By Micah Cheek
In the current seafood market, the desire for heart healthy proteins, risks of over fishing and concerns about preparation all seem at odds with one another. According to Dave Rudy, owner of Catalina Offshore Products, this complex environment presents an opportunity for retailers. “People are looking for a place where they can ask questions about their seafood and know where their seafood came from,” says Rudy. With the right information, the fishmonger can be a helpful guide to the stormy seas of an increasingly complex seafood counter.
The seafood species that represent 80 percent of seafood sales are referred to as The Big 5. Shrimp, tuna, salmon, whitefish and crab have historically been best sellers in the seafood case. According to Shawn Cronin, Business Program Manager at the Monterey Bay Aquarium Seafood Watch program, breaking away from the Big 5 represents a valuable opportunity for retailers. “It’s a trend across all food systems, people love local. It adds an exciting element to supporting the communities you’re surrounded by.” Cronin adds that west coast retailers have seen success with local sole, flounder and rockfish. These varieties belong to the larger category of rockfish, a fishery that has gained a great deal of attention in recent years. While rockfish were greatly overfished in the 1990s, the reduction of bycatch, or unintentional catching of the wrong species, and new technology have made groundfish an ecologically responsible option.
Bycatch reduction, efforts to reduce ocean acidification, and sustainability initiatives have been increasingly successful, and a more informed customer is more aware of these issues. Tommy Gomes, expert fishmonger at Catalina Offshore Products, has witnessed the change over time. “I’m 55 years old, I’m the first generation of the TV dinner. Our food is changing. Everyone’s excited about dock to plate, and farm to market. Now it’s very critical to educate people on how to use the whole fish and how to prepare it in a healthy way.” To get a wide variety of seafood to a consumer focused on sustainable and local eating, the key is communication with a distributor. According to Seafood Watch, 90 percent of American seafood is imported, and tracking the chain of custody of any given fish can be difficult. “The only way you’ll know is diving deep into your supply chain to find out. Having a strong traceability policy in your organization is important,” says Cronin. “If you’re doing that work and you’re proud of what you’re sourcing, communicate that. Let the customers know, let them make purchasing decisions based on that information.”
The role of the fishmonger is becoming more and more involved, as customers want to know more about their seafood. “Sometimes a piece of fish gets bent or broken, it happens. I’m going to take them and grind them and show people how to make meatballs,” adds Gomes. “If you can take fish that’s broken, run it through a grinder, sell it for 5.99 and educate people on how to cook it, people will do amazing stuff.”
Aquaculture, or fish farming, presents another opportunity for discussion with customers. “A lot of the things we do are educate, promote and have fun. A lot of people have questions about farmed fish; these are the questions consumers are now asking,” Gomes says.
Aquaculture has been something of a dirty word in the seafood sector for the last 20 years, after environmental groups found overly dense and unsanitary conditions in Chilean farm fisheries. Since then, the aquaculture industry has made great strides in quality and is now considered an important part of sustainable seafood consumption. Unfortunately, the stigma has been difficult to shake. “This is one of the most frustrating things for me, because I believe that aquaculture is the future,” says Jacqueline Claudia, Co-Founder and CEO of Love The Wild. Using current advances in technology, farmed seafood has been able to encourage consistently healthy growth, eliminate antibiotic use in favor of probiotics and vaccines, and using feed that is composed of as little as one percent fish meal. “There are even some guys out in San Francisco that are basically making tofu for fish. You can replace fish meal in aquaculture feed with this alternative protein and get a farmed fish with a very similar omega-3 content as a wild fish.”
While seafood is gaining more interest with consumers, the barrier of entry remains high. The chance of making a mistake with a delicate filet is a strong concern for potential customers. “Seafood, more than any other category, has the possibility of stinking up your house for three days. It’s pretty high-risk for someone who doesn’t know what they’re doing,” says Claudia. The recent increase in value-added seafood products is a response to these fears. Love The Wild offers prepackaged sets of two fillets paired with sauces. The meal for two is designed to be easily assembled, wrapped in paper, and baked. “Value-added seafood helps people get the training wheels to add seafood to their diet,” says Claudia. “They’re not looking for fish sticks anymore, they’re looking for clean-labeled fish that’s hard to screw up.”