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Sea-to-table supply chain makeover

Sustainability Economics +3 more

Driven by conscious consumers such as university student bodies, fish distribution in North America is switching to a more local, more sustainable model. Rachel Lane reports on the rise of Sea to Table in the US, with its swifter, simpler rethink of an overwrought supply chain.

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About eight years ago, a comment from a student at the University of Michigan, caused Frank Turchan to start thinking more about the seafood he was serving. Turchan, the executive chef for M | Dining, which runs the campus’s 11 cafés, eight markets and seven dining halls, had started ordering more fish because of the health benefits for students. But students’ comments about the changes to the menu made him realise he could do better in terms of encouraging sustainable fishing. So he started looking for ways he could order more fish from local sources and be more discerning in the seafood he selected.

About 80 per cent of the fish and seafood consumed at the university now is from the United States or Canada. “It took a while, but we wanted to do it right and understand the process and how it works… We are striving toward 100 per cent,” says Turchan.

As Turchan sees it, Canada has more fisheries along the Great Lakes than the US does, and with Michigan almost encircled by the Great Lakes, he considers these Canadian fisheries to be more local than most.

In attempting to serve exclusively domestic seafood to students and faculty at the university, the cost and variety on offer has been an issue. Turchan has been filling in the gaps by ordering unexpected fish – fish that are less likely to be eaten in the US.

So-called garbage fish, or ugly fish, are overlooked by most consumers. But the catering staff on campus encourage students to sample such varieties – which include rockfish, dogfish and skate wing – and the students often come back for second helpings.

Another example is the blue catfish from the Chesapeake Bay. “It’s an invasive species,” says Turchan. “It’s a catfish, but it’s very different than farm-raised. It’s a very sweet fish,” he said. “Students love it,” he adds.

A big part of Turchan’s focus is supporting local fisherman. When he met the owners of the Bay Port Fish company, he started ordering. The fishery is located about 200 miles from the university and provides fish from the Great Lakes. “We’ve already bought 8,000lb of white fish from them.”

Rationalising the supply chain, from sea to table

Michael Dimin, Founding Director of Sea to Table, worked with Turchan to help provide the dining halls on campus with domestic fish. Dimin to realised there was a market in the US for fresher fish on a family trip to Tobago in the ’90s. Working with his son, he began importing fish from Tobago direct to chefs in the US about 12 years ago. But the work changed as the Dimins started working with independent fishermen in the United States to provide a similar service, and the company is now 100 per cent US, from the trawlers to the table.

“The normal seafood chain is long, convoluted and opaque. It doesn’t allow people to know where [the fish] came from, who caught it or how they caught it,” says Dimin.

“We’re trying to interrupt that supply chain with a small chain.” From Alaska to California, Maine to Florida, Sea to Table works with fisherman and fisheries for small-scale, wild caught, sustainable fish and seafood. “Everything we catch is traceable right back to the place it’s caught, the boat and the catch,” he says.

The fish lands and is shipped overnight to the restaurant, university or market. If needed, the fish is cut into portion sizes in the same communities where it’s brought to shore and frozen once.

According to Dimin about 90 per cent of the fish consumed in the US is from overseas. But about half the fish caught in the US is exported. Some of the exported fish is frozen, then sent to China where it is thawed, cut into portion sizes, refrozen and shipped back to the US to be sold in grocery stores. Even fish that remains in the US, says Dimin, could be resold a dozen times between the boat and the final destination.

One of the towns in North Carolina working with Sea to Table sold as much as they could locally, but, at night, truckloads of fish would travel to New York. It would get resold, processed, resold, reshipped and some of it would end up back in North Carolina a week later, about 150 miles from where it was caught. The fishermen wouldn’t know how much or when they would get paid for the fish.

Now, Sea to Table works with the fishermen. The fishermen get paid more, the final customer pays less because the supply chain is shorter. At the same time, the consumer gets a better, fresher product.

The fisheries that use Sea to Table work with local production facilities to help maintain the supply chain. “The market place liked this right away,” says Dimin. “They were getting super high-quality, traceable, sustainable product… and we were able to deliver at a competitive price,” he said. “It was the fishermen that were suspicious.”

Fishermen and fishing communities are independent, he says, and initially they were worried about cutting ties with existing distributors. But, says Dimin, once they realised that Sea to Table worked for them and would stand by their prices, word started to spread. Now, fisheries call Sea to Table and ask to be included.

Restaurants remain the biggest market for Sea to Table, but 50 university dining halls, including Michigan, use the company to supply fish to students. “University dining systems are thought leaders today,” says Dimin. “The kids… they’re tremendously engaged in food for health reasons, political reasons, or environmental reasons. The universities are putting together dining halls that are great quality, similar to high-quality restaurants.”

The students want to know where the fish comes from and Dimin has arranged for photos to be sent to the universities. Some of the universities supply merchandise to the fishermen in return – in some of the photos, people on the fishing boats can be seen wearing varsity shirts and hats.

Shifts in the market

Meanwhile, a new market for fish is opening up in the US: boxed meal plans delivered direct to people in their homes. Ryan Bigelow, programme engagement manager at Monterey Bay Aquarium, says that home-chefs are ordering fish boxes in a scheme similar to community-supported agriculture programmes. Locals sign up with a fisherman to get a box of fish, and no matter what is caught that day or week, the fisherman has a buyer.

“You pay a subscription,” explains Bigelow. “It really helps out the farmer. They’re gauranteed a profit. They don’t have to throw back fish,” Bigelow said. The programme has been in place for about five years. A large part of the programme is taken up with teaching the customers how to cook the fish, especially the seldom-consumed varieties.

Bigelow said there has been an increased demand for sustainable fish. Customers want to know where and how the fish is caught. About 16-years ago, Monterey Bay Aquarium started the Seafood Watch programme to promote transparency and sustainability to consumers and the fishing industry. The information the programme provides has allowed customers more choice in how the fish they consume is caught.

“It lets you know a little bit more about the fish you’re eating,” he says. “If you know the person catching your fish, if you have a relationship, the issues of fraud will be less.”
“The big purchases of seafood, North America and the EU, they’re interested in good seafood and they’re willing to pay more for it,” he says.

Consumers who are concerned about provenance and sustainability can help drive the marketplace, he says. Big companies listen when their customers request something like sustainability. Then the company will pass the request on to the fisheries. If the company is large enough, the fisheries may be forced to change the way they catch fish to keep the business.

Sustainable fish is another key point for M | Dining at the University of Michigan. In 2014, the university dining system received the Marine Stewardship Council’s (MSC) Chain of Custody certification, a designation meaning the fish served meets environmental sustainability guidelines.

They also just received the MSC Ocean Hero award, an additional recognition which, says Frank Turchan, is for continuing to lead the way in promoting a more sustainable future. Turchan says he is invited to environmental classes to talk about the MSC programme and the importance of knowing where and how fish is caught.

Now, when M | Dining gets a new load of fish delivered, Turchan says he’s excited about the locally caught fish. Relishing the thought of fish that’s usually sweeter than produce that has had to be refrozen two or three times, he says: “I wish I could eat this fish all the time.”