Homer Alaska - Seawatch

Story last updated at 2:15 PM on Wednesday, May 2, 2012

'Sustainable' label debate goes on; MSC gets new client

By Cristy Fry

The decision by Alaska's major salmon processors and the Alaska Fisheries Development Foundation to discontinue participation in the Marine Stewardship Council's sustainable fisheries program has prompted a Seattle-based group, Purse Seine Vessel Owners Association to step in and take over as the MSC client, albeit reportedly with a lot of help from MSC.

AFDF announced in January that it was ending its role as client for the MSC program, citing a need to broaden the marketing message, but speculation at the time was that cost as well as increasing complexity of the process were to blame.

The Alaska Seafood Marketing Institute reacted to the move by pointing out that Alaska salmon has been awarded Responsible Fisheries Management Certification via an independent, third-party assessment conducted by Global Trust Certification Ltd. and based on the Food and Agriculture Organization Code of Conduct for Responsible Fisheries, which also has certified Alaska halibut, sablefish, pollock and most recently, king and snow crab.

MSC responded by pointing out all the reasons it felt the ASMI program was inferior, calling it a "locally developed scheme," and disputing ASMI's assertion that unlike MSC certification, the program was free.

ASMI declared it was not interested in participating in a negative campaign that would only harm the industry, and continued outreach and education about the FAO program.

Gov. Sean Parnell, however, pushed back against MSC's tactics at the Boston Seafood Show, saying, "Unfortunately, our effort to provide choice in credible certification alternatives became embroiled in the debate over who defines sustainability for the market. 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."

Despite all the wrangling between the two entities, salmon fishermen have been concerned that the market inroads made in recent years may be in jeopardy without the MSC label, especially in the upcoming season faced with increased imports of farmed salmon from Chile, decreased tariffs on Norwegian farmed salmon imports, less favorable exchange rates and a faltering U.S. economy.

Those concerns caused the membership of the Purse Seine Vessel Owners' Association to step up as the MSC client to continue the certification program, which otherwise would have lapsed in October.

Public radio station KDLG in Dillingham reports that MSC has agreed to reimburse PSVOA 75 percent of the cost of the certification, which is not being released. KDLG says some estimates put the cost at $400,000. PSVOA expects processors who want to carry the label will pay the rest.

ASMI spokesman Tyson Fick said the agency welcomes the move by PSVOA.

"We've always thought this was a business decision," Fick said. "We've heard from some folks that they feel there is a value to that certification, so it's not surprising that (PSVOA) stepped up to take a client role. At the same time, we've also been asked by our customers to continue down the path of offering a choice."

Fick demurred when asked if ASMI would be promoting the continued MSC certification.

"We're in the business of promoting the Alaska brand," he said. "That's primarily our focus. If an individual company decides that MSC is right for them, then we certainly wouldn't have a problem with that."

The ASMI website has a prominent link stating, "FAO code is OUR code." A search of the site does not turn up any references to MSC since 2005, but those references are glowing.

Fick disputes the notion that there are stark differences between the two certification programs.

"There are subtle differences," he said. "They're both based on the same core documents. It's looking at the same thing through two different lenses, but they're both credible, viable options. We're all interested in making sure that the seafood we catch is sustainable."

A recent article in the Washington Post pointed out that seafood consumers are sometimes overwhelmed with choices, and some scientists are questioning whether sustainability labels do what they claim, or live up to their promises.

Fick said that just proved ASMI's point.

"That's what we've been saying all along ... that we were promoting sustainable fisheries practices long before MSC came along, and long before it became a buzz word, and we'll continue to be doing the same thing into the future.

"It kind of outlined the difficulty of having a single arbiter of what is and what isn't sustainable. It probably does good things for the ocean to have more that one organization looking at that."

The article also pointed out that some feel MSC and other sustainability labels have relaxed their standards.

Fick agreed.

"I think that as it's grown to encompass more fisheries, especially where you take into account where a fishery doesn't meet the bar, and it gets a pass for a few years while they undergo a fisheries improvement project, it puts some fisheries that aren't as well managed on the same level playing field as Alaska's, which are the gold standard."

In a move that came as no surprise, the Alaska Department of Fish and Game has once again announced that there will not be a sac roe herring fishery in Prince William Sound.

The herring fishery collapsed three years after the Exxon Valdez oil spill in 1989, although there was a brief rebound with an anemic fishery in 1997 and 1998.

Although the oil spill was blamed for the original collapse, other factors are suspected to be at fault for the failure of the stocks to recover, including the possibility of other species filling in the biological niche and humpback whale predation.

Studies are ongoing.

This year's spawning biomass is estimated to be 22,400 tons, barely above the minimum threshold for a fishery of 22,000 tons.

Although the projection is for a biomass slightly greater than the threshold, the biomass is projected to include a large percentage of fish not fully recruited to the spawning population and ADF&G reports that almost any exploitation would reduce the biomass to below the regulatory threshold.