Wal-Mart now selling sockeye from Bristol Bay

Posted: Friday, November 21, 2008

Wal-Mart, the world's largest seafood retailer, is now selling Bristol Bay wild-caught sockeye salmon in 233 stores across the western United States.

The company with the motto "Saving people money, so they can live better" is following the lead of higher-end retailers, such as Whole Foods Market.

"It's not just a high-income-bracket thing to want to know where your food comes from," said Tim Bristol of Trout Unlimited.

He and other Alaska wild-salmon advocates were delighted.

"We're just saying 'thank you.' It can be nothing but good for the state and the area," said Bob Waldrop of the Bristol Bay Regional Seafood Development Association.

That group, the United Fishermen of Alaska, the Alaska Independent Fishermen's Marketing Association and Nunamta Aulukestai wrote Wal-Mart thanking the company for its investment in the region.

So far Bristol Bay sockeye isn't available at the Juneau Wal-Mart, an employee said.

In 2006, the Bentonville, Ark.-based company pledged to buy all its wild-caught fresh and frozen fish for North American markets from fisheries certified as sustainable by the London-based Marine Stewardship Council.

It's part of a broader initiative to buy and prod suppliers toward sustainable seafood, according to the company. Wal-Mart is collaborating with the MSC, the World Wildlife Foundation and Conservation International. The store now sells 22 products that carry the MSC label.

Five of the top 25 North American retailers have deals to get MSC-certified seafood, and most of the rest are discussing it, according to MSC's Web site. Nearly 60 percent of the volume of fish harvested in the United States is certified by the council, according to the council.

Wal-Mart also sells farmed fish, such as tilapia from China or shrimp, which is another focus of the store's sustainability push.

Despite Alaska salmon's good reputation - and the fact that it was the first fishery to be MSC-certified - it's apparently no foregone conclusion that Alaska seafood gets that 'sustainable' label. Earlier this year, MSC proposed not recertifying the fishery, but reconsidered and gave it the coveted label.

Bristol said he hoped the deal would publicize controversy over Bristol Bay development, if eaters in the lower 48 states start to ask about their fish.

"You can vote with your fork. You can ask more about the fisheries, Bristol Bay, the threat it faces. It's a really good way to get the word out about Pebble (Mine), and create jobs for people in Bristol Bay and elsewhere."

Last year's Bristol Bay sockeye harvest was the highest in eight years. It was worth an estimated $109 million, a quarter of the total salmon harvest in Alaska. Alaska permit holders received 44 percent of that, and out-of-state residents got the rest, according to the Alaska Department of Labor.

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