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Can Patagonia’s New Food Line Revolutionize the Salmon Industry?

The wilderness apparel company diversifies from garb to grub.

Last summer, the outerwear giant Patagonia made an unusual purchase: 80,000 pounds of wild Sockeye salmon. The fish was for its new food line, Patagonia Provisions, available online and in the company’s 30 U.S. retail stores in the form of a 6-ounce, $12 package of vacuum-packed, shelf-stable smoked salmon. If the product is successful, it could become one of the most verifiably ethical and sustainable salmon options on the market, much in the way Patagonia aimed to change the garment industry nearly two decades ago by switching to organic cotton.

Patagonia entered the food market in fall of 2013 with the wild salmon, as well as a fruit and nut bar, and a dried barley-based soup mix called Tsampa, which is made with organic vegetables. In the coming months, the company plans to roll out an entire line of ethically sourced food products, including prairie-based American Bison jerky, perennial Kernza wheat from The Land Institute, and more.giftbox_salmon

Why is Patagonia, a global clothing manufacturer and retailer, selling food?

Founder Yvon Chouinard has been chewing on the idea of backpacking food with a purpose for as long as he can remember. And in the case of Patagonia’s salmon, he has big plans. “When we set out to do salmon, we set out to change the salmon industry,” he says.

As most wild Pacific salmon numbers have been trending downward for over a century, Alaska remains one of the only parts of the world with relatively healthy stocks. But that doesn’t mean all salmon caught there is the same. In an effort to sell truly sustainably caught fish, Patagonia put together an advisory board of naturalists, fishermen, and other experts. Its new product is a result of that effort.

As several recent studies have shown, today’s seafood industry is riddled with fraud. Dune Lankard, a native Athabaskan Eyak who founded the Eyak Preservation Council to preserve wild salmon in Alaska’s Copper River, sits on Patagonia Provisions’ salmon advisory board. In Lankard’s home region alone, he says, grocery stores sell 80 percent more salmon labeled “Copper River Sockeye,” than the amount actually harvested from the river.

Copper River Salmon receives the highest price of gill net caught sockeye in Alaska, and competing brokers, processors, and markets want to cash in on that price, even if it means misleading their customers.

IMG_6625Enter Patagonia’s new venture, which aims to provide greater transparency in its product sourcing. Kurt Beardsley, Executive Director of the Wild Fish Conservancy, and another advisory board member, has spent years researching many of the “safe seafood” certifications on the market, and sees them as insufficient for saving wild salmon stocks.

In his 2013 Wild Fish Journal article, Green Certification is Big Business, Beardsley describes how the accelerating market demand for certified “sustainable seafood” has caused some standards to drop.

According to Beardsley, roughly 97 percent of the fish “certified sustainable” by the Monterey Bay Aquarium and Marine Stewardship councils and sold at a premium price as “Wild Alaskan Chinook,” is not actually from Alaska, but originate in British Columbia, Washington, and Oregon–the very places where many of these stocks are struggling to survive.

Fish caught in open ocean waters make it impossible to pinpoint their origin, yet most is sold as Alaskan salmon. So despite the existence of charitable conservation programs in salmon habitats along the West Coast, many consumers are undercutting these efforts by inadvertently purchasing the very salmon required to re-populate struggling stocks. (Patagonia itself has granted more than $4.2 million towards salmon habitat conservation efforts since 1985.)

With this complex landscape in mind, Patagonia Provisions is sourcing its salmon from Yakutat, Alaska. There, fishermen catch salmon in the river itself–as opposed to the open ocean, where many different types of salmon can co-mingle. They also use a type of set net, which is said to reduce by-catch. The company has set out to educate consumers about these fishing practices with a video on its website.

Birgit Cameron, Patagonia Provisions’ director, says that millions of pounds of salmon “waste” (or “scrape”) is tossed back into Bristol Bay, Alaska after each annual harvest. Yet Lankard explains that this industrialized, wasteful model runs counter to the indigenous ethos of resourceful utilization of all parts of the fish. Not only does indigenous cuisine use scrape in the form of pâtés or fish pies, but he adds, “there are so many different products you can make from fish ‘waste’–from biodiesels, to fish meal, to Omega-3 capsules, to fish fertilizer.”

Patagonia intends to support other businesses that IMG_8253 copyare developing products from these under-utilized parts of the fish. Cameron explains that Patagonia Provisions is “not about scaling up fish production for the sake of volume,” but rather, “we want to be looking at using the whole fish as a source for more products.”

Earlier this year, Chouinard and Cameron met with Brian Cladoosby, President of the National Congress of American Indians, and the Swinomish tribal leader in Washington’s Skagit River watershed. Through Patagonia’s $20 million and change fund, an internal fund set up in 2013 to assist like-minded companies, Patagonia invested in scrape processing equipment at the Swinomish Fish Company in Washington. This investment will create a wider product line for the plant to sell (and not just to Patagonia Provisions), creating more consistent work for the Swinomish and other tribal fishermen.

Whether all this work will truly hook Patagonia an audience for the salmon is yet to be seen. For Chouinard, an avid fly-fisherman and naturalist at heart, the goal is to “collaborate with local and tribal communities for whom the fish is fundamental to subsistence, culture, and the local economy.” In this way, he hopes to bring back “the sustainable harvesting methods that have been practiced for centuries.” And that seems well worth the effort.

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12 thoughts on “Can Patagonia’s New Food Line Revolutionize the Salmon Industry?

  1. I understand that this is going to set an industry standard, and it does have to start with a grand and maybe global gesture like this, but I also do want to see an official statement from Patagonia about the increased food miles that comes from everyone getting their salmon from Yakutat.

  2. A visionary initiative, healthy for the community, the ecosystem including the fish, and human health. Love it!

  3. So the best backpacking food is a food source that bears flock to in great numbers to sustain themselves before a long winter?

    Good luck w that!

  4. While this is a feel good article the reality is that the gill nets that are used to capture the red salmon also kill king salmon. The king salmon population in Yakutat is on the verge of becoming a stock of concern. Which means that after 3 years of not meeting the escapement goal (the amount that ensures a future return) they are labeled as such until the stocks rebound. 2 of the last 3 years the kings have not met the bare minimum escapement. But yet they continue to gill net for reds and are contributing to the demise of the kings. Doesn’t sound like a very sustainable way to do business. Shame on Patagonia for exploiting this fishery. But I guess sacrificing the kings to make a buck is good business.

  5. Would these products be suitable for Emergency Supplies? In Japan it is encouraged to keep a packed bag which should include long life food which can be consumed easily in the event of a natural disaster/earthquake.

  6. It’s a noble effort to eliminate fraud in seafood marketing, such as labeling a product “Copper River Salmon” when it did not come from Cordova, I don’t see anything wrong with labeling salmon as “Wild Alaska Salmon”, even if the fish “originated” in WA or BC. The goal there was always to differentiate between wild and farmed salmon. The priority should be that it was caught in the wild. Farmed salmon is an unsustainable product. It is misleading in the article to suggest that overfishing is the reason for the drop in stocks on the west coast, instead of overdevelopment and degradation of the environment. The fishing industry hasn’t depleted the salmon runs on the Fraser, Duwamish and Columbia rivers. This feels like green wash to me.

  7. Great comments from everyone. This is the type of conversation we should all be having about our food choices.

    Zack raised an important issue. Our decision to source salmon from Yakutat came down to the responsibility of the fishery itself (abundant runs, in-river fishery, minimal by-catch). The option to ship our salmon by one of the smallest carbon-footprint surface methods available–tug and barge–helped us decide in favor of Yakutat.

    Rather than harvest from a single, permanent location, it’s always been our intent to evaluate our salmon sourcing each year, and respond to changing environmental conditions when necessary. Working in active partnership with fish conservation organizations (Wild Fish Conservancy, Native Fish Society, and others), we benefit from access to the most up-to-date science and conservation research available.

    Our best chance to effect change is through a combination of grassroots conservation efforts and influencing consumer demand. If consumers learn about salmon, and only choose wild salmon that is harvested from sustainable runs, then market forces will drive conservation.

    Regarding Dave’s comment: If you’re in bear country, you should certainly be careful with our salmon and with all foods, and also the food packaging.

    Paul, yours is a valid concern and one we share. By-catch of unintended species is an issue with a majority of commercial fisheries. Although it is true that the Situk Chinook (King) numbers are low now, they are not at a level of stock concern. The Situk, like many rivers, fluctuates in stock abundance. Records going back to the 1930s show a five-year cycle of abundance.

    As background, the Situk River has had a biologically based escapement goal for Chinook in place for more than 20 years. (The goal is expressed as a range between 450 and 1000 “large” – ocean age 3 and older – Chinook and based on escapement and run-size data that appears to be of very high quality.) There has clearly been a downturn in Chinook returns to the Situk– along with many other rivers in southeast Alaska– in the past several years. The escapement goal for Chinook for the Situk was not met in 2008, and 2010 – 2012. The lower end of the goal was met in 2013, and in 2014 it appears to have been close to the upper end of the goal.
    During periods of regionally low abundance, Alaska Department of Fish & Game (ADF&C) treats Chinook as a ‘stock of concern’, even though they are not officially at that level. To help protect the Chinook during these times, managers have expanded the closed fishing area by four times its normal size. ADF&G has a Chinook management plan in place, as well as a harvest management plan for the set gillnet Sockeye fishery in the estuary/bay near the mouth of the Situk. In the past few years, sports and subsistence fishing in the Situk River have been closed during the period when Chinook are returning, and commercial fishing for Chinook has either been closed or restricted. The set gillnet Sockeye fishery has been restricted to a total of two-and-one-half days per week (from 6 AM Sunday to 6PM Tuesday), and ADF&G keeps this fishery restricted to no more than two-and-one-half days per week even when Sockeye returns are high resulting in escapement of Sockeye above the management goal.

    The bottom line is we believe, based on the data, that the Sockeye set gillnet commercial fishery in Yakutat Bay is well managed, sustainable, and striking a reasonable balance between providing for the Sockeye fishery and protecting the Situk Chinook stock.
    That said, we will continue to monitor our sourcing and determine each year whether our existing sourcing continues to meet our criteria.

    Lisa asked if our products are suitable for emergency supplies and the answer is YES! They would be very good and delicious option as back up emergency supplies. The salmon packages have a shelf life of five years.

    Regarding Dino’s question: Our main concern with the labeling issue is one of salmon conservation. By catching salmon in the open water (out of river) where the fish from different rivers intermingle, it is very hard to know which salmon population is being harvested, and it is therefore very hard to manage our impacts on them. Ideally, salmon from endangered runs would be allowed to return to their origin rivers to spawn and rebuild their numbers. This is why Patagonia Provisions supports in-river fishing in the Yakutat region.

    As for the issue with suggesting overfishing as the sole cause of the salmon depletion: We completely agree. The decline in salmon stocks is attributable to habitat degradation–including dams, resource extraction and development–as well as hatcheries, pollution and yes, in some cases, harvest. It’s very complex and many factors affect the various fisheries in different ways. We do not mean to suggest that only one factor is the problem. We need to keep our collective eye on all factors.

    You may be interested in viewing DamNation. It’s a provocative (and award winning) documentary film Patagonia released in 2014. DamNation investigates the number of dams no longer serving any purpose in our country, which adversely affect the rivers and particularly the salmon runs.

    http://damnationfilm.com/

  8. Why are they battling small scale, hook and line caught Alaskan salmon fisherman? Bring back the sustainable ways of harvest? Alaska already leads the world in sustainable fisheries management. They aren’t reinventing the salmon fishing industry in any way, we already use our scrapings for salmon burger and fish oil. I expected more from patagonia.

  9. I was going to comment on this quote form the article in my last post.

    “There, (Yakutat) fishermen catch salmon in the river itself–as opposed to the open ocean, where many different types of salmon can co-mingle. They also use a type of set net, which is said to reduce by-catch. The company has set out to educate consumers about these fishing practices with a video on its website.”

    Just so the general public is not misled, rivers like the Situk have runs of all 5 species of pacific salmon. The runs do overlap and there is co-mingling. You may have heard of the grand slam when salmon fishing. That is where a person catches all 5 species in a week’s trip. So to assume that only red salmon are caught is very erroneous. As I alluded to in my

  10. last post about the King salmon.

    Especially, when using set nets which are gill nets. They indiscriminately catch whatever swims into them and usually kills them. Gill nets are designed to drown the fish. Hence the name. To say they reduce by-catch is just lying. Gill nets are a major factor catching untargeted species. Or bycatch. Google it. A lot of this bycatch goes to waste.

    The Situk is home to one of the last great steelhead runs in the state. Make no mistake, these gillnets kill them as well. You will not find any stats on this, as the netters do not report steelhead catches. It is a dirty little secret that no one wants to admit. Killing off runs of native steelhead would shut down fisheries. They have been sacrificed on too many

  11. rivers already.

    I am having a hard time looking at Patagonia the same after this. And will certainly be spreading the word how Patagonia is deliberately misleading the public to make money or someone has pulled the wool over their eyes.

    Revolutionize the salmon industry? You have got to be joking….