Held in Vancouver, British Columbia (BC), Canada at the beginning of February, the ninth annual Seafood Summit was a study in contrasts. With huge global food corporations like conference principal-sponsor Highliner Foods and NGOs like the Marine Stewardship Council (MSC) at one end, and community fishing groups who sell directly to consumers at the other extreme.
The NGOs testified to some remarkable success in partnering with various buyers, importers and retailers to assure consumers that the seafood they are purchasing is coming from sustainable sources. In the opening plenary session Jim Cannon of the NGO Sustainable Fisheries Partnership (SFP) maintained that there is an ongoing need is to implement supply chain programmes involving fishermen, government, processors and brokers as MSC has been doing. Cannon maintained that only about one third of the world supply can be engaged in this way.
In reference to the Holy Grail of the mass sustainability movement, he said that Wal-Mart asked why only rich people should be able to afford sustainable seafood. It is the “leverage” from buyers like Wal-Mart that empowers NGOs to extend their certification programmes to producers. In a discussion following Cannon’s talk, High Liner Food’s President Henry Demone explained that if Wal-Mart were a nation it would rank as the eleventh largest economy. It was also maintained that to ensure sustainability along a supply chain, it is easier to deal with the big corporations than small independent fishing companies or buyers.
On the second day of the three-day conference, there was a session on “The Role of Producers, Businesses, Governments and Others in Creating Clear Choices for Sustainable Seafood.” With presenters from the NGO community such as the Monterey Bay Aquarium and Blendle Scott of the British Columbia grocery chain Overwaitea, much of the talk was around marketing and branding. Numerous groups have done consumer surveys on their perception of sustainability and their recognition of labels like the MSC blue fish. Blendle Scott explained that research shows that on average grocery shoppers spend only 17 minutes selecting their food. There are around 30,000 items in a supermarket including hundreds of protein choices. Consumers tend to de-select more than select, they are in a hurry so they just want something that they can trust. To his end Overwaitea makes available the Sea Choice cards developed by the David Suzuki Foundation and other Canadian conservation organizations. This pocket card lists fish in Green, Yellow and Red categories.
Steveston: Local selling his catch from his trawler while his shrimper is moored outside
In the same session MSC’s regional director for Europe, Nicolas Guichoux, reported on a survey that his organisation had undertaken on brand recognition. When shown the blue fish logo one in five German consumers recognised it while in Canada and the USA only 15 percent and 13 percent respectively could tell the surveyors what it represented. Also in that survey they found that the drivers that prompted consumers to buy product with the MSC logo were “doing the right thing” and to “make a difference” but there is a disconnect between that motivation and what consumers desire for freshness, price and quality.
Over 30 workshops dealt with a wide range of topics from farmed tilapia and salmon to the growing Chinese seafood market. Control of IUU fisheries was the subject of a supply chain workshop with two participants from SFP and Guro Meldre Pedersen global seafood coordinator for Det Norske Veritas Certification. A panel on industry’s role in conserving blue fin tuna included Paul Greenberg, author of Four Fish: The Future of the Last Wild Food as well as Toshio Katsukawa of Mia University.
Forage fish panel
A number of panels touched on issues around forage fish and the use of fishmeal in animal feeds or as feed for larger fish. A panel titled Food, Fodder or Forage dealt directly with the subject of the 37 percent of the world’s catch that is comprised of small pelagic fish. A half-dozen experts spoke to a wide range of fisheries. From British Columbia, Dr. Don Pepper, a fisheries economist and former commercial fisherman explained the remarkable story of Pacific sardines. Extending up along the Pacific Coast as to northern British Columbia from their base in California, they all but disappeared in the late 1940s. They had been fished heavily for oil and food and their decline was attributed to over fishing. More recently test drilling for oil off Monterey revealed layers of sardine scales in the drill cores to show that the big sardine populations are cyclical. They will go up and down with or without fishing pressure. Currently on the rebound they are now an important fishery in BC and the western US.
Much of the talk at the forage fish panel spoke to the challenges of reducing the use of these small pelagics in fish and animal feed. It was left to Dr. Patricia Majluf, Director of the Centre for Sustainability at the Cayetano Heredia University in Lima, Peru to explain an alternative. As a biologist Dr. Majluf has studied all aspects of anchovies since the early 1980s, but it is her most recent efforts that she reported on for the conference. Still largely a reduction fishery, the Peruvian anchovy fishery has, in recent years, increased the catch for human consumption from zero to almost 100,000 tonnes, although this is still only about one percent of the total catch.
The reduction-fishery is divided into two groups. Generally the larger 110-tonne and up boats are steel and belong the processing companies, the largest of which controls about 20 percent of the catch while the seven largest processors control over 78 percent of the TAC. A group of wooden vessels packing 30 tonnes and up have been called the artesianal fleet but their catches also go to reduction at US$400 to $600 per tonne.
These smaller boats take the balance of the TAC, but recently the Peruvian government has made fish over and above the TAC available to a group of fishing boats that pack from five to ten tonnes. These fish are landed at about $200 per ton to some of the same plants that do reduction. But their use is reserved for food so that in the four years that this programme has been in place there are now over 60 canned and frozen products being marketed. While much of the catch goes to rural Peruvian families, where almost 35 percent of the children had been malnourished, there is also a growing export market.
It is Dr. Majluf’s hope that the manufactured products can increase in value as their export share increases. This could then allow the government to afford reducing the TAC to the benefit of the whole ecosystem including the growth of higher value finfish. In the meantime the limited markets for food fish are causing concern among fishermen and officials that some food fish is leaking into the higher-value reduction stream.
Community and direct sales fisheries
A couple of exceptional seminars dealt with community and direct sales fisheries. Attracting fewer of the reps from the big NGO’s or their corporate sponsors, these sessions were attended by working commercial fishermen and smaller community-based NGOs. A movement that is taking hold in both Canada and the US is the Community Supported Fisheries (CSF) movement, modelled on the growing farmers market movement, which is supported by people who want to know where their food comes from. These groups help fishermen get higher prices and consumers get quality assurance and knowledge of species that have often not been available commercially.
Beau Gillis of Newport, Nova Scotia is a founding member of the Off The Hook CSF. He had been trying to find a way to market his hook caught finfish effectively and in a way that gives him something after his mounting expenses. The organisation’s web page explains to the consumer, that, “by investing in a share of Off the Hook’s catch at the start of the fishing season, you’re supporting local fishermen, coastal communities, and a low-impact fishing method. In exchange, you will receive weekly deliveries of the insanely fresh, high quality whole ground fish, caught in the Bay of Fundy with a bottom hook and line. You will also get a chance to meet the fishermen who caught your supper ….”
Other fishermen from other ports told similar stories with variations for their different fisheries and communities. These included Joshua Stoll who explained the Walking Fish CSF in Beaufort, North Carolina and Shaun Strobel a salmon gillnetter in British Columbia with Skipper Otto’s CSF.
The world’s fisheries have searched out the last of the new grounds and added technology for improved efficiency but still the demand for seafood grows. As discussed at the 2011 seafood summit, some of this demand can be met by ever more efficient and sustainable aquaculture but much more remains to be done. The people who organised and presented at this summit intend to have much to do with shaping that future.