BOSTON -- Though still in its infancy, the sustainable seafood movement is rapidly gaining support from consumers and prompting businesses to adjust their buying practices to reflect the changes, according to a panel representing industry and environmental interests at the International Boston Seafood Show.
One recent survey showed as many as seven out of 10 consumers would be more likely to purchase an "environmentally responsible" seafood product, with four out of 10 consumers indicating they would be much more likely to buy such items, said Howard M. Johnson, a Jacksonville, Ore.-based consultant to the seafood industry, and moderator of the discussion.
Serving on the panel were: Henry Lovejoy, president of EcoFish, a Portsmouth, N.H.-based seafood distributor; Craig Appleyard, project manager in the seafood department of Ahold USA's procurement division, Braintree, Mass.; Dierk Peters, international marketing manager for sustainability initiatives for Unilever, Rotterdam, The Netherlands; Jim Humphreys, regional director for the Marine Stewardship Council, Seattle; Wally Pereyra, president of Arctic Storm Management Group, a Seattle fish producer; Susan Boa, program manager for the Seafood Choices Alliance, Washington; and Seth Woods, owner and chef of the Aquitaine Group, a Boston-area chain of upscale restaurants.
Appleyard described Ahold's EcoSound project as a comprehensive product-screening program designed to strengthen the long-term health of seafood sources. Through a partnership with the New England Aquarium, Ahold taps into a rich base of research that helps keep the company on top of scientific developments with respect to seafood sourcing.
The retailer sources farmed salmon straight from the audited farms, which are required to meet or exceed the company's safety, environmental and social standards, he said.
"We've partnered with the most advanced farms," he said. "Farms open up their books to me."
The retailer dropped Chilean sea bass from its lineup after research showed the stocks were being depleted, Appleyard said. Stores stopped promoting the fish, and that effectively put an end to demand at fish counters, he said.
Training associates to get the message out to consumers is a big part of the EcoSound project, though Appleyard acknowledged employee training is challenging for a company Ahold's size. The retailer operates 1,300 stores under six banners in the East.
Global giant Unilever aims to buy all fish for its frozen lines from sustainable sources by 2005, but realistically, the company probably will fall short of that goal. By the end of 2005, Unilever expects 75% of its supply of seafood to come from sustainable sources, Peters said. The company reached the 50% mark at the end of 2003.
"We have shifted considerable amounts of fish sourcing" as a result of Unilever's commitment to responsible procurement, he said.
A pioneer in the sustainable seafood movement, Unilever, with the World Wildlife Fund, helped found the Marine Stewardship Council in 1997. Independent since 1999, the London-based MSC operates the leading international eco-label certification program for fisheries.
The young group has friends in high places. Prince Charles this month expressed public support for the MSC, and commented on the need for a system providing economic incentives to well-managed sustainable fisheries, Humphreys said. The MSC has certified seven fisheries in total, and 40 more are going through the certification process, he said.
"We've seen a variety of products move forward with the MSC label," he said.
The MSC doesn't grant certification quickly. The process can be time-consuming -- especially for large fisheries, he said. In fact, Pereyra commented on his firsthand experience with the MSC certification process.
His company has been working with the MSC for three years to gain the certification for its Alaska pollock. The process is taking too long, he said.
Pereyra also questioned groups like the Monterey Bay Aquarium for issuing informational cards to consumers listing species of fish and the degree to which they are sustainable. The aquarium cautions consumers against eating some of the most popular species, he said.
"The sustainable seafood discussion in the United States is a one-sided affair," he said.
Loveyjoy outlined how his small, five-year-old company found a niche as a distributor of seafood exclusively from environmentally sustainable fisheries. The company buys wild and farmed seafood directly from fishermen. EcoFish's products are sold in more than 1,000 natural food stores and 100 restaurants around the country, Lovejoy said.
"We're not in business to tell consumers what they should eat," he said. "We just put the most sustainable choices in front of consumers."
Seafood Choices Alliance is a division of SeaWeb, a national ocean conservation group. As manager of SCA, Boa said she sees growing support for the group's mission. As evidence, she pointed to Boston's Best, a program involving Boston-area restaurants promoting ocean-friendly species on their menus. Last year, there were 35 restaurants participating; this year, there are 42, she said.