By Mike McKenzie
Randy Hartnell, President of Vital Choice Wild Seafood and Organics in Ferndale, and his brother, Terry, were fishing for herring off the shores of San Francisco in the late ‘90s when their boat broke down. “We were out near Alcatraz,” Randy said. “And the engine blew.”
While repairing it, they had the radio blasting. A doctor was talking on National Public Radio about the very best source of Omega-3—wild-caught Alaska salmon. “Dr. Nicholas Perricone (an expert in anti-aging skin care) was discussing his book, The Wrinkle Cure, and how eating that salmon would prevent wrinkles,” Randy explained. That became an “Aha! moment.” He’d fished the Alaskan waters for some 20 years and knew the value of sustainably harvested salmon—not to mention its taste—compared with farm-raised salmon that had become all the rage because of convenience and cost.
Inspired by the Perricone broadcast, Hartnell and his wife of 33 years, Carla, co-founded Vital Choice, in 2001. After many successful years of online, retail delivery of sustainable, flash-frozen Alaska and other Pacific Northwest salmon (plus other wild-caught fish), Vital Choice ranks in the upper half of Business Pulse’s annual Top 100 privately owned companies in Whatcom County, and it was the Small Business of the Year in 2012. “I’d like to think we’ve prevented a lot of wrinkled skin,” Hartnell said with a laugh.
The company also carefully chooses beaucoup other certified organic edibles to offer through its award-winning catalog and web store. In addition to a rigid selection process, Vital Choice also considers the most minute details in its meticulous “green” approach to doing business, such as using specific types of recyclable containers for packaging, and shipping via truck, rather than air, to minimize the carbon footprint. An example of attention to detail: A post on their website notes that “tiny pellets from degraded EPS (Styrofoam) can harm birds and marine life, so we’re eliminating those boxes entirely….”
Purity—i.e., absence of mercury and pollutants—is a frequent topic in Vital Choice’s marketing message. The company trademarked Vital Green™ as its Environmental Stewardship program, proclaiming how it fights global warming, how it employs SeaSaver™ boxes, and how it enables CubeCycle™ of foam shipping cubes.
Vital Choice supports the Ethiopia Clean Water Project, funding the installation of certain water filters. “From the very beginning, Carla and I were committed to this ‘green’ approach to our business,” Hartnell said. “We became one of the first to join the Marine Stewardship Council (MSC). We had the very first federally certified product to carry the MSC logo back when it had no marketing power, because nobody knew what it was yet. Now they’re the gold standard among 30 or 40 certification programs.”
Hartnell said he knew full well that fishermen wanted to continue to have an abundance of fish in the ocean, and that that would require responsible management. “As we’ve gained momentum, hundreds of fisheries have been certified. It’s become an important factor, and here’s a good-news story in consumer-based sustainability: Did you know that McDonald’s, for example, buys MSC-certified Alaskan Pollock for its fish sandwiches?”
The same standards hold for Vital Choice’s selections of halibut, tuna, cod, and Omega-3 products, like krill oil. “Our management staff got this all rolling from the beginning,” Hartnell said. “To go forward with credibility, we held to strong standards, which required a long paper trail. But we had a big-picture perspective for the preservation of sustainable fishing, and we believe in it. It’s just who we are.”
From the very outset of their company 17 years ago, Randy and Carla Hartnell decided to “go forward with credibility and strong sustainability standards within the industry, even though it increases costs and is a lot more work.”
He was very familiar with those acceptable standards and best practices, having come out of the Alaska seafood industry. “The management system up there has been a model for the world over the last 50 years,” Hartnell said.
He continued, “I spent 20 years in that management regime, and now you compare it to areas where habitat hasn’t been maintained and it’s sad.”
Hartnell broke it down into the simplest common denominator: “Self-preservation….if you want to provide, then you have to take care of the resource. You have to preserve the habitat, and have strong, science-based fishery management.”
He cited the Pebble Mine project in Bristol Bay Alaska as a huge looming and continuing threat these days—a story all unto itself, which Vital Choice has followed closely since 2005. “The Environmental Protection Agency under the Obama administration effectively stopped the the pebble mining threat,” Hartnell said. “Now, under Scott Pruitt as the director, the EPA has resurrected the project and its potentially catastrophic effects on the region’s priceless wild salmon runs. We have put a fund-raising program on our website for those who wish to help support this fight.” https://gifts.tu.org/donate/bristolbay
Vital Choice has been a longtime partner with Monterey Bay Aquarium, which publishes a “Seafood Watch Guide” that includes a scorecard for monitoring the best and worst environmental choices in seafood. “We’ve distributed hundreds of thousands of these guides over the years.
Green means “Best,” or the most sustainable fish for consuming; Red means “Avoid.” or the least sustainable, and Yellow means “Good Alternative.” You can find the Seafood Watch guide and app online at Seafoodwatch.org.