ANCHORAGE — Nearly 40 Alaska fishermen protested Sept. 4 outside an Anchorage Walmart store, upset with a decision by the company about how it buys seafood.
Holding signs like “Buy American? Start with Alaska Salmon” and “Walmart should be WILD about sustainable ALASKA SALMON,” the protesters received honks from passing motorists in south Anchorage.
The protest came a day before Alaska state and seafood industry officials were to meet with executives of Walmart Stores Inc., at the company’s headquarters in Bentonville, Ark.
In 2011, the world’s largest retailer decided to only buy seafood that was certified as sustainable by the Marine Stewardship Council, a London-based organization; fish in a fishery improvement program; or any equivalent certification program, of which there currently are none, said Chris Schraeder, a Walmart spokesman.
A number of large Alaska processors have dropped the MSC program because of costs and burdensome paperwork, said Greg Gabriel, executive director of the Northwest and Alaska Seiners Association of Kenai.
“We would like Walmart to recognize that there are other certifications out there, and the state of Alaska is a leader in sustainability, always has been, always will be,” Gabriel said.
Alaska Gov. Sean Parnell protested the move in a letter this summer to Walmart CEO Michael Duke.
“Alaska has been in the business of sustainability long before the MSC’s existence, managing salmon fisheries to high standards since statehood,” he wrote.
Parnell said the state supported the processing industry in dropping the council certification, and is instead encouraging the development of a new program aligned to the standards of the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations.
He said this program “provides a meaningful guarantee of responsible, sustainable management to conscientious consumers but does not subject our science-based fisheries management by the Alaska Department of Fish and Game and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s National Marine Fisheries Service to an ever-changing definition of sustainability or subject our seafood industry to an ever-increasing labeling cost to access traditional markets.”
The entire Alaska fishery has been recommended for MSC certification, except for Prince William Sound, which is pending a study, said Jim Humphreys, MSC’s fisheries director for the Americas region.
However, he notes it’s still up to the processors to seek out the certification.
“It’s not up to us, it’s up to them and markets and buyers,” he said. “Globally, the MSC is the acknowledged standard because of the rigor and the science and the transparency, and that matters in a lot of markets, and a lot of markets especially for Alaska salmon,” he said.
While a few large processors decided to leave, MSC officials say other smaller subgroups, led by Alaska purse seine operators, remain in the program.
Walmart is looking for certain criteria in sustainability, such as chain of custody and third-party oversight, which a certification program provides, Schraeder said.
Last Thursday’s meeting, which came at Walmart’s request, was a chance for Alaska to sell its sustainability program to company officials, who are considering it as an alternative certification.
“Obviously, it’s not something we want to rush into lightly,” Schraeder said when asked if there’s a timeline for a decision.
Schraeder said the company never claimed it wouldn’t buy Alaska salmon, and has purchased it this year. He said he wouldn’t disclose sales figures, and couldn’t immediately provide how much Alaska salmon was purchased by the company and from how many processors.
John Renner, a Cordova fisherman, said for the fishermen to have a successful year in 2014, they need to be able to sell their salmon to American consumers through Wal.art.
“We just want access to the markets we had before,” he said.
Alaskan representatives attending last week’s meeting were generally quite pleased with Walmart’s response, according to an article by John Sackton of Seafood News.
“We are optimistic that Walmart will recognize Alaska fisheries as sustainably managed,” said Commerce Commissioner Susan Bell.