MSC as well as Sustainable Fisheries Partnership and Global Aquaculture Alliance in achieving its plan.

BJ’s currently sources all of its wild sockeye salmon from Alaska, says Scott Williams, manager of quality assurance and product development for the Westborough, Mass.-based company.

BJ’s, which operates 195 clubs in 15 Eastern states, carries fresh wild salmon in season and frozen during other times of the year, says Williams. Wild outsells farmed salmon by a 3:2 ratio, he notes. 

Williams, who is developing BJ’s sustainability plan, visited Alaska and spent time on a salmon-fishing vessel. “We feel Alaska is really ahead of the curve” on sustainability, he notes.

Because BJ’s doesn’t have a fishmonger in its stores, information about sustainable wild salmon needs to be easily communicated to shoppers. The company has a click-through program of disseminating information, says Williams, beginning with a newsletter sent three to four times a year, followed by information on the retailer’s website where customers can find supplier information. 

“We also subscribe to choice editing,” he says, meaning they only put products on the shelf that meet the sustainability guidelines. 

“We aren’t using any specific certification or label,” he says. “We haven’t seen members ask for a symbol (like the MSC logo), and right now, we don’t feel there is one certification model.”

A good year in store 

Beyond the issues of sustainability, Alaska salmon experienced a good year in terms of harvest and price. Preliminary Alaska Department of Fish and Game numbers show the 2011 harvest was the third most valuable since 1975, reaching an estimated $603 million in ex-vessel value and was the ninth-largest with 176 million salmon harvested.

Broken down by species, pink salmon brought in $92 million, followed by chum at $65 million. Average ex-vessel prices ranged from a high of $5.33 and $5 a pound for Prince William Sound and Yukon chinook to a low of 10 cents a pound for Bristol Bay pink salmon.

Among non-Alaska producers, Canada landed more than 1.4 million pounds of chinook in 2011, as well as 348,909 pounds of coho. The Faroe Islands were responsible for 706,886 pounds of fresh wild Atlantic salmon.

Beth Poole, executive director of the Copper River/Prince William Sound Marketing Association in Cordova, Alaska, says 2011 was a strong year for sockeye, with more than 2 million landed. Sockeye prices were slightly lower than in the past, she says, averaging about $1.60 a pound ex-vessel. 

This year’s Copper River king catch should be about 27,000, says Poole, which would be up from last year, while sockeye is expected to remain about the same as 2011 at 1.4 million fish. The fishery is managed by time or area, she says, with the main priority being maintaining sustainability of the fishery.

Bloggers weigh in 

On the marketing side, Poole says her organization is working with both retailers and restaurants, furnishing them with digital images of the fish and fisherman so they can share that information with their customers.

New this year, she says, is a Copper River salmon locator smartphone app that allows users to find stores or restaurants that are offering the fish. They can enter their address and find the closest location, she says. Consumers and restaurateurs can also update the information in real time.

Poole is working with bloggers in 15 major cities such as Los Angeles, Phoenix, New York, Boston, Atlanta, Denver and Chicago to get the word out on Copper River salmon as well as “to be our eyes and ears” in those communities.

ASMI’s Riutta says the upcoming summer salmon season should be strong, although cyclical conditions may mean numbers will be down somewhat from the previous year.

Internationally, the strength of the euro could impact sales, Riutta adds, although other parts of the world, including Brazil and Japan, are showing interest in Alaska salmon. Brazil has been a big cod buyer, but salmon is also coming on following a trade mission there, he says. Japan continues to buy sockeye, while the United Kingdom is more interested in frozen fillets. Both Riutta and Sunderland note that the resurgence of farmed salmon from Chile will put more competitive product into the market. “But I think the differentiation of our product will help us keep our niche,” says Riutta.

“We’re all waiting to see what the decline in farmed salmon prices will do to wild salmon,” says Sunderland. “We’re doing our best to guess and figure it out.” 

Contributing Editor Joanne Friedrick lives in Portland, Maine

Find other SeaFood Business articles with wild salmon here.

May 2012 - SeaFood Business 

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