The board of directors of the Alaska Seafood Marketing Institute has voted to transition its sustainable fisheries certification scheme, the Alaska Responsible Fisheries Management (RFM) Certification, out of the organization.
The Alaska RFM was created by ASMI and other Alaskan entities in 2010 as an alternative to the Marine Stewardship Council sustainability certification, and ASMI took over sole proprietorship of the certification in 2015. In 2016, the scheme became the first to be benchmarked by the Global Sustainable Seafood Initiative. A number of seafood firms with operations in Alaska, including Glacier Fish Co., Seafood Producers Coop, Icicle Seafoods, Ocean Beauty Seafoods, Canadian Fishing Company, Peter Pan Seafoods, and Triad Fisheries carry Alaska RFM certification under either the Alaska RFM’s Fisheries Standard or its Chain of Custody Standard. Products carrying certification include salmon, halibut, pollock, sablefish, crab, and cod.
ASMI has been “exploring options” for the RFM, including potentially merging the program with other similar international certification schemes, since 2016, according to Jeff Regnart, an ASMI consultant who has been working in a supporting role on the RFM program. Regnart is the former director of Alaska’s commercial fisheries division, part of the Alaska Department of Fish and Game.
However, the October vote by the ASMI board is a motion “that we need to get going on this process,” he said.
“The board feels very strongly that the certification is important and they not walking away from it,” he said. “But they also see it needs to take the next step, and ASMI as an organization is not positioned to take it to that next step."
Regnart said the certification scheme is “open for business,” and that ASMI has had discussions with several different entities, including representatives from Norway, Iceland, and Japan, regarding possible partnerships.
“One thing we’ve learned from doing this program, which is just Alaska-focused, is that in the end it’s a narrow scope in the arena of seafood,” Regnart told SeafoodSource. “To have a certification program get traction, and be worthwhile for participants to get involved in, you have to have greater exposure, and that comes from having as many fisheries and areas of the globe involved as possible. So that’s what the ASMI board is striving to do with this decision. We’re looking at the transformation of the program outside of ASMI, and hopefully we’ll find some partners out there to do that with.”
Regnart said, ideally, a partner would be another certification program that is based off the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) Code and Guidelines, because “FAO-based programs meld well together.”
“A big reason Alaska decided to base its program off FAO guidelines is that they can apply universally, worldwide, and the route they have to go through to be changed is very rigid. That’s good thing, because as a fishery, you don’t want the goalposts to being moving on you all the time,” he said.
The cost of the program, which has been reduced by 40 percent over the past three years but which still exceeded USD 750,000 (EUR 657,800) in 2017, was a factor – but not the deciding one – in the move by the board, Regnart said. However, ASMI has continued to see its budget cut by the state of Alaska, a situation that initially prompted the ASMI board to direct its RFM committee to begin exploring the possibility of transitioning the program to an independent entity or foundation more than two years ago.
“Truthfully, if the decision was just based on money, ASMI would have cut [the program] years ago,” Regnart said. “But they’ve stuck with it, even though the [state] legislature did its most significant cuts in 20 years. At the same time, if they can save USD 750,000 and spend it on promoting Alaska pollock or salmon, that is something they would love to do.”
Labeling was an important factor in the creation of the Alaska RFM; the scheme enabled Alaskan companies to continue to use the Alaska Seafood label. Regnart said maintaining that label is an absolute requirement of any deal involving the certification scheme.
“We don’t want the source, the origin, lost. Alaska won’t stand for that. We would like to see that even if the Alaska RFM becomes part of a larger program, say an international version of an FAO-based program, that each country’s or state’s fishery retains its own origin logo,” he said. “You might have something like a banner with the international scheme’s logo but then below it you’ve got the origin logo of Alaska.”
Similarly, Regnart said ASMI was not interested in seeing the Alaska RFM become a part of a program that charges fees for the use of its logo.
“That’s not a funding mechanism we’re interested in. We’re not interested in charging logo fees and would likely not be part of a program that did,” he said.
The key for the program’s future, Regnart said, is adding enough fisheries so that it reaches “critical mass.”
“We want new folks seeking certification to have this choice, but we need enough fisheries involved so that it’s going to tip it to the point where the people involved know it’s worthwhile from an economic perspective and that it attracts additional parties,” he said. “Our door is open. We really want to partner with others with similar interests – we think it’s the only way to have a credible, reliable fisheries certification worldwide.”