Alaska salmon producers move an about-face on MSC

By

Sean Murphy, SeafoodSource online editor

Published on
April 14, 2015

Last Friday, 10 seafood companies either based in Alaska or dealing in Alaska seafood made the announcement that will no doubt come as a shock to those in the Alaska seafood industry that see themselves as fighting the good fight against the Marine Stewardship Council (MSC).

In the joint statement, the companies said they would be reversing a decision from three years ago and seeking MSC certification for the Alaska salmon they produce and sell, a clear sign that these companies would rather make money than headlines.

According to comments from the Alaska state government and the Alaska Seafood Marketing Institute (ASMI) back in 2012 when these companies first withdrew from the MSC, it was about standing up to an NGO that had grown too powerful for its own good. These companies were making a stand against a prohibitively expensive system that threatened the Alaska brand and threatened to forge a monopoly on sustainability certification.

Whether those arguments actually hold any water is the subject of another column, but more importantly, those platitudes have now been replaced by the reality that these companies exist to do business, not stand shoulder-to-shoulder in the street carrying placards.

On Friday, Trident issued the joint statement announcing the decision, together with Alaska General Seafoods, Icicle Seafoods, Kwik’Pak Fisheries, Leader Creek Fisheries, North Pacific Seafoods, Ocean Beauty Seafoods, Peter Pan Seafoods, Triad Fisheries and Yukon Gold. The group has also requested that any other interested Alaska salmon producer also be given the opportunity to join under the same cost-sharing agreement as the new members.

In 2012, then-Alaska Gov. Sean Parnell himself promoted ASMI’s Responsible Fisheries Management (RFM) certification program, which is based on standards from the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization and mirrors a similar program used in Iceland. In a Point-of-View opinion piece that ran in the May 2012 issue of our sister publication, SeaFood Business magazine, Parnell called the RFM program “the best possible model of sustainable fisheries certification for our state.” He was savvy enough not to call out the MSC by name, but when he accused “one non-Alaskan party” of seeking a monopoly on certification, everyone knew who the party was.

A gutsy move, since according to ASMI’s own figures, the state sold USD 3.3 billion (EUR 3.1 billion) of its seafood to customers in foreign countries in 2013 alone, and one can bet it wasn’t because of sustainability marked by a certification program that no one outside of Alaska and Iceland had ever heard of.

If the MSC’s greater notoriety is the reason the companies are returning, they aren’t saying it, at least not directly. Of course, Bristol Bay and other big Alaska salmon runs are expected to be up by as much as 50 percent this year, according to the Alaska Department of Fish and Game. Learning that you’ll soon get buried in product that you’re fairly sure will sell better with the MSC’s label on it than it will with RFM certification alone is a good reason to reconsider just how important it is to push the political statement against the MSC after all.

Friday’s joint statement contained this quote from Stefanie Morland, Trident’s director of government relations and seafood sustainability. “This decision is based on the recognition that both the salmon market and sustainability landscape have changed in recent years.”

Even ASMI’s spokesman, Tyson Fick, was forced to admit that in the end it comes down to business and selling product above all else. When asked why he thought the companies left the MSC in 2012, he cited the arguments about Alaska brand erosion and other concerns, and he said ASMI and the companies had to “take a stand for our principles.”

But when asked if he thought the 10 companies in Friday’s announcement were going back on their principles now, he said he didn’t think that was the case, noting that even back in 2012 many of those companies continued to use MSC certification for whitefish, even after pulling their salmon out. “That never changed.”

Even regarding salmon, Fick told SeafoodSource he understood why the companies are returning to the MSC.

“Circumstances change,” he said. “They have a business to run.”

As to whether he and ASMI would lend support to the renewed ties with the MSC, Fick said it would.

“They make that call, and we’re all part of it,” he said of the companies. “My mission is to increase the value of Alaska seafood.”

Back in 2012, the Alaska Fisheries Development Foundation held the MSC certificate for Alaska salmon. After the exodus of Alaska salmon producers, the foundation’s executive director, James Browning, in a stunning understatement, remarked in the February 2012 issue of SeaFood Business: “Clearly the level of industry support for MSC certification has changed substantially since 2010.”

Clearly, the level of industry support is changing again.

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