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Alaska salmon industry's access to lucrative markets hinges on sustainable eco-label

Aaron Bolton, KBBI News

Hatcheries release over a billion juvenile salmon into the Gulf of Alaska each year, and recently, fishermen, scientists and interest groups have been fighting about the impacts of all of those fish.

State managers are in the middle of a decade-long study aimed at determining reproductive differences between hatchery and wild fish, and the study’s results may impact the salmon industry's access to some of its most lucrative markets.  

If you walk over to your local grocery store’s seafood section, you will find the staples: shrimp, halibut and of course salmon.

What you may not notice on some of the packaging is a tiny blue oval sticker with a fish in the shape of a checkmark and the words “Marine Stewardship Council.”

The Marine Stewardship Council, or MSC, is a certification program that assesses the sustainability of fisheries worldwide.

“The certification itself basically gives a third-party perspective that is science-based on Alaska's management of our fisheries,” Julie Decker, executive director of the Alaska Fisheries Development Foundation, said.

The foundation is a research and development industry group and will soon be paying for the MSC’s assessment.

This time consuming and expensive certification process doesn’t exist just so the industry can feel good about how its fish are caught and sold through the global supply chain. It’s utilized globally because many consumers, predominantly outside of the U.S., want to know that seafood is sustainably caught before they’ll buy it.

“It's now is something that some markets require before you can sell into their markets, sell to their companies, sell into their countries, and so it is not seen as very optional at this point,” Decker explained.

Alaska Seafood Marketing Institute Executive Director Jeremy Woodrow said MSC certification has historically been essential in places like Europe, which imports about $200 million worth of Alaska salmon per year, according to the McDowell Group.

But its importance is growing.

“It's growing in parts of Asia. Chinese consumers traditionally weren't as in tune with the need for sustainability as were Japanese customers and a lot of Alaska Seafood goes to both of those countries,” Woodrow explained.

The seafood marketing institute also houses its own certification program, but it’s not as well-known in some markets as the MSC’s.

The MSC recently recertified all of Alaska’s salmon fisheries, but it is still maintaining concerns about hatchery fish affecting the wild fish it certifies.

“So because the hatchery programs in Southeast and in Prince William Sound are very big, the team did not feel initially as though the information was adequate to determine that the hatcheries were highly unlikely to have any detrimental impacts on wild stocks,” Amanda Stern-Pirlot said.

Stern-Pirlot is part of the MSC’s independent assessment team.

One year after conditions were placed on those fisheries in 2012, state managers responded with their Hatchery-Wild Research Program, which has significant financial support from the commercial fishing industry.

The project is studying the rates at which hatchery salmon stray into wild streams and whether they hurt the productivity of the wild fish they spawn with. The industry hopes the study’s results will satisfy the MSC’s concerns, which need to be addressed by 2024.  Otherwise both Prince William Sound and Southeast’s chum and pink salmon fisheries could lose certification.

Preliminary results indicate that Prince William Sound hatchery pink salmon may be less productive and there’s concern they could reduce productivity of the wild stocks they spawn with.

Stern-Pirlot explains that the most recent MSC re-assessment, which happens every five years, did not take the state research program’s initial findings into account. She said the assessment team will examine those results, and more data set to come out in late June, when it conducts its annual review this fall.

“We're going to start to see new information that that I think is going to require the department to respond to from a management perspective in one way or another,” she said.

Alaska Department of Fish and Game officials say that the department will wait until the study is finished, in 2023, before they decide if the hatcheries should be managed differently.

Those in the industry are also taking a wait-and-see approach before they make any predictions on how the results may affect the certification process.

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Aaron Bolton has moved on to a new position in Montana; he is no longer KBBI News Director. KBBI is currently seeking a News Director, and Kathleen Gustafson is filling in for the time being.