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Underutilised “Story-Fish” – a New Frontier for Sustainable Seafood?

07 June 2013

US - The first ever annual Sustainable Seafood Week has taken place in New York City. During the week, Village Fishmonger and Future of Fish hosted an exclusive hospitality industry round table at the Institute of Culinary Education to spark dialogue around how sustainable seafood – or “story fish” – can accelerate brand value, reports Øistein Thorsen, principal consultant of TheFishSites’s sister organisation trie.

Matthew Quetton of Future of Fish kicked off the roundtable by linking the disruptions happening in the seafood supply chain with what took place in the music industry a few years ago.

The digital music revolution allowed emerging, niche and alternative artists to get their music in front of audiences. The same, he argued, is happening to fish. Through what Mr Quetton coined “story fish” producers and fishers are able to add value to their product by telling its story and hence creating a deep sense of connection between the customer and the fish. This process – often referred to as the wineification of products – has played itself out for other commodities like coffee and chocolate over the last decade to some benefit to the farmers.

Chef Evan Hanczor, at Brooklyn’s Parish Hall restaurant, spoke in favor of trust and close personal relationships in the supply chain to ensure that the “story-fish” makes it to the menu. “It is straight from the sea to the table,” he said. “My middle man knows the fishermen personally, and is able to tell me exactly what today’s catch is and bring it to the restaurant.”

Another, more technology based approach, was offered by Keith Flett of Open Ocean Trading who said his system would “replace trust with accountability through legally binding forward contracts”. His company has developed an online trading platform connecting the fishers directly with large-scale purchasers, like institutional buyers and retailers.

By offering forward contracts for specific species and volumes Open Ocean hope to make ‘precision buying’ the norm and hence change the fact that fishers’ only hedge traditionally has been volume. This system, Mr Flett argued, will raise margins across the supply chain and reduce waste as it allows fishers to respond directly to quality attributes and as well as provide pre-pricing signals telling them when to stop fishing.

This is an example of the way Future of Fish believes technology can play a crucial role in shaking up the industry and carrying the story of the fish; a story about origin, the state of fisheries and the people and communities that depend on it for their living. This same technology is also the key to ensure traceability.

Thomas Kraft of Norpac Fisheries Exports said his company developed a digital traceability scheme primarily to prevent illegal, unreported and unregulated fish ending up in their value chain. “We wouldn’t have done it if it didn’t make business sense,” he said. However, after implementing it he found that the system started answering sustainability related questions he hadn’t even thought of asking – from the state of the fisheries, the size and type of by-catch, to the efficiency of his processing plants.

Combined with the efforts of some chefs and seafood companies’ efforts in changing taste preferences and use more so-called trash-fish or under utilised species in their products, traceability and innovative trading platforms are vital in creating a sizeable sustainability market where there until now has not been one.

However, even amongst the sustainability innovators of the industry there is a sense that one cannot sell a fish on sustainability alone. Sean Dixon, founder of the start-up Village Fishmongers which brings fresh fish directly to its members in New York City a couple of times a week, said he see sustainability strictly in terms of the status and viability of the fish stock.

“Sustainability for us is a resource management and economics metrics,” he continued, “from then on we leave sustainability to one side and start telling the story. The story about the fisher, the fish, the species, the location, its freshness and its taste.”

The great opportunity that the seafood sustainability movement is slowly catching, but which the mainstream actors have yet to exploit, is that the most sustainable fish might also be the cheapest.

There are thousands of species in the sea that could be farmed, however the industry has focused on only a handful. Often these are the ones at the top of their food chains, like salmon. Creating a market for the under utilised species, like porgy and dogfish and thousands others, might break open a new frontier. A frontier where by-catch is a thing of the past and where the most sustainable offering on the menu comes at a discount price, rather than a premium price.


Oistein Thorsen

Principal Consultant, trie

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