An experienced seafood retailer can tell the difference between wild salmon and the farm-raised version just by looking at the fish. Wild salmon have a deep-red hue, while farm-raised fish are typically pink. But the difference between the two fish is more than just color. And displaying wild salmon in a seafood case is more than just displaying an attractive fish; it is directly supporting the movement to create sustainable populations of salmon worldwide.
Wild salmon in the United States are in desperate need of help. Habitat loss has been immense and—despite tribal, state and federal government efforts—salmon depletion continues. The root cause for this population decline is simple: urban sprawl and aquaculture. An increased human demand for water, reduced vegetation alongside streams, pollutants and the unnatural competition of farm-raised fish in local freshwaters have all contributed to this problem.
"The short-term gains of the present [aquaculture] systems are offset by the long-term harms," says Alfredo Quarto, executive director, Mangrove Action Project, Port Angeles, Wash. The open-cage systems of most salmon farms allow pollution and disease to enter the oceans and fresh streams. Farming operations also lower salmon market prices globally. And with groups such as the World Bank pushing fish farming to Third World nations, Quarto says, "There's no mechanism to stop this. It's being called the pink gold rush."
Although there may not be a mechanism today to stop the pink gold rush, groups such as the Northwest Indian Fisheries Commission, Marine Stewardship Council and a few eco-friendly companies, are dedicated to turning the tide on salmon depletion and, at the same time, creating an ideal, value-added product for natural and gourmet foods stores.
Tony Meyer, manager of information and education services division, NWIFC, Olympia, Wash., is on the front lines of a new cooperation movement in support of sustainable salmon. "The tribes, quite frankly, can't imagine a future without salmon," Meyer says.
The tribes' solution to the problems facing salmon is simple: create a sustainable species by any means necessary. "You don't [want to] have anybody outside of the process," Meyer says. "You try to work with the federal government, with the state. You do everything you can to restore the habitat."
Voluntarily, the tribal commission has cut back tribal salmon harvesting by an astounding 90 percent and is working toward protecting spawning streams throughout the Northwest. However, Meyer insists, the NWIFC wants to do more than just protect salmon from extinction; it wants to set it up for a sustainable future. "One of the fears is you'll end up with runs of salmon that aren't extinct, but can't be harvested," Meyer says. "You'll end up with museum pieces, and to the tribal perspective, [that] sets the bar too low."
The NWIFC understands that real, lasting success is only possible when the bar is set high. And it needs only to look north for proof. The state of Alaska provides an ideal model for marine sustainability. Before statehood, the federal government managed the salmon fisheries in Alaska to drastic ends. But since the state took over fishery management in 1959, the stocks have been rebuilt and Alaska now sees some of its best catches ever.
"All management is totally driven by what is good for the fish, not the people that want to use them," says Laura Fleming, public relations director, Alaska Seafoods Marketing Institute in Juneau. Salmon have sustained life and culture in Alaska for thousands of years, and the state wants to make sure the fish continue to do so. "It's managed on a daily basis," Fleming says. "The fish come first [and decisions are made] to ensure the future of the stock. That comes before anything else."
Forty years of concerted efforts have made a lasting change on the Alaskan marine ecosystem. There are five salmon species in Alaskan waters, and all the stocks are healthy. More than 150 million salmon were harvested last year alone.
The Alaskan model is indeed a success story, but success in the fishery industry is a relative term. Alaskan wild salmon may be completely sustainable, but the state's fishing economy is not. Lower prices for farm-raised salmon have hurt subsistence and commercial fishing operations. "Aquaculture is having a horrible effect on our entire industry," says Fleming. "It's undermined markets all over the world."
This competition has forced Alaska Fisheries to rethink its position, and to use all tools available. "[Alaska was] dealing with competition from salmon farming and needed something to set themselves apart," says Karen Tarica, U.S. communications director, Marine Stewardship Council, Seattle, Wash. Alaska Fisheries approached the MSC a decade ago and was certified sustainable by the Council in 2000.
MSC certification gives Alaska Fisheries a powerful branding identity. The MSC ecolabel informs consumers that Alaskan fisheries, like all six MSC-certified fisheries, are compliant with each of MSC's tough standards. "The ecolabel is an easy way for consumers to realize [how the fish were caught]," Tarica says.
First introduced in 2000 in Whole Foods Market stores across the nation, the MSC ecolabel is a natural fit with organic foods retailers nationwide. "Natural foods consumers want to know where their food is coming from," Tarica says. "The consumer actually rewards the fisheries for their management practices."
The ecolabel is proof that consumers can help the environment through their food purchases.
"There's a very high consumer interest in [the ecolabels]," says Brent Taylor, seafood team leader, Whole Foods Market, Winston-Salem, N.C. "When they can get the MSC product, [consumers] get it."
The MSC ecolabel is a great way for natural foods retailers to offer consumers official information about the sources of their seafood. But MSC is one of many organizations, and certification comes in many forms.
Henry Lovejoy is president of EcoFish Inc., Portsmouth, N.H. EcoFish sells vacuum-packed and frozen salmon directly to natural foods retailers and restaurants. The company relies on an independent, third-party organization to inform them which fisheries are sustainable. Members of the EcoFish Seafood Advisory Board are also members of Environmental Defense and National Audubon Society.
"There is a need for a company to come out and identify sustainable seafood and bring it to the market," Lovejoy says. "And that's what we're doing."
Lovejoy fully believes knowledge is key, and all EcoFish packaging focuses on educating the consumer about the issues surrounding sustainability. "Our packaging is very labor intensive," Lovejoy says. "There's a tremendous amount of information about where the fish was caught, how it was caught and the best ways to cook it."
The EcoFish packaging, just like the MSC ecolabel, is a tool to speak directly to the consumer. "Our mission," Lovejoy says, "is to take [a] positive [approach] and we suggest that [consumers] support these fisheries."
Wild salmon fisheries and the retailers that support them are creating alternatives to farm-raised fishing operations. These alternatives offer consumers the ability to support sustainable fisheries and fishing communities.
Says Fleming of Alaska Seafood: "Being committed to [sustainable fisheries] is a commitment to the harvesters and to creating sustainable communities and sustainable lifestyles."
Vishal Khanna is a Winston-Salem, N.C.-based freelance writer. He can be reached at [email protected]
Natural Foods Merchandiser volume XXIII/number 3/p. 76, 78, 80
Natural Foods Merchandiser volume XXIII/number 3/p. 78