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New Walmart guidelines put Alaskan salmon back on the menu

Alaskan Salmon

After protests and a Senate committee hearing, Walmart has decided to continue buying wild Alaskan salmon. Photograph: Hector Amezcua/AP


Powered by article titled “New Walmart guidelines put Alaskan salmon back on the menu” was written by Clare Leschin-Hoar, for on Friday 24th January 2014 19.31 UTC

After four months of uncertainty, Alaskan salmon suppliers to Walmart have something to celebrate.

The retail giant told the Guardian it has decided to expand its sustainable seafood policy to include certification programs beyond that of the Marine Stewardship Council (MSC), the world’s largest seafood certifier. In effect, the revised policy means Walmart will continue to source wild Alaskan salmon for its stores.

While that might not sound like momentous news on the surface, it is. The decision could send big ripples throughout the seafood industry.

The fish fight began last summer when Walmart sent a seemingly routine letter to suppliers – in advance of the salmon season – reminding them that wild seafood needed to be certified by the MSC “or equivalent”. The problem was that no equivalent certification scheme existed, and the majority of the Alaskan salmon suppliers had already walked away from MSC, saying they would no longer pay the hefty fees required for certification. Instead, they were embracing a new program called Responsible Fisheries Management, or RFM.

With little warning, Walmart found itself smack-dab in the middle of a sustainability certification battle over Alaska’s salmon that escalated into Alaskan fishermen protesting outside of Walmart stores and a US Senate committee hearing.

“When the Alaskan seafood industry wanted to move away from MSC to the RFM program, we respected their right to make that decision, but still needed to respect our decision to source seafood from fisheries in a sustainable way,” Jeff Rice, Walmart’s senior director of sustainability, told the Guardian. “But we’re not experts in fisheries management.”

Bringing everyone to the table

Seeking a solution, Walmart turned to The Sustainability Consortium, an organization made up of corporations, academics and non-profits, for help. It also invited other key players to the table, including important seafood buyers such as McDonald’s, Darden Restaurants, Kroger and Ahold, whose supermarket brands include Stop & Shop and Giant Food Stores, as well as representatives from the Alaskan seafood industry, environmental groups, academics and even the MSC.

“Getting the language right, the transparency and the credibility, was important,” Rice said.

The result was a set of eight principles – including key sustainability issues such as transparency, bycatch, overfishing, energy use and more – that the company will use as a yardstick to evaluate alternative seafood certification programs like the RFM.

So far, Walmart is the only company to adopt these newly minted principles as part of its official seafood policy. But Sarah Lewis, managing director of research and integration at The Sustainability Consortium, who led the process of creating the principles, says she hopes others will follow.

Next steps

The first new certification being considered under the new guidelines is, unsurprisingly, RFM. Earlier this month, Rice took his very first trip to Alaska to meet with fishermen and state officials and assess how the program would stack up against the newly devised TSC principles.

There’s a lot at stake. Walmart and Sam’s Club combined purchased more than 50m pounds of fresh and frozen seafood from Alaska in the last two years. The visit by Walmart executives made headlines and prompted senator Mark Begich to make his case in a letter to Walmart CEO Doug McMillon.

Rice said he was pleased with what he found: “It is a really strong program. The thing that excites us the most is we heard loud and clear that everyone involved in the RFM is willing to meet the [TSC] principles.”

To do this, RFM will need to provide more information on how its program works, how periodic reviews are done and how different criteria is scored, he said. “Many things built into the RFM program were very strong but weren’t communicated publicly,” he said. “They’ve since increased the transparency.”


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