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One Man's Opinion: Let fish farmers tell their sustainability story

Property of SeaFood Business magazine
By Peter Redmayne
December 01, 2007

Aqua Finca is a model of sustainable aquaculture, says tilapia farmer Israel Snir of his latest venture. He's had his share of struggles over the past 30 years, but Snir's large-scale cage farm in Honduras has been pretty successful. Production is targeted at 30,000 metric tons a year.

The vertically integrated farm turns the waste from its processing plant into biodiesel for its vehicles and boats. The company increasingly ships fresh fillets to the United States by boat, instead of air, to reduce its carbon footprint. Aqua Finca has also spent millions of dollars providing local residents with cages and teaching them how to farm tilapia. In addition, Snir says he works with the local campesinos to improve their education and healthcare programs. He even works with the local community to discourage their destructive tree-cutting practices.

So it was something of a surprise when I ran into a rather sullen Snir at the recent China Fisheries & Seafood Expo in Dalian last month. The competition from cheap Chinese tilapia was driving him crazy.

"Tilapia is becoming a whore's business," Snir says. In order to drive prices down, importers are telling Chinese packers to soak their fish to the point where it picks up 15 to 20 percent water. And they're specing fillets that are 80 or 90 percent net weight, he says. "How can you put up a decent product on a sustainable basis and compete with that?" Snir asks.

Making matters worse, he says, is the fact that more retailers are slacking out Chinese tilapia fillets and selling them in their fresh case. That's driving the price of fresh fillets down to the point where fresh margins have become razor thin.

"It's getting harder and harder to sell a premium product in America," says Snir. At the same time prices are being squeezed, the cost to produce fish has gone up. Feed prices, for example, are up 40 percent. Snir figures if you can't beat them, join them. That's why he was in China, looking for freezers at the show. If the retailers are going to buy frozen and sell it as fresh, he might as well start selling frozen fillets, too. He won't soak his fillets, so he knows he won't be as cheap as the Chinese. He hopes he can find buyers who will pay more for a better product that is produced sustainably, but he knows it won't be easy.

"There's so much hypocrisy. I go to these meetings where buyers say they care about the environment and they want to buy products that are produced sustainably, but then it comes down to price. I might be naïve, but what matters a nickel or a dime to pay for programs to help the local community?"

The challenge facing Snir - and a growing number of other farmers who are growing seafood sustainably - is getting the message to consumers. It's been shown time and time again that consumers will pay a premium for the combination of a good story and a high quality product. Hopefully, more buyers will wake up and reward responsible producers like Snir by giving them a chance to tell their story.


Contributing Editor Peter Redmayne lives in Seattle


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