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Most American consumers don’t know where their seafood comes from. In fact, a recent report from the Food Marketing Institute suggests that less than 30% of domestic consumers consider themselves knowledgeable about the seafood they eat.

 So why is that? And what can we do about it? What is the consumer’s role in the supply chain? It would be a fair assumption that the remaining 70% of those surveyed by FMI take a passive role. That is, they either rely on third-party information like eco-labels or they just don’t care. They surrender responsibility of the decision to someone else.

 No wonder our markets are so jammed with cheap, unhealthy imports.

 This topic was the crux of the fifth installment in the SlowFish webinar series, Slow Fish 201: Role of the Consumer, held on Sept. 23. To follow is a blog written by One Fish Foundation Intern Jennifer Halstead. In it, she captures some of the most salient points about how fishermen, fishmongers and others in the supply chain can help engage consumers in conversations about why they should care where, when, how and even by whom their seafood was harvested.

 

by Jennifer Halstead

Throughout the Slow Fish 201 Webinar series, expert panelists from different backgrounds, geographies and perspectives shared thoughts on how each link in the supply chain can help ensure the availability of responsibly harvested seafood. During the most recent webinar, Role of the Consumer, each panelist was thought-provoking, sharing their stories on how to engage consumers in the supply chain. Attendees left the discussion with a clear understanding of how consumers can become better informed (ASK QUESTIONS!!!) and assume a more active role in the supply chain.

On the panel were:

Patty Lovera, Food and Water Program Director, Food & Water Watch

Chef Evan Mallett, Chef, Co-owner, Black Trumpet

Capt. Tim Rider, New England Fishmongers

Charlie Lambert, Fisherman, Co-founder, Ocean2Table

Kirk Hardcastle, Premium Sales Accounts, Seafood Producers Cooperative

Colles Stowell, President, One Fish Foundation

Jessica Hathaway, Editor and Chief, National Fisherman, served as moderator

Each of them views the supply chain from a different perspective. But all of them agree that change within the supply chain is not only possible, but that it in many ways depends on consumers making smarter choices.

Fraud, mislabeling and a lack of transparency continue to cast a shadow over seafood sales in the U.S. It’s easy to see how consumers can feel helpless when it comes to fixing such issues. There are so many eco-labels providing conflicting guidelines and grocery store displays touting green-label “fresh, sustainably raised farmed salmon from Chile.”

As discussed during the webinar, well-informed seafood eaters have the power to pressure suppliers into knowing more about the products they are selling and to source from community-based fishermen who care about the resource.

Where to start

Panelists agreed that consumers should be asking restaurants and grocers a couple of questions just to get a part of the story of the seafood. It doesn’t have to be complicated or intimidating. You learn much just asking where, when and how it was harvested or grown. Even better if you can find out who harvested it. Is it local? Regional? Domestic? The U.S. has some of the best seafood safety and fisheries management policies in the world. If you can’t get domestic seafood, you’re better off choosing something else. Imported products carry a high risk of having been unsustainably farm raised or harvested.

“There is a lot of burden on the consumer,” said Patty Lovera. “We have to ask a lot of questions. The status quo in the supply chain isn’t good enough.” She and Colles Stowell both mentioned the influence consumers can have over retail seafood sourcing. If suppliers don’t know the answer to these questions, they will either feel compelled to learn, or responsible consumers will feel compelled to spend their money elsewhere.

What’s in season?

Chef Evan Mallett, Capt. Tim Rider and Charlie Lambert spoke about the importance of consumers better understanding seasonality. Just like when you go to the grocery store or market for vegetables and find different items available throughout the year, fish have their own seasonality. In New England, the height of the scallop season is in winter, while squid are generally available for a few weeks in the spring. Understanding what should be available during different times of the year will help consumers filter out which purveyors are supplying fresh, local fish and which are importing or using frozen, stored fish. “Being a chef is understanding sense of place, seasonal food, and the changes that the seasons bring,” said Mallet. That should also be true for consumers.

Eating seasonally enables consumers to enjoy fresh product throughout the year, experience cooking and preparing new species, support local fishermen, and promote healthy ecosystems by reducing fishing pressure on more popular species.

Location, location, location

Some tools, such as the Local Catch nation-wide Seafood Finder, can help seafood eaters find local, responsibly harvested fish, shellfish and seaweed. In a map or list view, you can search for purveyors by location and species.

All agreed that consumer education is critical. Once consumers have enough information, they’ll feel empowered to own those decisions and will likely make smarter decisions again in the future. “Instead of telling people what to buy, which is what eco-labels do, we need to educate and equip them with tools to make the decision on their own,” said Colles. Charlie added, “We’re providing them with information and letting them complete the thought process on their own, … and not force-feeding the consumer.”

Buying local benefits the consumer, economies, and even the ecosystem. Fewer food miles, fresher products, strengthening local economies by building relationships with fishermen, and supporting healthy ecosystems are all advantages that consumers can feel good about.

Charlie acknowledged that carbon footprint is a growing concern for his customers. The average distance seafood travels from boat to plate in the U.S. is an astounding 5,000 miles. “The supply chain was largely hidden, and when it was exposed, it was very nasty. The West Coast is famous for market squid and calamari, but the supply chain is tumultuous. [The squid] is landed, frozen, shipped overseas, thawed, processed, refrozen, shipped back, thawed, then distributed to local businesses and consumers. The amount of food miles is not right,”he  said.

Quality is everything

Distance traveled can also (but not always) affect freshness. A fresher product tastes better and has a better shelf life. Rider said both his restaurant and retail customers note the long shelf life of his product because his crew properly bleeds and brines the fish on board the vessel at the time of catch, ensuring the fish is as fresh as possible for as long as possible. “Shelf life is huge. If something comes up and you can’t cook it when planned, it’s still good four days later.”

Chef Evan agreed: “ It was really with the first fish I got from Tim that I saw a marked difference between everything that I was getting from the Gulf of Maine before that.”

Product quality is integral to attracting and keeping customers. Kirk Hardcastle drove this point home, drawing on his decades of experience as fisherman, chef, distributor and now marketer with Seafood Producers Cooperative. “It starts with the fishermen, not the eco-labels, … making sure the quality of the product really comes through. … If it gets to someone’s house and the fish is poorly handled… You can put millions into messaging and you’ve burned it all away with the first bite of fish. Go for quality first and everything after that is easy,” he said.

Know your fisherman!

Charlie and Capt. Tim both sell directly to consumers: Charlie providing product from the network of fish harvesters he sources from in Monterey Bay up to San Francisco to his community supported fishery (CSF) customers, and Capt. Tim from the two boats he and his crew operate out of Maine and Mass. via drop-off points and farmer’s markets. When fishermen come off their boats into the community to sell their fish and meet customers, they’re building relationships that help support a stronger local economy.

These relationships build trust and help harvesters and consumers alike have open discussions about the industry, fishing methods, problems and challenges that fishermen have.

In the end, failure to know the story of seafood surrenders consumer decisions to other elements in the supply chain, which is often driven by industrial players with only profit in mind. Complacency in the supply chain will only ensure that consumers receive sub-par products, and the supply chain grows more opaque, rather than transparent. Lack of communication and interest can lead to what started this conversation last year, intentional mislabeling to turn a buck.

Smarter, responsible consumers and the relationships they forge with fishermen and fishmongers will help shift supply chains away from industrial-driven structures and toward a supply chain rooted in trust and knowledge.

In short, the role of the consumer is to ask questions and make responsible decisions. However, fishermen, chefs, retailers, distributors, educators, advocates and others in and around the supply chain should help consumers get smarter. That means telling the story of the seafood they’re selling.

Not sure where to start? Seafood eaters should ask the questions mentioned above. Check out the 7 C’s of Sustainable Seafood. If you can, buy local. If you can’t buy local, buy US caught and processed.

Fishermen, chefs and retailers should get to know their customers and tell them more about the seafood they’re selling them.

A supply chain built on trust is the best path forward.

 

Resources

7 C’s of Sustainable Seafood

Local Catch Core Values: Another reference point for how to think about the seafood supply chain.

Slow Fish Values: More values regarding seafood’s journey from boat to plate.

Eating with the Ecosystem, The 5 Anchors: A New England-focused view of values to consider when choosing seafood.

To view a recording of the webinar, follow this link.

 

Top photo: Boat to consumer…literally.  Opening day for the Tuna Harbor Dockside Market in San Diego. Credit: Eric Buchanan