Government action can't cure all that ails Alaska's salmon industry, but one idea nearing fruition in Congress could provide significant help. Thanks to U.S. Sens. Ted Stevens and Frank Murkowski, the omnibus agriculture bill awaiting final passage would require all salmon sold in stores to be labeled wild or farmed and to disclose its country of origin. Labels would be voluntary during a two-year phase-in, then become mandatory.
Making this information available to customers would help Alaska salmon compete better with the farmed variety. Because farmed salmon can be delivered fresher and cheaper year-round, it has taken a shark-size bite from Alaska's share of world markets. Alaska's best hope of fighting back is to distinguish its wild salmon as a premium brand worth a higher price.
Alaska salmon marketers have to play to Alaska's strengths: a better-tasting fish produced from a clean environment. That latter point could carry a lot of weight among eco-oriented customers.
Fish farming has an environmental dark side. It produces vast amounts of pollution, as huge numbers of fish excrete their waste in a small area. Farmed fish are routinely pumped with antibiotics to ward off disease from being in such a foul, crowded environment. And farmed fish can cause genetic pollution of wild stocks by escaping and crossbreeding.
It's incomprehensible that farmed fish can qualify as ''organic,'' according to U.S. government standards, while wild salmon cannot. It's the kind of Orwellian twist that gives government a bad name. Sen. Stevens tried to fix that problem in the same bill, but the provision was tossed out of the final version.
The salmon labeling law is not a done deal. The agriculture bill that it is hitched to is loaded with controversial proposals that could sink the whole package. At that point, Sen. Stevens might try to put the labeling law into a must-pass appropriations bill, but he isn't optimistic about the prospects.
It was a struggle to get this far. Fish processors and retailers fought hard against the labeling requirement. But if the law is enacted, it will be a bright spot for an industry that has been facing dark times.
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