Alaska fisheries battle Walmart over sustainability label

Retailer reconsidering policy excluding Alaska salmon, but critics question whether sustainability push is about money

Alaska's salmon fisheries are battling with Walmart over its sustainability guidelines.
Scott Threlkeld/Times-Picayune/Landov

"Alaska's constitution demands sustainability."

It isn’t the world’s catchiest slogan, but Jack Hopkins, a 67-year-old salmon fisherman from the town of Cordova, near the renowned Copper River, had it painted on a sign so he could wave it at passing drivers and Walmart employees on a busy street corner in south Anchorage.

“We were out there for half the day,” Hopkins said. He and 40 other Cordova fishermen were picketing — protesting Walmart’s decision to stop selling wild Alaska salmon because it no longer carries a sustainability label.

Walmart — the world’s biggest retailer — has been on a quest for sustainability since 2005. The store pledged to green up its supply and start a “Sustainability Index” to help grade prospective vendors. But the definition of “sustainable” can be a slippery one — especially when it comes to fish, which vary wildly in their populations and the way they’re harvested. And some critics speculate that Walmart’s interest in sustainability is more about the bottom line.

Governments around the world manage their wild stocks very differently, said Dick Jones, who works for the Sustainable Fish Partnership, a Hawaii-based nongovernmental organization that has helped Walmart grapple with the issue.

In the end, the company drew up a simple plan: It would only sell wild fish that had been certified sustainable by the Marine Stewardship Council, or its equivalent, starting in 2012.

So Walmart was running slightly behind schedule when it sent a reminder letter to its suppliers in June 2013, asking them to make sure their products were certified to meet MSC’s sustainability standards.

“As of (today) Walmart has not yet determined any other standard to be equivalent to MSC,” the company wrote.

That meant there would be no exceptions — not even for wild Alaska salmon.

The resulting outcry from Alaska’s fishermen, legislators and scientists prompted Walmart to reconsider. The company agreed to take a second look at other sustainability standards besides MSC.

But in the process, Walmart raised a lot of questions about what it means for the company to put so much faith in sustainability labels to begin with.

'Just hype'?

The London-based nonprofit MSC doesn’t actually certify seafood. MSC sets sustainability standards and enlists third-party scientists to study wild fisheries and determine whether they’re up to par. MSC wants fisheries to have healthy stocks, not harm the environment, and obey all local laws related to resource management.

More than 200 fisheries around the world have signed up for and received MSC’s seal of approval.

Alaska’s salmon fishery used to be one of them. It joined the program when MSC first got off the ground in the late 1990s, but the state’s salmon producers decided to let their certification lapse over a year ago.

“Sometimes you think a lot of this stuff is just hype,” said Hopkins, the Cordova fisherman. “It’s like add-ons.”

You have two options. You can make seafood sustainable or you can redefine the word ‘sustainable’ to match existing resources.

Hopkins and other salmon fishermen weren’t comfortable with the costs. Some reports peg the cost of a certification study at around $150,000. The fishermen also didn’t like the fact that MSC charges a fee to use its “ecolabel” — a little blue stamp that can be placed on seafood packaging for consumers’ benefit. It’s meant as a visual guarantee that the fish came from a certified source.

But the standards for certification have also come under scrutiny. National Public Radio reported earlier this year that MSC has given its approval to controversial fisheries, such as Canadian swordfish, despite concerns over bycatch — the animals that are accidentally snagged during a targeted, commercial harvest — and the effectiveness of the government’s management.

Jennifer Jacquet, an environmental studies professor at New York University and a longtime critic of the MSC, said that might have to do with Walmart.

Jacquet said Walmart’s allegiance to MSC put a lot of pressure on the nonprofit to certify more fish.

“You have two options,” Jacquet said of MSC’s situation. “You can make seafood sustainable or you can redefine the word ‘sustainable’ to match existing resources.”

She said MSC may have slackened its standards to meet Walmart’s demand for certified-sustainable wild seafood. NPR’s investigation showed that in the years since Walmart got on board with MSC in 2006, the organization certified “seven times as many fisheries as it did during the same period before.”

MSC also had a lot more resources at their disposal. Since 2009, the Walton Family Foundation — headed by relatives of Walmart’s founder, Sam Walton — has given more than $10 million to the MSC, and it has announced plans to give more.

MSC didn’t respond to repeated requests for comment.

Regarding claims that Walmart has changed the way MSC certifies wild fish, a Walmart spokesman would only say the company doesn’t consider itself committed to MSC or any single certifier and that its commitment is to sustainable seafood.

But there is one way MSC certification helps Walmart meet demand: It can transcend origin. If it doesn’t matter anymore where fish comes from — just that it has a general seal of approval — the supply pool expands. And that makes it easier for retailers to ask for cheap prices from all of their suppliers.

Walmart’s notice to those wild-fish suppliers in June put Alaska’s fish lobby on high alert. Sen. Mark Begich, a Democrat, and Gov. Sean Parnell (PDF), a Republican, fired off letters to Walmart CEO Mike Duke.

“Alaska has been in the business of sustainability long before the MSC’s existence, managing salmon fisheries to high standards since statehood,” Parnell wrote.

Branding Alaska

Every summer, state biologists obsessively track the movement of salmon. If they don’t see enough fish swimming in from the ocean up rivers and streams to spawn in their native lakes, the scientists will shut down commercial fishing until the numbers improve.

That’s what Jeff Regnart, who oversees commercial fisheries for Alaska’s Department of Fish and Game, told 18 Walmart executives in September, when he and a group of Alaskan scientists, marketers and government officials traveled to corporate headquarters in Bentonville, Ark.

Regnart said he covered the way Alaska tries to manage wild-fish stocks — “It was Salmon 101, a lot of salmon biology,” he said — before ceding the floor to the marketers.

The marketers were there to sell Walmart on RFM — the Responsible Fisheries Management program, better described as Alaska’s answer to MSC.

The Responsible Fisheries Management program is a lot like MSC. It operates based on rules from the United Nations’ Food and Agriculture Organization. Any fish company that wants to participate has to cover the cost of a third-party study.

Unlike MSC, it’s limited to Alaskan companies and run by the Alaska Seafood Marketing Institute.

In 1981, the state legislature set up this marketing arm for the sole purpose of promotion. Its goal was to make the state’s seafood famous.

This year, the ASMI’s budget hit $21.3 million in public and private funds. And Alaska’s salmon producers happened to have one of their most profitable seasons ever. Their fish had a dockside value of $691 million.

According to a study by the firm Datassentials, “Alaska Seafood” is the number two “most commonly specified brand” on American restaurant menus, just behind Angus beef — a good measure of popularity stateside.

But not everyone is as interested in Alaska’s particular place in the seafood market.

“Alaska is part of a global seafood world,” said Jones, the sustainability advisor for Walmart. “It’s time to look beyond that. I think that we need to hold every fishery and farm accountable in an equal way.”

In recent years, Alaska has exported two-thirds of all its seafood and up to 80 percent of its salmon. And overseas, sustainable certification has taken the spotlight away from the place-based “wild Alaskan” brand.

Tyson Fick, the communications director for Alaska’s marketing group, said that in Europe, they “started to see labels that said ‘MSC-certified wild Pacific salmon, and ‘Alaska’ had been dropped from there.”

MSC-certified Pacific salmon producers include Canada, Russia and Japan.

When Walmart announced in the summer it was moving solely to MSC-certified wild fish, ASMI feared the retail giant could cast a wider net for seafood and foreign fish might gain ground against Alaska’s in American stores.

'A marketing tool'?

Hopkins, the Cordova salmon fisherman who spent a day protesting outside an Anchorage Walmart, was disappointed when he heard the state was setting up its own certifying system for fish.

He said he’s anxious about whether shoppers will understand what “Responsible Fisheries Management” even means. What does the state have to do, Hopkins asked, “so they’ll accept it as real?”

The answer is, nothing.

Fick, the marketer, said Alaska is not trying to court individual customers trying to decide what to serve for dinner with its certification.

“This is all in the background, to satisfy the need for corporate social responsibility,” Fick said. “We’ve heard loud and clear from fishermen that they want their own brand to stand for sustainability.”

That doesn’t comfort Jacquet, the NYU environment professor. She said Alaska’s sustainability certification will face an uphill battle for credibility among researchers. For one thing, the state has a clear economic interest in the program. But there’s also a rising tide of skepticism toward MSC and sustainable certification as a whole in the scientific community.

“I think all of this winds up being a marketing tool,” Jacquet said. “It’s not actually about the environment.”

Despite those concerns, there are clear signs Alaska’s program is gaining ground.

A few weeks after the Alaskan fish ambassadors traveled to Arkansas to meet with Walmart executives, the company rethought its stance on wild-fish certifications.

Walmart’s sustainability director Jeff Rice testified that the company wasn’t solely committed to MSC at a Senate hearing on “The Role of Certification in Sustainable Fishing” in late September.

“We believe strongly that there can and should be multiple standards and certifications that demonstrate sustainable fisheries,” Rice told a Senate subcommittee. The company is reviewing Alaska’s “Responsible Fisheries Management” program with the help of a nonprofit consulting group.

If the program passes muster, it’s a big win for ASMI and for Walmart, which gets to maintain its stated commitment to sustainability and keep a popular product on its shelves.

In the meantime, a small group of Alaska salmon producers watching the tempest churn decided not to chance it. They quietly went back to the MSC to have their harvests re-certified as sustainable.

The Seattle-based trade group that set the process in motion has drawn a fair amount of flak for that.

“We met with (Alaska) state officials and talked about why we were pursuing it,” said Bob Kehoe, executive director of the Purse Seine Vessel Owners Association. “I think we just need to disagree. We’re going to let this play out in the marketplace and see what happens.”

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