« March 2009 Table of Contents
Going Green: Sustainability setback?
MSC sees no sign of slowdown, although some buyers are cutting corners
By Lisa Duchene
March 01, 2009
For years the seafood industry's biggest buyers have said
sustainability is simply smart business, not just some kind of
pipe dream. But for some seafood buyers, that creed is being
tested as the nascent mainstream sustainable-seafood trend
faces its first prolonged economic crisis.
Discussions are ongoing as to whether the belt-tightening
among consumers and suppliers is slowing the push to ensure the
seafood supply is environmentally responsible and
On one hand, there are new developments adding momentum to
the trend. For example, the Food Marketing Institute recently
announced a new policy encouraging member supermarket companies
to make sustainability a part of their seafood procurement
policies. FMI also pledged sustainable seafood educational
resources and training for grocers.
But others in the industry are seeing worrisome indicators
of buyers willing to sacrifice long-term seafood supply and
environmental responsibility to survive the short term.
Some Midwest retail and restaurant buyers are starting to
cut corners on freshness, integrity and green attributes, says
Bob Sullivan, CEO of Plitt Seafood, a high-end Chicago
"People who at one point would only want the 'clean product'
if you will, are saying 'I can't afford it, what else do you
By "clean," he means salmon farmed at lower densities than
conventional farmed salmon, raised by good husbandry practices
like rotating fallow grow-out areas and fed feed free of
feather-meal. The salmon Sullivan describes fetches a price 15
to 25 percent more than conventional farmed salmon.
In late January, Sullivan noticed some buyers looking for
ways to cut corners. One buyer who six months ago would never
dream of asking for an overfished species did so, says Sullivan
[although Plitt doesn't carry the product because of its
questionable sustainability profile].
"Everybody's playing all types of games, because they're
feeling the movement of the economy," he says. "They're buying
'survivor fish.' Their minds are so distracted and they're
thinking 'this is what I need to survive.'"
Other buyers are searching for products to help them weather
the storm without compromising their commitment to
sustainability. One supermarket buyer, who spoke on the
condition of anonymity, is prioritizing products that represent
value and carry some assurance of sustainability. That strategy
means purchasing and promoting products like Marine Stewardship
Council-certified Alaska pollock and New Zealand hoki.
(Wholesale pollock prices have been below $2 per pound and may
rise given an 18.5 percent cut in the 2009 quota; managers
forecast a harvest surge for the fishery in 2010.)
The availability of seafood products carrying sustainability
credentials at a variety of price points has helped, says the
buyer, who is also promoting barramundi farmed in a closed,
re-circulating system and considered a best choice by Monterey
Bay Aquarium's Seafood Watch list. Choosing sustainable product
still makes good business sense because those items will be
viable in the long-term, says the buyer.
Sustainable management tends to lower operating costs and
increase the fishery's productivity, says Brad Ack, the Marine
Stewardship Council's Americas director. "A lot of the more
sustainable fisheries in the world are probably
better-positioned to weather an economic downturn like this,"
On the demand side of the market, no retail or foodservice
buyers have said they are backing off of their
sustainable-seafood commitments, says Ack.
"Maybe it's just that these things haven't trickled down
yet, but we haven't seen any change in commitments from our
buyers," he says.
By every indicator and statistic, says Ack, the MSC's growth
rate has only increased:
• Thirty-eight fisheries are now certified sustainable
against the MSC standards; 86 are under assessment and there
are between 20 and 30 in the initial, pre-assessment stage.
Earlier this year, the Barents Sea cod and haddock
fisheries/Ocean Trawlers Group, the Mexican Caribbean spiny
lobster fishery, the Maine lobster trap fishery/The Fund for
Sustainable Maine Lobster and the Atlantic Deep-Sea Red Crab
Fishery have all entered full assessment to certify their
fisheries against the MSC standard.
• The combined volume of fisheries certified or in the
pipeline, says MSC, represents 5 million tons of seafood, 42
percent of the world's wild salmon catch, 40 percent of its
prime whitefish catch and 18 percent of the global lobster
• In January, the MSC announced product No. 2,000 - packaged
Patagonian scallops - hit supermarket shelves at Carrefour
stores across France. The organization noted how its growth
rate has picked up: Seven years passed between the first and
500th eco-labeled products, adding another 500 products took
nine months and in the past year the number of eco-labeled
products has doubled.
• The number of companies that have obtained
chain-of-custody certification to sell MSC-certified seafood
doubled in the last year, says Ack. U.S. Foodservice, the
second-largest broadline foodservice distributor in the United
States, was certified in late 2008 and is now promoting
eco-labeled products in its Harbor Banks line through 17 of its
divisions to about 250,000 outlets.
FishWise, a nonprofit sustainable-seafood consulting group
in Santa Cruz, Calif., also sees no change in commitments from
the 18 retailers, primarily independents, that it works with.
Fishwise was hired to improve the environmental profile of the
retailers' seafood purchasing and market that commitment to
customers. Not one of the retailers has balked or revisited
their contracts, says Tobias Aguirre, executive director of
"They've been invested in sustainable seafood and working
with FishWise and now across the board see it as one of the
core values of their company," says Aguirre.
Customers respond favorably as soon as the program is in
place. Within a year, each retailer's sales have increased an
average of 11 percent, he says.
"As soon as customers start to see the store's commitment to
sustainability and have the information to make an informed
choice, they start to move toward the more sustainable options
and we find they buy more seafood, overall," says Aguirre.
In the short term, the very best buys are products
representing a commitment to sustainability - and value.
Contributing Editor Lisa Duchene lives in Bellefonte,