ANCHORAGE -- A new label identifying Alaska salmon products as coming from a sustainable fishery is going over very well in Europe, reports Barbara Belknap, executive director of the Alaska Seafood Marketing Institute.
However, the Sierra Club, a major U.S. environmental group, is criticizing the certification of sustainability of Alaska's salmon from the London-based Marine Stewardship Council, which was formed by another environmental group, the World Wildlife Fund, to promote sustainable fisheries and good management practices.
The certification of the Alaska salmon fishery was "questionable," and lacked "transparency and credibility," said Vicky Husband of the Sierra Club in an April 30 letter to the Marine Stewardship Council.
Husband said the certification has placed the MSC's "credibility in doubt."
Belknap said the MSC's certification on products from 13 companies marketing Alaska salmon products attracted a great deal of attention at the European Seafood Exposition in Brussels in early April, the world's largest seafood trade show.
What's more significant, Belknap said, is that Alaska salmon products with the label are now being purchased and displayed by organic food stores in Europe, even though wild Alaska salmon is not labeled as organic under U.S. federal regulations.
"European countries like England and Germany are more 'green' and more environmentally conscious than the U.S.," she said. "For over 10 years, farmed salmon has owned this market. Indications are now there is a renewed interest in wild Alaska salmon," Belknap said, partly because of publicity over the MSC certification and the "sustainability" of the Alaska salmon fisheries.
Two of five major retail chains in Great Britain -- Sainsburys and Tesco -- have committed to featuring wild Alaska salmon with the MSC label, Belknap said. T.G.I. Fridays Restaurants in the United Kingdom have featured Alaska king salmon for three years and are now doing a promotion around MSC labeled salmon.
The United Kingdom is a major market for Alaska salmon. It is the largest market in the world for canned salmon and is the largest European buyer of Alaska salmon.
"It was only recently that fresh and frozen Alaska salmon was made available to U.K. consumers," Belknap said. Farmed salmon is available fresh year-round, from Scotland, Ireland and Norway, she said.
The Sierra Club's immediate concern is the possibility that British Columbia wild salmon producers may apply for MSC certification, citing MSC's certification of nearby Southeast Alaska salmon fisheries as sustainable.
"The Southeast Alaska salmon fisheries regime is not worthy of certification by any reasonable standard," Husband wrote in the April 30 letter to the MSC.
Neither the government of British Columbia nor the Canadian federal government manages the British Columbia wild salmon fisheries very well, Husband said. Certifying British Columbia wild salmon fishery using the same criteria used in Alaska would be an act of "consumer fraud," and would be opposed by the Sierra Club.
The British Columbia Salmon Marketing Council is concerned about losing European market share to Alaska salmon because of the MSC label, and is in the process of preparing an application for a similar certification, Husband said in the Sierra Club letter.
In a letter of reply, MSC Chief Executive Brendan May questioned why the Sierra Club, if it opposed certification of Alaska salmon, did not protest the certification while it was being considered through established appeal procedures, instead of waiting until several months after the certification was completed.
"The MSC has formal processes for handling such appeals and would have of course taken such an appeal seriously had it been lodged," May said.
Tim Bradner is a reporter for the Anchorage-based Alaska Journal of Commerce.
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