Today’s Catch: Alaskan Appellation

By Chris Philips,
Managing Editor

Since before the fall of the Iron Curtain, the importation
of crab illegally caught by Russia has been a serious problem. Russian illegal,
unreported or unregulated (IUU) crab floods the US market, artificially
increasing the US king crab supply and lowering prices for legally harvested

According to the Alaska Bering
Sea Crabbers Association, official US foreign trade and Russian harvest data
suggest that one in three king crab sold in world markets in 2011 came from
illegal Russian harvests. According to data from the US National Marine
Fisheries Service (NMFS) and the Russian Federal Fisheries Agency, in 2011
alone Russia harvested 98.2 million pounds IUU crab, compared with its legal
harvest of 91 million lbs. and Alaska’s harvest of only 80 million lbs. In
March of that year, NOAA law enforcement seized more than 240,000 pounds of
illegal king crab at the Port of Seattle from a New York importer.
Not only does this IUU harvest
affect the price of crab, the unregulated nature of the product leaves it
vulnerable to quality control issues, which reflect back on the legally caught
and marketed Alaska product. A consumer who purchases this unregulated product
and is dissatisfied (or sickened) won’t know the product isn’t legal Alaska
king crab.
Margaret Bauman calls our
attention to another issue facing the Alaska seafood industry in describing
Walmart’s seafood sales. Margie points out that wild-caught Pacific salmon on
Walmart shelves, although certified by the London-based Marine Stewardship
Council (MSC), is labeled “product of China.” This salmon may or may not have
been harvested, processed and stored in a responsible manner, but it competes
with sustainably harvested Alaska product.
Perhaps Alaska should take a
page from France’s playbook.
French culture revolves around
good food and wine, and the French won’t stand for sub-par products, from fish,
meat and poultry to wine and cheese. For centuries, France has used and
enforced the appellation d’origine contrôlée (AOC), which translates as
“controlled designation of origin” and acts as federally enforced certification
that an agricultural product indeed originates from a particular region. As
early as 1411, Roquefort cheese was regulated by a parliamentary decree, and
over the centuries laws have been passed to confirm the origin of wines and
AOC products are held to a
rigorous set of clearly defined standards, and it’s illegal to manufacture and
sell a product under one of the AOC-controlled geographical indications if it
does not comply with the criteria of the AOC. AOC products can be identified by
a seal, which is printed on the label in wines, and with cheeses, on the rind.
To prevent any possible misrepresentation, no part of an AOC name may be used
on a label of a product not qualifying for that AOC.
Other countries have followed
suit, including Italy, Spain and Portugal, and in the US we have American
Viticultural Areas recognized by the Department of the Treasury’s Alcohol and
Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau.
While the White House and the
State Department might be comfortable with Vladimir Putin making our foreign
policy decisions, the US seafood industry is under no obligation to let Russia
and China take over our Alaskan seafood industry. Maybe it’s time for the State
of Alaska to make its own controlled designation of origin. The Alaska brand
should apply only to species harvested and processed by Alaska permitted and
approved producers. The state’s lawmakers could pass a simple law, and Alaska’s
Attorney General could enforce it. Any seafood not bearing the state-approved
seal couldn’t use the term “Alaskan.” While this might not stop the flow of IUU
seafood, it would offer consumers a trusted seal of quality backed by the
state, and give Alaska’s commercial harvesters their own certification.