Since before the fall of the Iron Curtain, the importation of crab illegally caught by Russia has been a serious problem. Russian illegal, unreported or unregulated (IUU) crab floods the US market, artificially increasing the US king crab supply and lowering prices for legally harvested product.
According to the Alaska Bering Sea Crabbers Association, official US foreign trade and Russian harvest data suggest that one in three king crab sold in world markets in 2011 came from illegal Russian harvests. According to data from the US National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) and the Russian Federal Fisheries Agency, in 2011 alone Russia harvested 98.2 million pounds IUU crab, compared with its legal harvest of 91 million lbs. and Alaska’s harvest of only 80 million lbs. In March of that year, NOAA law enforcement seized more than 240,000 pounds of illegal king crab at the Port of Seattle from a New York importer.
Not only does this IUU harvest affect the price of crab, the unregulated nature of the product leaves it vulnerable to quality control issues, which reflect back on the legally caught and marketed Alaska product. A consumer who purchases this unregulated product and is dissatisfied (or sickened) won’t know the product isn’t legal Alaska king crab.
Margaret Bauman calls our attention to another issue facing the Alaska seafood industry in describing Walmart’s seafood sales. Margie points out that wild-caught Pacific salmon on Walmart shelves, although certified by the London-based Marine Stewardship Council (MSC), is labeled “product of China.” This salmon may or may not have been harvested, processed and stored in a responsible manner, but it competes with sustainably harvested Alaska product.
Perhaps Alaska should take a page from France’s playbook.
French culture revolves around good food and wine, and the French won’t stand for sub-par products, from fish, meat and poultry to wine and cheese. For centuries, France has used and enforced the appellation d’origine contrôlée (AOC), which translates as “controlled designation of origin” and acts as federally enforced certification that an agricultural product indeed originates from a particular region. As early as 1411, Roquefort cheese was regulated by a parliamentary decree, and over the centuries laws have been passed to confirm the origin of wines and grapes.
AOC products are held to a rigorous set of clearly defined standards, and it’s illegal to manufacture and sell a product under one of the AOC-controlled geographical indications if it does not comply with the criteria of the AOC. AOC products can be identified by a seal, which is printed on the label in wines, and with cheeses, on the rind. To prevent any possible misrepresentation, no part of an AOC name may be used on a label of a product not qualifying for that AOC.
Other countries have followed suit, including Italy, Spain and Portugal, and in the US we have American Viticultural Areas recognized by the Department of the Treasury’s Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau.
While the White House and the State Department might be comfortable with Vladimir Putin making our foreign policy decisions, the US seafood industry is under no obligation to let Russia and China take over our Alaskan seafood industry. Maybe it’s time for the State of Alaska to make its own controlled designation of origin. The Alaska brand should apply only to species harvested and processed by Alaska permitted and approved producers. The state’s lawmakers could pass a simple law, and Alaska’s Attorney General could enforce it. Any seafood not bearing the state-approved seal couldn’t use the term “Alaskan.” While this might not stop the flow of IUU seafood, it would offer consumers a trusted seal of quality backed by the state, and give Alaska’s commercial harvesters their own certification.