KANSAS CITY, MO. - Seafood producers and the organizations that represent them continue to take actions to ensure that the products they deliver to consumers meet the highest standards for sustainability.

In June, the Alaska salmon fishery, including all five species commercially harvested throughout the state, successfully achieved recertification to the Responsible Fisheries Management (RFM) Certification program, said Megan Rider, domestic marketing director for the Juneau-based Alaska Seafood Marketing Institute (ASMI). 

The Alaska salmon fishery originally received RFM Certification in March 2011. Recertification means the Alaska salmon fishery met all the criteria of the 125+ clauses in the RFM Fisheries Standard.

"We are so proud that Alaska salmon continues to carry the RFM Certification,” said Julie Decker, executive director of the Alaska Fisheries Development Foundation. “The RFM program was created through the work of many Alaskans who feel strongly about the sustainability of our seafood and wanted the ability to independently prove it to customers around the world.”

Customers as large as Walmart, Costco, Kroger and Publix recognize the RFM label as proof of seafood sustainability.

Alaska has been leading the way in terms of sustainability for the global seafood industry for many years, Rider said. As the only state with sustainability written into its constitution, Alaska has become known as the gold standard for sustainable fishing practices.

“The Alaska seafood industry continues to set the highest standard for wild-caught sustainable seafood and increasing consumer demand for sustainable seafood continues to force other producers to follow suit.”

The Washington, D.C.-based Marine Stewardship Council’s (MSC) Ocean Stewardship Fund (OSF), which launched in September, supports fisheries and projects around the world that help to safeguard the planet's seafood supplies, said Jackie Marks, the group’s senior public relations manager.

In April, MSC announced that 15 fisheries and research projects around the world will receive up to $61,500 USD each from the MSC Ocean Stewardship Fund. The inaugural awards include grants to Zoological Society of London, WWF South Africa and BirdLife South Africa and to fisheries in the Americas, Europe, Asia and Africa. The projects range from tackling ghost gear to protecting threatened species.

Getting the message out

ASMI is constantly working to communicate the benefits of eating sustainably sourced seafood, both for consumers’ individual health and for the health of the planet, Rider said. 

Since the group launched the “Ask for Alaska” campaign a few years ago, consumers and retailers alike have been enthusiastic in requesting and highlighting Alaska origins of their seafood: Seafood Spenders (tech-savvy consumers who make up 54% of the seafood spend) are 58% more likely to buy seafood when they see the Alaska Seafood logo, according to Technomic data.

“In the past few months, we’ve been nimble to continue to promote Alaska sustainability messaging in the face of new challenges, shifting from in-person store demos and cooking classes to digital content and online classes.”

One example:  a “Foolproof Salmon” virtual class with PCC Community Markets in Seattle. 

Especially now, Rider added, as consumers will likely continue to consolidate trips to the grocery store and focus on shelf-stable and frozen items, ASMI aims to continue to educate consumers about the quality and ease of preparation of frozen Alaska seafood, which many shoppers don’t realize can be cooked without thawing.

MSC, meanwhile, has been championing awareness campaigns with the support of its retail partners, Marks said.

The recently released “Little Blue Label, Big Blue Future” campaign, for instance, stresses the importance of how daily decisions as simple as meal planning impact the ocean and its inhabitants. The campaign encourages consumers to think about small changes they can make in their lives to ensure a healthy future for the ocean, such as choosing certified sustainable seafood.

“MSC partners are amplifying the message and sharing the campaign with their customers,” Marks said.  

One of the barriers to cooking seafood at home that people typically report is not knowing how to cook it, she added.  

The new normal

COVID has put an increased emphasis on food safety, as well as supporting local domestic producers and economy, both of which are linked to sustainability, Rider said. 

“As supply chain challenges in the meat industry caused an increase in seafood consumption, those challenges simultaneously awakened consumers to how fragile our food supply chain really can be, increasing awareness of the importance of truly sustainable food sources like wild Alaska seafood.”

One of the things MSC hears over and over, Marks said, is that during lockdown many more Americans are getting creative and learning how to cook their favorite seafood dishes at home, for health reasons but also because many restaurants where they might typically order seafood are closed or offering limited menus.

“This is a positive trend and one we hope will continue into the future,” she said. “In order to sustain that, sustainability is critical. With more awareness of the importance of choosing certified sustainable seafood, and more desire to cook seafood at home, this could be a win for Americans and the ocean.” 

Looking ahead

The Alaska seafood industry’s sustainability measures are in place to ensure marine ecosystems and seafood species can continue to replenish year after year, Rider said.

Additionally, the seafood industry is the state’s largest private sector employer. 

“As consumer demand for nutritious, sustainable and wild seafood continues to increase, we are excited to continue to support an industry made up of thousands of devoted fishermen, processors, scientists and more, who work together to bring nutritious food to consumers while protecting our marine ecosystems,” Rider said.

Sales of certified sustainable tuna have more than doubled in the last five years, according to a new report published by MSC in April. 

More than 54,000 tons of tuna were sold with the MSC blue fish label in 2018-19, compared with 21,500 tons in 2015-16, and the figures for 2019-20 are expected to be even higher, Marks said.

The rapid increase in global sales of MSC-labelled sustainable tuna is the result of transformations within the fishing sector, she added. Twenty-eight percent of global tuna catch is now certified to the MSC’s standards for sustainable fishing, compared with 14% in 2014.

“These changes have been driven by increasing retailer and consumer demand,” she said. 

Recent research commissioned by MSC revealed that 65% of Americans believe supermarkets should remove all unsustainable fish and seafood products from their shelves. The study showed that 55% of U.S. seafood consumers agreed that in order to protect the ocean, we have to consume fish and seafood only from sustainable sources.

The MSC Fisheries Standard is currently undergoing its regular five-year review, Marks said – every aspect of the standard will be extensively reviewed with stakeholder input. Sustainable fish stocks, minimizing environmental impact and effective fisheries management are the standard’s three main goals.

The standard is based on the United Nations FAO guidelines for sustainable fishing and seafood ecolabelling, and has been developed over 20 years in consultation with hundreds of scientists, fisheries experts and other stakeholders. 

Stakeholders from all sectors are at the heart of the review, helping identify issues, develop solutions and test the possible impacts of any proposed changes. 

This story was featured in the August issue of Supermarket Perimeter. Check out the full issue here.