Do You Know Who Caught Your Fish? Direct Relationships Cut Seafood Fraud and Boost Fishing Income



When it comes to sustainable seafood, barcode identifiers and environmental certificates only go so far. The real key is genuine relationships with the people who hauled in the catch.

From Alaska to Boston to San Francisco, conservationist Native Americans, nonprofit organizers, and seafood entrepreneurs are developing ways to safeguard consumers and empower fishing communities.

The first selling point for the new approach is reduced fraud, which is rampant in seafood markets, costing consumers money (by paying more for lower-quality products) and endangering their health (by mislabeling species that may contain high levels of mercury).

A 2012 study by Oceana, an international nonprofit, found king mackerel and tilefish labeled as “safer” species, despite FDA warning they should be avoided by mothers and young children because of high levels of mercury. The study found one-third of the 1,200 DNA-tested seafood samples to be fraudulently labeled.

Dune Lankard, a native Eyak tribe member and founder of the Copper River Wild Salmon Company in Cordova, Alaska, says the key to eliminating fraud is “creating the new business economy.” He believes relationships – between harvester and customer, fisherman and nature – are as valuable as the products being bought, and can provide consumers with true trust and traceability and ensure responsible stewardship of natural resources.

Copper River Wild Salmon Company will be working with 50 trained and trusted fishermen (about 10 percent of the total Copper River fleet) to create fishermen profiles. Consumers will be able to see who their wild salmon purchases are supporting.

Lankard has developed plans that combine this for-profit venture with plans for a nonprofit LEED-certified community processing and cold-storage facility in Cordova. He anticipates the facility would process around 10 million pounds of the Copper River Wild Salmon Company’s salmon per year. The plan, which won third place in the 2007 Alaskan Marketplace Competition, calls for opening the facility to the community at an affordable rate by using the Company’s bulk processing to bring down costs on equipment usage.

He is currently in negotiations for a facility and, if successful, hopes to start upgrading in 2014. The nonprofit facility would give the local community economic and physical control over the processing, labeling and distribution of its high-value Copper River wild salmon, which retails for a higher price than other Alaskan salmon (this year’s price for Copper River sockeye: $23 per pound). More than two million fish, or almost 13 million pounds of Copper River salmon were harvested last year. However, 80 percent of the salmon labeled “Copper River” doesn’t come from the watershed, says Lankard.

The facility would help artisanal, multigenerational fishermen catch less fish but generate more income by using higher quality, sustainable methods. Currently, as with fishing ports nationwide, artisanal fishermen are beholden to dockside processors who in most cases are the only buyer for their highly-perishable catch and can thus dictate prices. Fishermen usually don’t know what price they will receive for their catch at the time of offloading, so can’t plan their catch quantity or schedule.

What’s the name of the boat?

Niaz Dorry, coordinating director of the nonprofit Northwest Atlantic Marine Alliance (NAMA), says a hospital she advises was shocked when they investigated the source of their “sustainable fish.” The wild stock levels of the fish delivered to the hospital qualified it as “sustainable,” but the fish were harvested in massive numbers. “By-catch” of non-targeted species were killed and wastefully discarded in the process. The large factory trawlers scraped the ocean floor, damaging habitats in the Bering Sea. The harvested fish were sent to China, processed, and then back across the US to the East Coast — a huge and unnecessary carbon footprint.  The hospital cancelled its purchases.

Dorry says sustainability certifications are helpful concepts, but that the most important question to ask a distributor is: “What is the name of the boat that caught this fish?” If the distributor cannot answer that question, she says, then it has no ability to trace and verify the catch.

NAMA works with hospitals to purchase seafood that is truly sustainable, measured not only by stock level and harvest technique, but working conditions and carbon footprint. The hospitals, including Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center, Boston Children’s Hospital, and Boston Medical Center and Vermont’s Fletcher Allen, also want their purchases to positively impact the health of their communities and local economies.

With its strong connections to local fishermen, NAMA helps to connect these hospitals’ purchasing departments and distributors with local-sourcing options and designs programs that give hospital staff and community affordable access to locally-procured fish.

For instance, NAMA assisted most of its partner hospitals in setting up a Community Supported Fisheries (CSF) program, a variation on the popular Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) farm-to-consumer model. The hospitals also run Community Health Centers, many in Boston’s low-income neighborhoods, and have been operating farmers’ markets, as a way to support their communities’ access to fresh, healthy food.

Last year, NAMA helped facilitate a pilot seafood vendor program in farmers’ markets. Each vendor was screened for sustainability, sourcing, and price points that are both fair to fishermen and affordable for these low-income communities.

Through these fish vendors and hospital programs, Boston and NAMA hope to revitalize the fresh, local, dayboat fish market and broaden the palates of Bostonians beyond the usual fare. At least one item in the vendors’ inventory must be priced “affordably,” as determined by each community center market manager, according to Edith Murnane, Boston’s Director of Food Initiatives. Part of the success of the program is the availability of species recognized by neighborhood residents, such as scup, which resembles a red fish popular in the Caribbean.

“This work enables the fishing industry to revitalize fishing communities and introduces a wider range of fish to consumers and in restaurants,” Murnane says.

Ready for Prime Time? 

In San Francisco, i love blue sea has created a logistics system that drop-ships fresh seafood overnight from docks to customers’ doors. Consumers can browse the catches of individual fishermen in 13 domestic ports, from Morro Bay, California to Montegut, Louisiana to Milbridge, Maine.

Since the company launched four years ago, it has increased profits for its fishermen by giving them more control over pricing and catch volumes, and generated tens of thousands of dollars of orders per month.

But that hasn’t been enough to sustain the company. To stay afloat, the company is expanding sales of their proprietary shipping logistics software, which ensures that overnight shipments of perishable goods are not lost or delayed.

“Sustainable seafood is a little ahead of the curve with consumers,” says founder Martin Reed. “It’s sort of a waiting game until enough consumers catch up.”

Editor’s Note: This article is part of a series on Oceans and Sustainable Fisheries,  in association with SOCAP 13, the Social Capital Markets conference in San Francisco, Sept. 3-6.

Photo courtesy of Eyak Preservation Council

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