Alaska fish get market boost Outside

Posted: Wednesday, July 24, 2002

Good news for Alaska's seafood industry.

A movement to promote the sale of sustainable fish, fish harvested in a way that does not jeopardize the survival of the species or the integrity of the ecosystem, identified Alaska wild salmon and halibut among the top choices of fish consumers should be purchasing.

The Monterey Bay Aquarium of Monterey, Calif., circulates a brochure as part of its Seafood Watch program that names the two Alaska fish on the list of 21 species of "Best Choices." The program raises the importance of choosing sustainable seafood in markets and restaurants and recommends which seafoods to buy or avoid.

Outside markets are beginning to take the bait, with some favoring Alaska wild salmon to farmed salmon. And the nearly 60,000 weekly customers of three Seattle-area Thriftway grocery stores are seeing the resulting change, when wild salmon was featured over farmed fish.

"About six months ago we just made a conscious decision to promote wild salmon," said Larry Roberts, operations supervisor for Penhollow Markets, the group that owns the three stores. "We just feel that the quality of the product is significantly better. After examining the issues, we've decided that moving toward sustainable seafood is a sound business choice."

The issues have to do with saving world fisheries from overdepletion and pollution, the latter of which scientists say salmon farming could be responsible for in some Atlantic fisheries. Farmed fishing is outlawed in Alaska.

According to a U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization report, about 65 percent of the world's fisheries are fully fished or overfished, and another 10 percent are either depleted or recovering.

Many environmental groups believe chefs and seafood consumers, as well as regulators and fishers, should help ensure that world fisheries have a healthy future.

In September 2000, the Marine Stewardship Council bestowed its sought-after eco-label on the Alaska salmon fishery, making it the only salmon fishery in the world to be certified as meeting MSC standards. It also is the largest fishery to date to be certified by the MSC, and the first in the United States. MSC selected the fishery because Alaska's Constitution requires sustainable management, which is implemented through statutes, regulations and policies which apply statewide.

Laura Fleming, spokesperson for the Alaska Seafood Marketing Institute, said sustainable fish are being demanded in the nation's restaurants and markets.

"Traceability -- being able to find out where fish is coming from -- is a big word in the seafood industry," Fleming said. "There are a lot of retailers who are pretty good about promoting wild salmon."

This includes national grocery chains Kroger Co. (parent company of Fred Meyer stores), Publix Super Markets and Whole Foods Market, she said.

Area grocers, though not involved in the big push for sustainable seafoods, said they make a point to purchase Alaska fish as much as possible. Country Foods store manager Chris Duncan said his IGA chain store in Kenai gets its fresh product from Kenai Peninsula processors.

"We get it from local canneries," Duncan said. "It's fresher fish, and at least that way we can support the community."

Joe Gulley, Alaska district manager for Carrs-Safeway, said Safeway is one of the largest purchasers of Alaska seafood in the country. He said Alaska stores are supplied with fish from warehouses in both Anchorage and Seattle. Season and availability dictate where the fish is purchased.

"The majority of the fresh seafood is bought in Alaska," Gulley said. "The frozen (fish) is through our warehouses. We try to put a lot of stock in wild stock. Especially if fresh is available."

Gulley said many of the West Coast stores also are supplied from fisheries in Washington and Oregon, depending on the time of year. But he admitted that Safeway stores, particularly those farther from wild salmon fisheries, do stock their seafood shelves with farmed fish.

"If it's in season, we get it," Gulley said. "But sometimes, you have no choice if you want a fresh salmon in the winter. "

He said supporting the communities that produce the Alaska seafood is important to Safeway.

"We have stores in Kodiak, Dutch Harbor, Kenai, Soldotna, Valdez, Homer and Seward," Gulley said. "We definitely want to be a good neighbor in those fishing communities."

Fred Meyer officials were unavailable for comment.

From mid-June until the end of this month, Whole Foods Market's has been urging consumers to "Fish For Our Future" through in-store promotions in its more than 130 locations. The business is focusing on the importance of looking for the MSC seal of approval, the issue of overfishing and the power sustainably managed seafood purchases have on helping prompt change in the fishing industry.

Whole Food Market stores, located in 24 states and in Toronto, Canada, is featuring cooking demonstrations by local members of the Chefs Collaborative, take-home information and salmon recipes. The chain is offering fresh Alaska salmon through the summer, both in its seafood cases and in its chef-prepared meal selections, and will switch over to frozen in the fall.

Chefs Collaborative, a national network of more than 1,000 culinary community members who support sustainable cuisine also is endorsing the use of sustainable seafood. Stan Frankenthaler, owner of Salamander restaurant in Boston, is a collaborative member in support of the sustained fishing market.

"Not only is sustainable seafood essential to my creative cooking style, but I'm proud to uphold my commitment to maintain an environmentally friendly business and lifestyle," Frankenthaler said in a press release last month.

The three Seattle Thriftway stores will begin selling both fresh and frozen Alaska salmon and halibut, Roberts said. He said although his customers are not as concerned with the ramifications, they do like knowing their purchase is making a difference. And he said they have given glowing response to the new offering.

"They're not involved in all the politics of 'farmed vs. wild,'" he said. "Their primary concern is the product quality, (but) they appreciate the information about the environmental impact."

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