SANTA CRUZ, Calif. - Northern California retailers are warming up to a program that promotes seafood from sustainable sources.
EcoFish, a leading supplier and marketer of seafood from environmentally stable sources, and FishWise, a consumer education program that uses color-coded labels to identify products in seafood cases, have teamed up to promote the availability and sale of sustainable seafood at supermarkets and restaurants.
The groups are working with a handful of retailers, including Surf Supermarket, an 11,000-square-foot independent in picturesque Gualala, Calif. The retailer kicked off the program in April.
"It matches our company's goal of trying to provide highest quality products to our customer, but also doing it in a way with the least amount of negative impact on the environment," said Steve May, the store's owner.
Surf caters to a mix of consumers, including professionals who commute to San Francisco, second-home owners and environmentally concerned boomers. May said he's encouraged by their initial reaction to the program.
"It might be a little early to tell since it's only been a month, but our fish sales are up and we think it's because of the program," he said.
One of the program's objectives is to clear up misunderstandings about seafood.
"Stores are feeling that customers are confused about the potential dangers of seafood, and FishWise is a great solution where they can give their customers the information that they want," said Shelly Benoit, executive director, FishWise. "We make it extraordinarily easy and we see great results in the sales with retailers that we're working with."
FishWise provides a color-coded labeling program for retailers to use in their cases. Green means the product is sustainable and safe. Yellow means that there are still some concerns about this fishery so another alternative should be considered. Red indicates that the fish populations are in trouble and the fishing method is not sustainable.
Each EcoFish product carries a seafood-safe label indicating the amount of 4-ounce portions a woman of child bearing age can safely have each month without ingesting harmful contaminants, based on U.S. Environmental Protection Agency guidelines.
May said the time is right for a program that sheds light on a misunderstood category. He's hopeful the effort will make consumers feel good about shopping the seafood counter.
"Over the last couple of years, I feel that people have become sort of confused and discouraged about shopping the fish department and this program helps address that and helps restore confidence in the fish counter," he said.
An industry consultant pointed out sustainability is a new issue that consumers are just starting to hear about.
"Most consumers don't know where their seafood comes from and I think that one of the reasons is that nobody, to this point, has really made a major effort to educate consumers about sustainability," said Howard Johnson, president of HMJ & Associates, Jacksonville, Ore. "Up until recently, there hasn't been enough in the pipelines to make it worthwhile."
Bi-Rite Market, San Francisco, got on board with the FishWise program last year and officials are pleased with the response.
"Our customers are very concerned about, not just fish, but where their food comes from in general and it just made sense for us because we support a lot of local farms and carry a lot of organic produce from smaller farms," said Liz Martinez, store manager for Bi-Rite." Our meat and poultry are all sustainable, if not organic, and we just felt we needed to get on board with a better fish program."
Participating stores pay a monthly membership fee to participate. They also pay more for sustainable seafood. Yet many factors including availability and level of sustainability figure into the price of fish, an official said.
"There's so many pieces of the chain that can make one item more expensive than another, but as a general rule, I would say it can be upward of about 50% more from us purchasing at the ground before it even gets to the consumer or the retailer - at the wholesale level," said Mary Jane McCraven, marketing manager for EcoWise.
Some of the most sustainable species now include dungeness crab, halibut, wild Alaskan salmon, pacific shrimp, sable fish, black cod and mahi mahi, McCraven said.
"One of the things that I think is fairly exciting about the program is that there's a number of different kinds of fish that we wouldn't normally have stocked, but this gives us an opportunity to educate our customer on fish choices that are inexpensive and sustainable and abundant, like tilapia, for example," May said.
Offering sustainable fish can help a retailer stand apart from the competition, he said.
"I think retailers should consider how this differentiates them from their competition because it makes a statement about your commitment to quality and sustainability and that might appeal to a certain customer when your competition might not have the same program," he added.
Retailers generally start out with about 30% in each green, yellow and red category, and that's true for the seafood case at Surf, May said.
"What I'm told from FishWise is that after participating for a year, retailers are down to about 7%-10% in the red category. And that's all purely customer demand," he said.
EcoFish plans to court conventional supermarket chains. Now, the company's products are in Wild Oats Markets stores, and will be going into Loblaws in Canada as well. FishWise, in stores in the San Francisco Bay area, is targeting Southern California, southern Oregon and other markets.
"I think if the program's handled properly, it will start to raise awareness of sustainability, but it's going to take some time and it's going to be interesting to watch," Johnson said. "I wish them well."