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Going Green: Sustainability setback?

MSC sees no sign of slowdown, although some buyers are cutting corners

Buyers are considering sustainable fisheries with
    value, like Alaska pollock. - Photo courtesy Genuine Alaska Pollock
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 sustainable.

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 distributor.

"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 have?'" 
says Sullivan.

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," says Ack.

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 catch.

• 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 FishWise.

"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, Pa.


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