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Certified salmon: Park Service director endorses Alaska fish

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Posted: Sunday, July 28, 2013 12:00 am

Fairbanks Daily News-Miner editorial

Jon Jarvis, director of the National Park Service, knows something about Alaska and its salmon fisheries, having served five years in the mid 1990s as superintendent of the Wrangell-St. Elias National Park, whose western border is the salmon-stuffed Copper River.

So Mr. Jarvis obviously felt a little uncomfortable at a hearing in Washington, D.C., on Thursday when Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, dug into a Park Service recommendation that could curtail Alaska salmon sales by park concessioners nationwide.

Mr. Jarvis asked twice that he and Sen. Murkowski talk in private about it. Sen. Murkowski declined and continued her very public and pointed discussion.

The National Park Service didn’t issue a direct ban on Alaska salmon in parks. However, reduced usage could result from recently announced policy guidelines; the agency said new contracts with “front-country” park concessioners should “only” serve fish that is “certified sustainable by the Marine Stewardship Council, or identified by an equivalent program that has been approved by the NPS.” 

The Marine Stewardship Council is a London-based nonprofit whose laudable goal is to save fish populations from unsustainable commercial exploitation. However, Alaska salmon fisheries lack the council’s certification. That’s not because they’re poorly managed but simply because the state of Alaska and most of its major salmon processors have decided to stop paying the fees the council charges. 

The state and its fishing industry were some of the MSC’s first customers, helping to build its credibility and influence. In recent years, the state and industry balked at the expense and the growing information demands made by the organization, which earns half its money by selling rights to use its blue logo and gets the other half from grants. The state now prefers to engage a private company that independently identifies sustainably managed fisheries, Global Trust Certification, which is accredited by the International Organization for Standardization. It doesn’t appear the National Park Service has approved Global Trust’s system.

The service’s specific endorsement of MSC as gatekeeper to fish sales in parks was the latest bothersome example of the nonprofit’s reach, but it’s probably a relatively minor one. A much bigger threat comes from retailers such as Wal-Mart Stores Inc., which recently said it plans to sell nothing but MSC-endorsed fish.

Sen. Mark Begich, D-Alaska, wrote the company’s president in late June and urged him to “reconsider your proposed decision to defer to MSC as the sole arbiter of which fish you sell. I submit that Alaska’s history of sustainable management is not just equivalent, but is the standard that first made MSC.”

Private companies have the right to make their own decisions, of course, and suffer the consequences (no Alaska salmon, in this case). However, a government agency, such as the National Park Service, shouldn’t surrender its options to specific third parties because of the potential limitations that doing so places on fair market access.

Director Jarvis offered a way to move toward that policy, at least with respect to Alaska salmon, during Sen. Murkowski’s questioning Thursday. He first asserted that “I’m not pulling our national healthy foods sustainability standards over this issue because this ... was developed over a yearlong consultation process.” 

However, he added this: “What I am willing to do is to change the guidelines so it includes Alaska wild-caught fish,” he said. “I think that’s the simple fix here. The guidelines were drawn broadly to give some guidance to our concessioners. We want a park visit to be a healthy experience. The food was the key component. And you have extraordinary food in Alaska. I mean, I lived up there. I know. I lived on the Copper River. I want that Copper River salmon in those concessions. So this is a simple change to the guideline. It’s not a withdrawal of our guideline.”

Good call.

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