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Fish Factor

Wild caught fish are not likely to get the organic nod
By Laine Welch


August 25, 2007

What comes to mind when you hear the word 'organic'? Most Americans say it's foods that contain no additives or chemicals, grown only with the help of nature.

When it comes to seafood, the American ideal is 'harvested from the wild.'

Either way, Americans say the monikers would make them inclined to purchase better seafood.

A nationwide study of shoppers and retailers by economists at Rutgers University and the New Jersey Dept. of Agriculture also revealed:

  • Nearly 80 percent of Americans prefered wild caught seafoods ­ only nine percent opted for farmed.
  • The term 'farm raised' conjured up use of antibiotics, hormones, genetic modifications and other negatives.
  • 76 percent said they would purchase organic seafood
  • Barriers to increased seafood sales were lack of consumer knowledge at 86 percent, and lower prices at 46 percent.
  • 69 percent would be willing to pay a premium price if they perceive it as being safer than other products on the market.
  • 60 percent said they prefer domestic seafood products, and country of origin influences their purchases.

Alaska marketers are using the survey information to fine tune their messages for wild seafood.

"They are willing to pay a premium for something labeled organic. We also know that people who buy Alaska seafood also are willing to pay a premium for something that is wild and natural and sustainable and pure. So we are interested in learning what attributes they associate with the word organic," said Laura Fleming , communications director for the Alaska Seafood Marketing Institute, which contracted the study.

Organic food sales in the U.S., valued at about $18 billion, have grown 20 percent a year since 1997, compared to sales growth of just two to three percent for conventional foods.

Organic standards have not been developed yet for U.S. seafood. Lawmakers have been struggling for years with outlining rules for how fish and other aquatic animals must be raised and handled in order to qualify for certification by the U.S. Dept. of Agriculture. However, the USDA cannot prohibit seafood companies from making 'organic' claims as long as they don't use the USDA label. Seafood from other countries also can be be labeled as organically grown and sold in the U.S.

Ironically, wild caught fish are not likely to get the organic nod. The National Organic Standards Board ruled last year that: "Because the food sources and environment of wild fish are completely uncontrolled, they should not be considered organic."

Farmed fish is expected to get the green light, however.

"Only inland, closed systems, which do not allow untreated effluents to pollute the surrounding environment, may be eligible for organic certification," the NOSB said.

Meanwhile, Alaska seafood will stay with its core messages.

"More consumers recognize that 'wild' is something that 'organic' aspires to be, but never can be because of they way it's handled," said ASMI director Ray Riutta. "Wild is what organic would like to be." Find the 'U.S. Market for Organic Seafood' study at .

Herring hatcheries?

A few weeks after the 1989 Exxon Valdez oil spill, herring spawned in Prince William Sound. The fish have never been the same since. A few lackluster fisheries have occurred since 1993, but for the most part, one of the world's premiere herring fisheries has been considered in collapse. Prior to the oil spill, herring populations were estimated at 100,000 tons.

Since the oil spill scientists have been studying the problems that are plaguing the fish. Some researchers now say it's time to begin replenishing the stocks.

"The stakeholders have voiced their concerns that we've spent a lot of money on research but haven't moved toward any practical applications to determine if and how to restore the herring to the Sound," said Howard Ferren, assistant research director at the Alaska Sea life Center at Seward.

The Center has set up the first stage of a PWS herring enhancement project, similar to Alaska's salmon hatchery program. The objective is to rear small herring to the point where they can be released into the water and successfully over winter. Herring, like salmon, imprint on the area where they are born and return to that location after a few years at sea. A similar herring enhancement program in Japan has restored some stocks to commercial fishing levels.

State managers say they will consider PWS herring stocks 'recovered' when the spawning population reaches 43,000 tons for six to eight years, and includes two strong age classes. Spawning must also occur in at least three regions.

Ferren said pending phase two funding by the Exxon Valdez Oil Spill Trustees Council, the Sea Life Center could put test net pens of herring into PWS by 2009.

Fish smarter

The annual Smart Gear contest awards cash prizes for new ideas that can make fishing gear more selective. Now in its third year, the competition attracted 70 entries from 22 different countries, down just slightly. Only one entry hails from Alaska, down from four last year, said Mike Osmond, project director for the World Wildlife Fund.

The WWF created the "contest" as a way to "inspire and reward" ideas to reduce bycatch - the accidental take of marine mammals, sea birds or small fish - by fishing gear.

"The entry must also maintain the target catch," Osmond said. "You don't want to have something that reduces bycatch but at the same affects the target species, otherwise there is very little chance of getting it adopted."

The grand prize winner will receive $30,000, and two runners up will each take home $10,000.

Last year's winner was a New Jersey inventor who placed strong magnets just above baited hooks on longlines and found that it repelled sharks while not reducing catches of tuna and swordfish. The 2007 Smart Gear winners will be announced at the Pacific Marine Expo in Seattle in mid-November.


Laine Welch has been covering news of Alaska's seafood industry since 1988. 2007 marks the 16th year that she has been writing this weekly fisheries column. It now appears in nearly 20 newspapers and web outlets.
Contact Laine at msfish[AT]

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Ketchikan, Alaska