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We need to take back the 90%. That was the rallying cry of sorts at the East Coast Seafood Forum held yesterday at the National Aquarium.

That 90% represents the amount of seafood consumed in the U.S. that has been imported from other countries. Brett Veerhusen, executive director of Seafood Harvesters of America, underscored the point that everyone in attendance knew: Importing that much seafood with the resources available domestically is unacceptable.

The focus of the forum and for many in the industry along U.S. coasts is how to change the dynamic.

It’s not an easy or quick task. Aside from the consistent themes of better stock data, management and collaboration between fishermen, scientists and policy makers, one over-arching message stood out: better marketing. We need to do more to sell the narrative of why choosing locally harvested seafood is the best option.

Fishermen, chefs, scientists and other attendees discussed common objectives such as accountability, traceability and stewardship, all geared toward taking care of the resource. But the important next step is to explain to consumers what all of that means and why it’s important.

Often, the story hinges on comparison. That is, if you buy domestically, there’s a good chance you’ll be able to find out relatively easily and credibly when, where, how and even by whom your seafood was harvested. This will be particularly true if/when traceability becomes more of a standard.

However, you may not have the same confidence in the quality or safety of seafood from Asia. So the idea is to essentially re-package the “Made in America” branding that ruled the ’80s and apply it to fisheries. To do that, we need to tell the narrative of the seafood in a way that resonates with those selling it and those buying it.

Rick Moonen, a celebrated chef with restaurants in New York and Las Vegas and a vocal advocate of ocean conservation and sustainability, echoed other chefs at the forum that part of that education and marketing plan should involve a broader vocabulary for describing seafood.

Just as sommeliers have adapted an entire dictionary of terms to describe wine, chefs and fish retailers should use more descriptive terms such as “rich,” “nutty,” “buttery,” etc. describing seafood. That kind of color, said Moonen, will pique consumer interest, just as it has with wine.

Other discussions focused on improving traceability programs such as tagging fish and shellfish to provide harvest info, which tells consumers where it was harvested and how fresh it is. Panelists also discussed the challenges of making different forms of aquaculture socially acceptable. While shellfish farming is gaining steam domestically because it has a low environmental impact, finfish systems are still in the early stages of winning over consumer confidence. Panelists pointed to successful re-circulating systems that have little environmental impact and operations that have eliminated the need for antibiotics and developed alternative feeds to reduce demand on forage fish.

Forums like this one serve a critical function in getting motivated stakeholders and evangelists together to create an action plan. At the Seafood Forum yesterday, Veerhusen and Moonen summed up the mission: tell the story of American seafood and American fishermen and make that relevant to the consumer.


photo credit: NOAA