Wal-Mart signs on for eco-friendly fish, with some loopholes

Company also seeks similar labeling for its farmed Atlantic salmon and shrimp

Posted: Sunday, February 19, 2006

The Alaska fishing industry has been abuzz since last month, when Wal-Mart, the world's largest retailer, announced it would buy a significant portion of its wild-caught seafood from eco-friendly suppliers.

Some fishermen, such as Paul Southland of Southeast Alaska Rainforest Wild, a regional fish branding and marketing association based in Wrangell, are basking in the glow of a major corporation linking itself to wild fish.

"Whatever the end result, it's been fantastic for the wild (fisheries) to have this publicity about wild and sustainable fish," Southland said.

Details remain slim, however, about how Wal-Mart's decision could affect Alaska fisheries.

"It will probably take many more months before we see the extent of the boon this might be to our industry," said Laura Fleming, a spokeswoman for the Alaska Seafood Marketing Institute in Juneau.

To the chagrin of some proponents of wild fish, Wal-Mart is pursuing similar eco-labeling for its farmed Atlantic salmon and shrimp.

There are also some loopholes in the agreement that don't require value-added seafood, such as fish sticks or salmon burgers, to be certified as sustainable products by the Marine Stewardship Council, based in London.

"They had this big announcement. Now what does it really mean?" said Gerry Leape, marine programs director for the National Environmental Trust, based in Washington, D.C.

While some Alaska fishermen and seafood industry officials feel optimistic about the Wal-Mart decision, Leape urged caution.

Wal-Mart has had a poor record on how it treats its suppliers, Leape said.

Right now, Wal-Mart stores are selling farmed Atlantic salmon from Chile at a little more than $4 per pound, Leape said. "They've found a formula for getting a lower price from their suppliers that other retailers can't match," he said.

Some Alaska fishermen said they feel pretty optimistic. After all, the world's largest retailer now says it wants to spotlight eco-friendly wild fish. That's Alaska's specialty.

"Companies like Wal-Mart don't make this kind of decision unless it makes good dollars and cents," said David Benton, executive director of the Marine Conservation Alliance, a network of communities and companies involved in Alaska's groundfish industry.

Worldwide, only 14 fisheries have been certified by Wal-Mart's partner in the wild fish labeling initiative, the Marine Stewardship Council.

"Alaska has the highest percentage of (MSC) certified fisheries of anywhere in the world, and more are in the works," said Jim Humphreys, the MSC's regional director for the Americas.

All five species of Alaska salmon, pollock and some Pacific cod now carry the council's seal of approval, which is only available for wild fish. Alaska halibut and black cod are nearing completion of the review process, Humphreys said.

To carry the label, a fishery must have healthy fish stocks, good regulatory management and pose minimal harm to the environment, Humphreys said.

Under its new agreement with the Marine Stewardship Council, Wal-Mart will buy wild-caught fresh and frozen fish for the North American market from council-certified fisheries.

Intrafish, a seafood industry news outlet, reported Feb. 6 that the agreement applies only to Wal-Mart's own wild fish products, not outside brands.

Wal-Mart declined to estimate how much of its wild fish products would be covered under the MSC initiative, but it told Intrafish that the "vast majority" of its seafood is not branded by outside companies.

A Wal-Mart spokeswoman said Thursday in an e-mail that wild fish, in general, account for 40 percent of Wal-Mart's seafood business.

Though the new wild eco-labeling program could take three to five years to fully implement, some eco-labeled items will start appearing in Wal-Mart Superstores and Neighborhood Markets later this year, said company spokeswoman Karen Burk, based in Bentonville, Ark.

Wal-Mart is also pursuing different eco-labels for its farmed Chilean salmon and farmed shrimp, Burk said.

"The only piece of our seafood business that is not currently involved in a sustainability program is our (farmed) tilapia, which we are hoping to initiate in the near future," Burk said.

• Elizabeth Bluemink can be reached at elizabeth.bluemink@juneauempire.com.

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