Alaska goes on charm offensive against Wal-Mart over salmon dispute

Wal-Mart executives tour DIPAC on January 8, 2014. (Alexandra Gutierrez/APRN)

Wal-Mart executives tour DIPAC on January 8, 2014. (Alexandra Gutierrez/APRN)

For months, Wal-Mart and state officials have gone back and forth on whether Alaska salmon should be sold in their stores. The dispute is over a tiny blue sustainability label from the Marine Stewardship Council, which Wal-Mart requires for their seafood. A trip by Wal-Mart executives to Juneau has left state officials optimistic for a resolution.

As executive director of DIPAC, Eric Prestegard is used to giving tours. Every year, tens of thousands of people visit the hatchery in Juneau to see how they raise salmon.

Prestegard: This is the kind of thing you’re only going to see in Alaska. This is very unique to Alaska, what you’re seeing in here. These are incubators.

On Wednesday, his tour group is a little unusual. It’s made up of half a dozen Wal-Mart executives, fresh in from Arkansas to learn about Alaska seafood. Prestegard takes them to a dark room that looks like a server farm. Instead of computer equipment, the towers are full of tiny, young salmon with fresh water flowing through them.

Prestegard: So you can see the fry swimming in there … See ‘em?

Group: Oh, yeah!

Prestegard: And you see the little pink belly? So they still have their yolk sac. They’re not ready yet. See the pink belly?

DIPAC was just one of the stops for the Wal-Mart crew. They visited Alaska Glacier Seafoods; they talked with state biologists; and they ate a catered meal of — what else? — Alaska salmon.

This was all part of the state’s charm offensive to make sure Alaska salmon stays in Wal-Mart and Sam’s Club freezers. Since June, Alaska politicians have been at loggerheads with the company because of a policy to only carry seafood that has a Marine Stewardship Council logo on it. While nearly all of the state’s salmon fisheries have been certified by the MSC more than once, some Alaska seafood processors no longer want to pay the extra fee for their label. They think going through the Alaska Seafood Marketing Institute’s certification process should be enough to prove they operate sustainably, since those measures are based on United Nations guidelines. On top of that, the MSC has been slow to re-certify hatchery salmon in Prince William Sound, which has ruffled some in the industry.

While Wal-Mart’s executives weren’t available for reporter questions during the tour, Prestegard says the whole situation’s left Wal-Mart in a pickle, having to choose between the industry standard for sustainability and Alaska fish.

“Oddly enough, I feel a little bit bad for Wal-Mart, because I kind of like they’re in [between] a rock and a hard spot,” says Prestegard. “They have one side — these NGOs and whatnot — that are kind of hitting on them, saying, ‘You said you were going to do X, Y, and Z, sustainability, blah, blah, blah,’ and then they have the fact that they’re a huge U.S. retailer, and they can’t buy from the U.S. And I think that does go to their core.”

While this whole conflict has played out, Wal-Mart has continued to stock Alaska salmon. And now that the Wal-Mart executives who handle seafood and sustainability issues have visited the state, Commerce Commissioner Susan Bell is hopeful that they’ll keep on stocking it, even if it doesn’t carry an MSC label.

“They’re committed to Alaska seafood,” says Bell. “It’s important to their customers, and they’re not bound by to a single certifier.”

Keeping Wal-Mart as a customer isn’t just an important financial move for the state. While the company does buy millions of pounds of Alaska salmon, the reputational impact that would come from losing them might be as — or even more — vital than the dollars directly attached to their decision.

“We want to be sure that any cloud that comes over Alaska and the sustainability of our fisheries, that we address that immediately,” says Bell.

The flip-side of that is keeping Wal-Mart committed to MSC products is also important to the London-based sustainability organization. While MSC declined an interview for this story, they’ve traded volleys with the Alaska Seafood Marketing Institute over the past year over whose certification program is more rigorous.

For its part, Wal-Mart seems optimistic that they can carry Alaska salmon without going back on their sustainability pledge. In a statement, Vice President of Meat and Seafood David Baskin wrote that “Walmart has proudly sourced seafood from the state of Alaska for many years, and we continue to do so.”


Previous Coverage: Wal-Mart to carry only MSC-certified salmon


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