The world's largest retailer has pledged that over the next three years, it will seek to source all wild-caught fresh and frozen fish for its North America stores from fisheries that are proven to be well managed. Wal-Mart is wasting no time putting its purchasing plan into action.
In a news report last week that seemed to catch the industry off guard, Intrafish announced that this year Wal-Mart will begin stocking its shelves with seafood that has already merited an eco-label based on strict standards by the international Marine Stewardship Council. The MSC program encourages consumers to "purchase with a purpose" by supporting environmentally sound and sustainable fishing practices.
Wal-Mart's move will launch the "sustainability" concept into mainstream America. Until now, it has been more of a successful marketing tool in Europe. The fact that mega corporations around the world are following suit has special significance for Alaska. Its largest fisheries - salmon and pollock - both bear the MSC seal of approval.
"We are two of the largest producers and it spells good things for us. We applaud Wal-Mart for taking the lead on supporting sustainable fisheries," said Ray Riutta, director of the Alaska Seafood Marketing Institute.
"This should provide a great opportunity for Alaska pollock products," said Jim Gilmore, an industry spokesman. "One of the challenges of eco-labeling programs is informing and educating consumers about what to look for. Between the Alaska pollock industry's ability to provide a wide variety of popular seafood items and Wal-Mart's ability to promote the MSC eco-label, this could be a huge step forward."
Other Alaska fisheries in the MSC pipeline are Pacific halibut and sablefish, and cod harvested by the Bering Sea freezer longline fleet. Only 14 fisheries have made the grade since the MSC splashed onto the world scene in 1997. Along with Alaska salmon and pollock, they include South African hake, Western Australia rock lobster, Mexican Baja California spiny lobster, New Zealand hoki, Loch Torridon nephrops, South West Cornwall mackerel, Burry Inlet cockles, Thames herring, South Georgia toothfish, Hastings pelagic herring and mackerel) and Hastings Dover sole. Those fisheries are now providing more than 300 eco-labeled seafood products in 24 countries, with a retail value last year of nearly $134 million.
Another seafood surprise came from the U.S. government last week when it filed its intention to form "species specific" marketing councils. The proposal and call for comments was listed in the federal register last Tuesday. The idea dusts off a 1986 effort called the Fish and Seafood Promotion Act, which created a national marketing arm that never got off the ground.
In its plan, NOAA Fisheries said it believes the marketing successes of Alaska salmon, Maryland blue crab and farmed tilapia can be expanded to other species.
"These relatively small, homogeneous groups with common goals were successful in reaching agreement on developing a marketing strategy. During the Alaskan salmon campaign, sales increased by 19.6 percent; sales of blue crabs in Maryland by 52.2 percent; and sales of Tilapia increased by more than 54.5 percent between 2001 and 2003," the proposal reads.
Businesses affected by the plan include all harvesters, importers, marketers and seafood processors. Interested stakeholders would apply for a seafood council to be approved by NOAA Fisheries. Each council would create an official identifier that would be affixed to packaging material "ensuring consumers the product adheres to conservation and quality standards," according to the plan.
The government would initially pay all start up costs, to be repaid after two years. The councils would be funded through voluntary assessments by its membership based on seafood landings and values.
The national seafood marketing plan is targeted specifically to 12 species, including grouper, groundfish, tuna, halibut, scallops and U.S. crab and shrimp. Federal economists said if demand for those species increased 10 percent, it would add $108 million at the docks, $172 million in additional income, and generate sales of more than $500 million to the U.S. economy.
NOAA Fisheries is accepting public comment on the proposal through February 23rd. Send them via email to email@example.com.
Welch, who lives in Kodiak, has written about Alaska's seafood industry since 1988.