Talks Begin to Keep Alaska Seafood on Walmart Shelves
In the grocery section of a Walmart store in Anchorage, hard by refrigerated units holding a variety of frozen meat and poultry, is a smaller freezer area displaying wild salmon fillets, the bulk of them labeled “product of China.”
On Sept. 4, the offerings included packages of 1.75 pound fillets, plus individual portions of skinless and skin-on fillets, labeled “wild caught US,” “product of China,” and “MSC certified.”
The only wild Alaska seafood harvested and processed in Alaska for sale in the freezer section was gourmet, ready to heat and eat packages of Copper River Seafoods’ wild sockeye and coho salmon, Pacific cod and halibut portions.
On a sidewalk bordering on the store that day, more than four-dozen commercial fish harvesters and their supporters waved signs urging Walmart to recognize the sustainability of Alaska fisheries and make more Alaska seafood available to their retail customers, whether or not it bears the MSC eco-label.
At issue is MSC certification, which Walmart executives have made a rule of thumb in purchasing salmon from Alaska, the world’s largest source of wild caught salmon.
MSC stands for Marine Stewardship Council, the London-based entity with a goal of promoting sustainable, well managed fisheries worldwide, a goal that is actually mandated in the constitution of the state of Alaska for all of its commercial, sport and subsistence fisheries.
Mike DeCesare, communications director for the Americas for MSC in Seattle, said Sept. 10 that the commitment of companies to the MSC certification program is strictly voluntary, and that MSC has not become involved in these current discussions involving Walmart.
MSC’s position has always been that if another program is as good or better than MSC’s in confirming sustainability, that’s fine, he said. In addition to paying for certification through MSC, companies who want to use the MSC eco-label for a variety of reasons pay an additional 0.5 percent of the wholesale value of the season to use the eco-label on their products, he said.
“The irony is that when the MSC began back in 2000, it needed a fishery to showcase true sustainability, and the first place it turned to was Alaska because of our exemplary track record in fisheries management,” said Greg Gabriel, executive director of the Northwest Alaska Seiners Association. “Over the years, however, it has become clear that MSC has diluted and watered down its standards and enforcement in other parts of the world, while increasing the costs to its participating fisheries. Alaska fisheries, meanwhile, have been sustainable long before MSC, and will continue to be sustainable long after. Walmart should be proud to provide sustainable Alaska salmon to Americans.”
While first lured to MSC certification, an increasing portion of Alaska’s seafood industry has voluntarily opted out of MSC’s eco-endorsements in favor of the United Nation’s Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO)-based Responsible Fisheries Management (RFM) certification, said Gabriel, in a statement issued Sept. 4, as several dozen commercial fishermen waved signs and protested in from of that Anchorage store.
“We are here today to tell Walmart that they are swimming against the tide when it comes to Alaska salmon,” said John Renner, vice president of Cordova District Fishermen United. “Walmart needs to do what is right and recognize that consumers deserve the right to choose sustainable American seafood.
“We will continue until Walmart acknowledges what the rest of the world has acknowledged- that the gold standard for sustainability is here in Alaska.”
“American consumers should be outraged at this type of behavior and policy,” said Jack Hopkins, a native Prince William Sound fisherman. “If Walmart really believes in its ‘Buy American and Sustainability practices,’ why is it letting a European organization prevent Americans from supporting American jobs and choosing the most sustainably caught seafood in the world.”
Nearly 50 suppliers of wild Alaska seafood have, to date, opted to have their seafood certified through the FAO-based responsible fisheries management certification program sponsored by the Alaska Seafood Marketing Institute. “It’s clear that there is market acceptance of Alaska salmon regardless of one specific eco-brand,” said Randy Rice, technical director for ASMI, as he announced on Sept. 4 that seven more companies, including Copper River Seafoods, have been certified through the ASMI sponsored program. “This is because our buyers are aware that Alaska’s conservation ethic long pre-dates the sustainability movement and eco-labels. They know Alaska’s long-term success record of effective fisheries management is unparalleled virtually anywhere in the world.”
Walmart, the largest grocery supplier in the US, currently has a policy to purchase and sell only salmon products certified as sustainable by MSC, a decision that prompted Sen. Mark Begich, D-Alaska, to urge Walmart chief executive officer Michael Duke to re-evaluate the company’s decision to sell only seafood certified by MSC. Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R- Alaska, also contacted Duke, to urge the company to review its seafood purchasing policy.
Finally, on Sept. 5, representatives from ASMI, the Alaska Departments of Commerce and Fish and Game, and the governor’s office met with senior executives from Walmart and Sam’s Club at their corporate headquarters in Arkansas to discuss Alaska seafood.
While Walmart has not announced any policy changes on purchasing seafood to date, company spokesman Christopher Schraeder summed up the meeting as a productive one, “that gave us the opportunity to learn about Alaska’s fishery certification program.
“At the same time, we shared details of our seafood standards and our commitment to providing safe, affordable and sustainable products to our customers. We are actively working to find a path forward,” he said. “We know our customers love Alaskan seafood. We’re selling it in our stores today and we intend to carry it well into the future.”
Begich and Murkowski issued statements saying they were encouraged by the meeting. Among the positive developments, said Begich, were a better understanding by Walmart of Alaska fisheries management. Murkowski said the dialogue was an important first step in keeping Alaskan seafood on Walmart shelves.
Walmart, founded in 1962 by Sam Walton, is the world’s largest private employer. The American multinational retail corporation has more than two million employees, and some 8,500 stores in 15 countries.