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Boston Seafood Show: A Healthy Future for US Seafood Emerging from Challenges?

Sustainability Economics +1 more

Seafood is among the most traded food commodities in the world, and growing, writes istein Thorsen, trie principal consultant.

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This was clearly demonstrated at the 2013 International Boston Seafood Show (IBSS) held in Boston, USA 10-12 March 2013. A survey conducted by sister group, trie, showed that while the American seafood sector is changing, most people feel confident about the future and secure in their jobs. Shellfish and salmon are Americans’ favorite seafood and the availability of fish, discards and bycatch are seen as the biggest sustainability challenges facing the industry, combined with consumers’ misconceptions and prejudice against farmed fish.

Once a show primarily for American industry, the IBSS has become an international melting pot featuring huge booths with company representatives from China to Norway, Chile to Morocco and Turkey to Thailand. In response to this, the organizers announced that next year the show will be called the Seafood Expo North America, in order to “deliver the highest quality trade event for buyers and suppliers from around the world.”

While the capture fisheries production has remained stable since the early 1990s at about 90 million tons annually, aquaculture production only keeps expanding. According to the United Nations’ Food and Agricultural Organisation (FAO), aquaculture has been growing at an average annual rate of 8.8 per cent during the last three decades. This makes aquaculture one of the fastest-growing animal food-producing sectors in the world; however, the US is not driving this growth and is becoming increasingly dependent on imports (up to 90%). Furthermore, about half of the seafood consumed in the US is farmed, although the real number might be higher as some fish labeled “wild catch” in fact started their life in hatcheries (

In this context the triesm survey found that consumers’ misconceptions about seafood, in particular their prejudice against farmed fish and lack of knowledge about sustainably managed fisheries, as well as how to prepare fish, is stifling the industry’s potential. Understanding these trends presents opportunities for forward thinking companies to shape the future of a healthy American seafood sector. Tackling the challenges and misconceptions identified in the triesm survey requires more innovation to combat consumers prejudice and more investment to develop best practice sustainable fish farming and wild catch. Positioning seafood at the heart of what constitutes a healthy and delicious meal today and in the future is the key to sustainable growth for the American industry.

The Survey Results:

Triesm conducted a face-to-face survey with 35 exhibitors on the tradeshow floor asking questions about how the industry itself views the future, and the challenges it faces. Respondents were asked to self identify in terms of their role in the industry. The sample highlighted three major groups, aquaculture (n=16), commercial fishermen (n=6) and NGOs (n=5). Some of those identified as aquaculture and commercial fishermen, also identified themselves as processors.

The survey found an industry where most people are “moderately” to “very positive” about the outlook of the American seafood industry. Despite the overall economic climate the majority of people also felt their jobs were “secure” to “very secure” for the future.

What are you proud of?

When asked what part of their business makes them most proud, answers centered mostly on the quality of their products. We make “good quality fish, at a good price,” one respondent said, while another said he was proud of their “healthy product for the future.” The second biggest source of pride was attributed to “our people” and the strength of “our company or brand.” Almost as many people mentioned the “sustainability of their business” as something that they were proud of. Echoing the pride in sustainable practices, the majority of respondents consistently said they “always” considered ethics when making business decisions about issues relating to their suppliers, work force and production methods.

Misconceptions of the Industry

When asked to name the biggest misconceptions of the seafood industry held by consumers, half of the respondents raised various prejudices against farmed fish. The predominant views also included detrimental environmental impact and overuse of antibiotics and hormones in aquaculture, as well as negative views about the taste and health impact of farmed fish. These views were reflected by close to 70% of the respondents involved in aquaculture.

The industry’s source of pride – the quality and taste of the product - is also at the heart of what industry insiders believe is the second biggest misconception about seafood. “All fish taste the same”, and “it’s harder to prepare than meat” were statements given to represent the negative views and lack of awareness by consumers regarding the taste, nutritional value and ease of preparing seafood.

The third largest misconception focused on views about the oceans being depleted and that the volume of fishing being unsustainable. While this view of a misconception was expressed by 60% of the commercial fishers asked, almost half of the entire sample also drew attention to the “availability of fish” as a major sustainability challenge facing the industry. More about this issue below.

How to encourage Americans to eat more seafood?

According to NOAA each American only eats about 15lbs of seafood in a year. A number which has been more or less stagnate the last decade. Approximately 90% of this is imported. Hence, asking exhibitors how the industry can encourage Americans to eat more seafood solicited passionate responses. Not surprisingly, 60% of respondents’ answers focused on increased education and awareness of the health attributes and the ways and ease of preparing fish. 20% highlighted the need for the US to invest more in production – especially fish farms – as well as inspection of imports to ensure high standards of food security.

What is your favorite seafood?

Salmon was named the favorite seafood by 23% percent of the respondents, although only 1 of them was a commercial fisher. However, shellfish were so frequently listed in the “other category”, including scallops, oyster and clams, making them the second favorite at 17%. By including shrimp, crab and lobster, shellfish becomes the most popular seafood at 31%. Corresponding with NOAA’s consumption data from 2011 which ranked shrimp as America’s favorite seafood. Sea bass beat Tuna in popularity being mentioned by 11.5% of the sample in the “other” category. However, a caveat to this result is that Sea bass is a commonly used name often referring to a number of different species.

What are the key sustainability challenges facing the industry?

When asked to list the key sustainability challenges facing the seafood industry, 45% across the whole sample said “availability of fish”, coupled with 28.5% mentioning “discard and bycatch”, showing the health of global fisheries are clearly of concern to the industry. This resonates with FAO’s analysis in the 2012 “The State of Fisheries and Aquaculture” report which argues that “the state of world marine fisheries is worsening and has had a negative impact on fishery production.” FAO goes on to say that “In spite of the worrisome global situation of marine capture fisheries, good progress is being made in reducing exploitation rates and restoring overexploited fish stocks and marine ecosystems through effective management actions in some areas. In the United States of America, 67% of all stocks are now being sustainably harvested, while only 17 percent are still overexploited.” This might account for the fact that the industry mentioned “availability of fish” as a sustainability challenge, while also labeling “over –fishing” as a popular misconception held by outsiders. 28.5% also identified with “Food Safety” as a challenge for the future.

Sustainability Analysis

The aquaculture industry mentioned “availability of fish” and “discard and bycatch” as their top two sustainability challenges. This refers largely to their concern for reliable and affordable supply of fish-based feed. However, it might also suggest that they consider aquaculture part of the solution to the challenge of availability of fish for wild catch. Furthermore, “marine pollution”, “traceability of raw materials”, “water use”, “energy use” and “acidification” was mentioned third at equal frequency. This third category indicates a relatively sophisticated understanding of the multiple issues facing their own fish farming industry in particular and the seafood industry in general.

The commercial fishermen listed "illegal landing of fish" and "food safety" as the two greatest sustainability challenges, in equal frequency. Not surprisingly, as these are issues affecting both the sustainability of the fisheries they depend on, their ability to effectively manage those fisheries, as well as the economic viability of their industry. Energy use came in third.

NGO representatives highlighted illegal landing as the greatest challenge, representing a direct threat to the monitoring of healthy fisheries. Discard and bycatch, and tracebility of raw materials were mentioned in equal frequency as the second greatest challenges.