Ray Riutta ASMI Alaska

The decision by eight major Alaska salmon processors to pass on Marine Stewardship Council certification this fall has not necessarily been a popular one. But Alaska Gov. Sean Parnell and the Alaska Seafood Marketing Institute are actively defending the decision while promoting a new certification program. Last year, Alaska salmon was awarded Responsible Fisheries Management Certification via an independent, third-party assessment conducted by Global Trust Certification Ltd. and based on the Food and Agriculture Organization Code of Conduct for Responsible Fisheries.

SeafoodSource Contributing Editor Christine Blank recently talked to ASMI Executive Director Ray Riutta about concern among retail and foodservice buyers as well as the new certification program.

Blank: Since the decision to pass on MSC re-certification was announced in mid-January, what kind of reaction have you received from buyers? 

Riutta: We are just getting back from the International Boston Seafood Show, where we had a chance to talk to people and show them what this certification is, as opposed to just speculation. We had a pretty good response. Most people are saying that this will play into their corporate programs just fine, and some are saying that they need more information. Others have said, “We don’t even need this, because we know Alaska seafood is good and we have used it for years.”

Some supermarket chains in Japan and Europe say they will no longer purchase wild Alaska salmon if it does not bear the MSC eco-label. How are you addressing this concern? 

We have heard [concerns] from a few folks, but not many. Most say they are committed to Alaska seafood. We have begun talking with non-governmental organizations (NGOs) such as the World Wildlife Fund to try to make them understand clearly what we have. We know it is a new program, so we are amenable to reasonable adjustments on the way we deal with it. Right now, we think we have a pretty solid program.

Explain the new certification program. 

It is Global Trust Certification, which assesses fisheries on a check-off list, based on the United Nations’ Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) Code of Conduct for Responsible Fisheries. This is not an Alaska cooked-up scheme. This is a model that Iceland has done, which has found widespread acceptance in Europe. Global (based in Ireland) is an ISO-certified independent, third-party certifier. 

Why did these Alaska salmon processors want to move to a different direction? 

We were asked several years ago to provide an alternative. We put out an RFP and Global Trust offered to do the same thing for us as has been done in Iceland. Most of our major customers said, “We don’t want a logo; our brand stands for sustainability” — whatever that means to individual companies, which includes recycling and other green efforts. We see our sustainable fisheries being replaced by a logo. We hate to see one brand become that only one that you can sell sustainable salmon under — that takes us back to a commodity process. We are concerned that we will lose our brand identity. We take great pride in the product that comes from Alaska. We have more to sell about Alaska seafood [than MSC]. What we are looking for is to not lose that premium. 

How do you respond to criticism that the new certification program is not truly an independent, third-party system? 

The information is gathered by the certifier, and they are the ones who take it through the ISO process and through the review. We don’t provide any information; we just pay the bill. It is not free — it is probably going to cost quite a bit, when we go through the ISO process to get certified. The cost of getting ISO certification is one we hadn’t planned on and is quite expensive. And getting into a seal — some folks asked for that — so we have to go through a formal chain of custody. The cost savings is not having any global licensing fees [like in the MSC program]. 

Which Alaska fisheries will have access to the Global Trust certification and what will the cost be to them? 

We are providing this to the entire seafood industry using state and industry funds. We are now providing this to the salmon, crab, halibut, sablefish and pollock fisheries. The first round should be completed by the end of this year. We will then take a look at other fisheries and see if they need it.

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