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Wild Salmon Off the Hook

by Steve Wilhelm
Puget Sound Business Journal, May 12, 2003

Recent acts may help industry

The wild salmon industry may gain a marketing edge from two recent but unrelated events.

Industry leaders hope Congress' recent decision to recognize wild salmon as "organic," and a decision by the Safeway, Albertson's and Kroger supermarket chains to post signs describing farmed salmon as "color added" may encourage consumers to choose wild salmon over the farmed salmon competition.

"Why these two things came coincidentally I could not tell you," said David Harsila, president of the Alaska Independent Fishermen's Marketing Association, based in Seattle. "It would certainly seem to be a significant measure that would help the wild salmon market."

Wild salmon producers need some help, with farmed salmon imports to the United States continuing to grow 20 percent in 2002, to 214,000 metric tons. This flood of inexpensive farm-grown fish, most of it from Chile and Norway, has driven down sockeye prices, for instance, from $1.23 a pound in 1998 to 55 cents a pound last year, according to the Alaska Department of Fish and Game.

Harsila and others hope salmon packers will quickly change their packaging to take advantage of the organic ruling and the new "color-added" labeling. The supermarkets instituted the latter in response to a spate of consumer lawsuits.

"We need to distinguish and differentiate our product in the marketplace, and let people know what's the real thing," said Bob Thorstenson, president of Juneau-based United Fishermen of Alaska. Nearly one-quarter of his members are from Washington. Most of the large salmon processors also are based in Seattle.

The abundance of cheap farmed salmon has turned wild salmon producers to several niches, notably the white-table restaurant market and the market for natural and organic foods. It also has turned away industry stalwarts such as Ward's Cove Packing Co., which in December announced it was leaving salmon processing entirely after 75 years in the business.

But proponents of the farmed salmon industry consider the fish-coloring issue something of a red herring. They point out that the substances involved, astaxanthin and canthaxanthin, are FDA-approved and are synthetic versions of the natural colors in the tiny crustacean that wild salmon normally eat. It's these crustacean that give wild salmon their color, and the farmed salmon are merely replicating that, proponents argue.

"The issue here is that they want to induce a belief in consumers that by adding color to farmed salmon, it makes it inferior," said Jeff June, vice president of salmon at Natural Resources Consultants Inc., in Seattle.

The organic status for wild salmon was pushed through Congress in late April -- against the opposition of many in the organic food industry -- by Alaska Sen. Ted Stevens as a rider on the Iraq war spending bill. Opponents see it as weakening and politicizing organic standards, while Stevens seemed to see it as a way to distinguish and promote wild salmon.

Rebecca Goldburg, senior scientist for Environmental Defense in New York and a member of the National Organics Standards Board, which advised the U.S. Department of Agriculture on its new organics standard, said the environment and food chain of wild fish can't be controlled enough for the fish to be certified organic.

The board had earlier recommended the USDA not categorize wild fish as an organic food, she said.

Miles McEvoy, manager for the state Department of Agriculture's organics program, is equally dubious about the idea of organic wild salmon.

"The overwhelming response in the organic industry is that it (organic designation) is not a good fit, and wild would be a better fit than the organic label," he said.

However, until the USDA writes regulations or the new law is overturned, companies can go ahead and seek independent certification of wild salmon as organic, Goldburg said.

Stevens' law could also open the door to producers trying to market organic farmed salmon, since companies could argue that farmed fish eat essentially the same food as "organic" wild fish. Farmed fish are fed with pellets made largely from ground wild fish meal, similar to the food source of wild fish.

Alaska proponents of the organic label hope to use it as a kingpin of the state's upcoming national marketing campaign to promote wild salmon as more natural, a program that will spend $30 million this year and $40 million in 2004.

"We're very pleased," Thorstenson said. "The organic listing should help that sector of the market."

Meanwhile, closer to home, the Port of Seattle has approved new rules that will allow fishers to sell portioned fresh and frozen wild salmon directly to consumers from Fishermen's Terminal. Previously, fishermen were allowed to sell only whole fish, which limited sales.

The new Fishermen's Terminal rules started May 1.

Steve Wilhelm
Wild Salmon Off the Hook
Houston Business Journal, May 12, 2003

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