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Sustainable Seafood

Bridging the Gap: Connecting Buyers and Sellers of Sustainable Seafood

By Mary Mazzoni
sustainable seafood

If you've noticed a few more sustainable seafood options at your regular grocery chain, you're not alone. Greenpeace’s latest Carting Away the Oceans (CATO) report showed significant progress by large retailers in embracing sustainability in their seafood supply chains.

"When we first ran this assessment back in 2008, literally all of the stores failed," James Mitchell, senior oceans campaigner with the Greenpeace Oceans program, told Triple Pundit in a recent interview. "Now in our 2014 edition, the vast majority of retailers, 22 out of 26, passed. And four of them — Whole Foods, Safeway, Wegmans and Trader Joe’s — actually landed a 'Good' score." Even mega-retailer Walmart was lauded for its efforts to introduce a private-label sustainable canned tuna product.

Despite these promising steps in the right direction, noticeable gaps still exist in the market. Richard Boot, now founder and president of FishChoice, Inc., noticed one of these gaps while working in the restaurant industry and later for sustainable fishery advocate FishWise. Although large retailers have the opportunity to work directly with the environmental community to source sustainable seafood, he explained, local chefs and small- to medium-sized buyers are often left to their own devices -- and can become confused by the vast array of certifications and standards in the market.

"What chefs and small buyers needed was a resource to find a company with products that fit sustainability standards," Boot told Triple Pundit. "The challenge is that there's a lot of information out there. What buyers said -- and what I remember from being a buyer -- is that they need a 'yes' or 'no' answer and a phone number to call. If you're looking for sustainable shrimp options, you don't need to read a 25-page paper on sustainable sourcing, you just need to find a supplier."

In response to his observations, Boot founded FishChoice in 2008 to make it easier for small buyers to source sustainably and connect the best suppliers with a market for their fish. Unlike many seafood sites you may be used to, FishChoice does not rate or certify suppliers. Instead, the nonprofit works with recognized conservation organizations that have science-based, credible sustainable seafood programs, such as Monterey Bay Seafood Watch, SeaChoice and Vancouver Aquarium Ocean Wise, to put all relevant information in one place.

How it works

To be listed in the directory, suppliers submit their products, and FishChoice identifies if they meet the sustainability requirements of one or more of its partners. Those that meet the requirements are listed on the website alongside their aggregated sustainability ratings and certifications. Members of the FishChoice team speak with every supplier company personally to ensure accuracy of information.

If chefs, restaurants or small buyers are looking to expand their sustainable seafood offerings, they can simply register for the website to get full access. Using the FishChoice tool, these buyers can compare local suppliers side-by-side, contact their favorites and, in many cases, receive their chosen products the following day.

The FishChoice sustainable seafood directory has since grown to around 3,600 product listings, from over 400 suppliers, across an estimated 200 different species of wild and farmed finfish and shellfish. More than 4,000 seafood professionals, mostly from the U.S. and Canada, now use the service.

“We have been able to find many like-minded companies on FishChoice.com, both new vendors and new customers," Bob Fram of Hawaii-based Garden Valley and Isle Seafood said in a statement obtained by FishChoice. "We appreciate FishChoice.com working well with the seafood industry, and making an effort to educate people on what good fishing practices are going on around the world. [The organization] understands the seafood industry is not black and white, and has created a great tool for our industry based on this understanding”


Turning dollars into change

To take things a step further, Boot and FishChoice decided to leverage its network to help both buyers and suppliers become more sustainable: By featuring suppliers that support Fishery Improvement Projects around the world, buyers can spend their dollar where it counts and forward-thinking suppliers can better stand out from the crowd.

"Fishery Improvement Projects are a relatively new phenomenon in [the sustainable seafood] movement ... and it's grown to the point now where the industry is leading a lot of these improvements," Boot said. "We want to get involved mostly bc rewarding a fishery that's improving to me is one of the most important things we can do.

"Rewarding a fishery that's already good is one thing," he continued. "But to take a fishery that has actively changed its management policies as such that they're helping to increase sustainability over time, for us, that's incredibly commendable, and we want to reward that with access to markets that didn't already know about that fishery."

Fishery Improvement Projects (FIPs) have seen great success around the world in combatting overfishing and even reversing its effects. Boot pointed to the North Atlantic swordfish as an example. The species was once so overfished that it was featured as the poster child in the Give Swordfish a Break campaign. After an FIP formed and began changing the way quotas worked for catching fish, stocks are beginning to rebound.

"Some fish stocks are going to take 20 years to rebound because of the life cycle of the fish, but it's nice to see examples where the stocks are starting to come back," Boot said. "To know that we're able to give [model fisheries] more access to markets, that's as important as making it easier for our chefs."

What's next for FishChoice?

FishChoice has expanded rapidly since coming online in 2009. The nonprofit is constantly evaluating seafood programs to add to its current inventory, as well as establishing mutually beneficial relationships with like-minded organizations.

In the future, FishChoice plans to expand its repertoire of online tools for buyers and will likely move beyond seafood to other protein supply chains like beef, poultry and pork within the next three years, Boot said.

With the group's savvy approach to seafood sourcing, we can't wait to see what they have in mind for putting more sustainable food on our plates!

Image credit: Hoan Vo/Unsplash

Mary Mazzoni headshot

Mary has reported on sustainability and social impact for over a decade and now serves as executive editor of TriplePundit. She is also the general manager of TriplePundit's Brand Studio, which has worked with dozens of organizations on sustainability storytelling, and VP of content for TriplePundit's parent company 3BL. 

Read more stories by Mary Mazzoni