Homer Alaska - Business

Story last updated at 4:44 PM on Wednesday, March 28, 2012

Sustainable certification stirs debate over programs

The decision by the Alaska Seafood Marketing Institute and at least eight major salmon buyers to pull out of the Marine Stewardship Council's sustainability certification program has caused a bit of a flap in the industry, including allegations by ASMI that MSC is making false accusations regarding the causes and implications of the action, and push-back by ASMI to counter the claims.

Alaska wild salmon was up for re-certification by MSC for the sustainability label in October 2012, and the organization responsible for making that happen, the Alaska Fisheries Development Association, announced in January that it was no longer interested in participating, due to the pull-out of eight major buyers who accounted for 72 percent of the market for salmon in Alaska.

At the time, the association cited the cost of the program and resulting flagging support in the industry. It explained that the processors were instead entering into a sustainability program with the United Nation's Food and Agriculture Organization whose budget is funded by voluntary contributions that are not passed on to the processors, unlike the licensing fees MSC charges to use its sustainability logo.

ASMI has secured FAO certifications for Alaska salmon, halibut, sablefish and pollock with crab pending.

MSC issued a statement blasting the FAO program, saying Alaska seafood marketing officials are incorrect, and even "misleading," in asserting that the FAO sustainability certification program is equivalent to the MSC program.

"The ASMI scheme is repeatedly referred to as the 'FAO standard' or the 'UN standard' and references to Alaska fisheries passing this scheme have been said to be 'certified by the UN' or 'FAO certified.' This is incorrect," MSC said in a statement. "The United Nations and its Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) do not have a standard and do not certify fisheries."

The Code of Conduct for Responsible Fisheries was developed by FAO in 1995, and although it by itself is not a certification standard, its content has been used to develop the ASMI program. FAO does have a third-party certification program which endorsed Alaska salmon in March of 2011. The certification is good for five years, with annual reviews.

After ASMI and the processors pulled out of the MSC program, some Canadian environmental groups claimed at least partial credit for the move, saying that they had been pressuring MSC to withdraw its sustainability label for Alaska salmon fisheries that are partially reliant upon hatchery-released fish, blaming them in part for struggling wild runs in British Columbia as a result of competition for food in the ocean environment.

Countries around the Pacific Rim, including the United States, Russia and Japan, release as many as 5 billion hatchery-raised fish into that environment each year.

Watershed Watch called giving Alaska salmon MSC's sustainability label "highly irresponsible."

In a recent email to stakeholders in Alaska, ASMI director Ray Riutta defended the hatchery system.

"Recently, as part of the reaction to this withdrawal there has been a concentrated attack on Alaska's hatchery system, implying that without the MSC oversight, Alaska would not manage its hatcheries effectively with some going as far as to say that recertification would not happen based solely on Alaska's hatchery program," it read.

Riutta sent out hatchery talking points that were distributed at the International Boston Seafood Show this month.

Those points sketched out what it called the continuous improvement of the Alaska salmon hatchery program by the Alaska Department of Fish and Game, reaffirmed under the FAO-based certification, and acknowledged the issues that MSC had during the 2007 re-certification, but said that the majority of them were satisfied by 2010.

"Any suggestion that withdrawing from the MSC will in some way cause Alaska to mismanage its hatcheries is baseless and ignores the facts," Riutta said. "Alaskans take great pride in our hatchery system which is one of the best in the entire world and is an integral part of our sustainable salmon fishery."

In the stakeholder email, Riutta said that ASMI's decision not to engage in a negative campaign in the press against those who challenge the FAO-based model is gaining advocates who appreciate the restrained approach.

"We believe it does not serve the cause of sustainable seafood but rather detracts from it by arguing about who has a better program," he said.

In the end, which program certifies the sustainability of Alaska wild salmon does not change the fact of its sustainability, he noted.

In a speech at the Boston seafood show, Gov. Sean Parnell agreed, while pushing back against MSC.

"Unfortunately, our effort to provide choice in credible certification alternatives became embroiled in the debate over who defines sustainability for the market," Parnell said. "This debate over who defines sustainability is evolving into an issue of market access and governance where one party seeks control, which concerns me greatly.

"Those of us responsible for managing our fisheries, along with our fishing industry, cannot, as a matter of principle and form, tolerate a situation where a single private entity, on the basis of a changeable private standard, has sole authority to decide who can sell seafood to the public and who cannot. We need reasonable options for the marketplace to avoid a monopolistic lock where consumers and fishing communities lose. In an unregulated monopoly, consumers and fishing communities lose on choice, quality, and price."

The Community Education and Professional Development program at University of Alaska Sitka campus is offering an on-line marine hydraulics course, with three sessions left this spring.

The course is self-paced and takes about six hours. It is designed specifically for people who use marine hydraulics on commercial fishing vessels.

Students will learn the basic theory of common hydraulic systems, identify hydraulic components, learn the nomenclature associated with hydraulics, and basic troubleshooting techniques. Cost is $95.

Upcoming dates for these courses are April 3-6, 10-13, 17-20.

Call 747-7786 for more details or register online at: https://aceweb.uas.alaska.edu/wconnect/ace/home.htm

Cristy Fry has commercial fished out of Homer and King Cove since 1978. She can be reached at realist468@gmail.com.