Local Catch hosts discussion on supply chain issues in wake of Sea to Table expose

Published on
October 5, 2018

Local Catch, a community-of-practice made up of fishermen, organizers, researchers, and consumers, had its first webinar in a series exploring the implications of the Associated Press story on Sea to Table. 

That story, which was published in June, accused the company of falsifying the origins of its seafood and potentially being linked to slave labor in Indonesia. Given the overlap in mission between Sea to Table and a number of other fishing organizations and nonprofits, Local Catch’s first webinar – titled “Slow Fish 201: Good, clean, fair seafood supply chains” – was focused on discussing what other suppliers can do counteract any negative publicity, and how they can ensure they avoid similar pitfalls. 

“What is the overall impact of the Sea to Table Story?” said Colles Stowell, moderator of the discussion and the founder of One Fish Foundation. 

Coordinator of the Northwest Atlantic Marine Alliance Brett Tolley said that the accusations levied against Sea to Table, and the adoption of similar policies by many organizations, are an inevitable symptom of the rising interest by consumers in the sustainability and origins of their seafood. The Slow Fish movement, at its core, developed as a way to connect people to harvesters and smaller fishing communities. 

“The popularity of this model is giving rise to co-optation,” Tolley said. He pointed to the Fulton Fish Market, which re-branded itself with the moniker "community supported fishery," which Tolley said is at odds with the smaller, local seafood driven model of Slow Fish. 

Challenges in supplying sustainable fish with a known origin story are also not new to  TwoXSea co-founder Innokenty Belov. Belov – who first got into the sustainable seafood business with his San Francisco, California-based restaurant “Fish. Restaurant” – has witnessed firsthand how supply chains can be muddied and difficult to navigate. 

“We would have local fishermen bringing us seafood, and we would be able to tell the story of those men and women and what they did every day to bring that bounty into our kitchen,” Belov said of the early days of the restaurant. “There was not nearly enough fish being caught in our local area, being caught in the way we wanted it to be caught.”

That meant going to wholesalers. Belov recounted one wholesaler that provided him with yellowfin tuna for fish tacos, which was reportedly from a boat out of the Marshall Islands. 

“In 2008, I decided that I would take a visit to the Marshall Islands and meet this amazing fishermen,” Belov said. It was at that point the wholesaler revealed that there never was any boat in the Marshall Islands. “For the last four years they had been lying to me.”

The motivation the wholesaler gave Belov was simple: “Well chef, you placed an order every night, and you needed an answer. For four years, you spent a lot of money with us.”

That led Belov to open his own wholesale business, which is currently supplying small-scale harvested seafood in the San Francisco Bay Area and beyond. 

While Belov has experience with the smaller scale of smaller-scale, traceable seafood supply, panel member Kendall Whitney is familiar with the polar opposite. Whitney is the Marketing Manager for Seafood Producers Cooperative, North America’s largest and oldest fishermen-owned co-op. 

For Whitney, maintaining the quality of the product is important, and the biggest challenge is getting fish to the consumers that want it. Located on a small island in Alaska, the co-op must ship millions of pounds of seafood each year. 

“Getting the fish of the island efficiently to them is our biggest challenge,” Whitney said. 

That struggle with scaling things up, while keeping the core values of the business, was a key focus of the discussion later on.

To Tolley, it’s an issue of scaling up the values, and not the suppliers. He cited the meat and poultry industries, and the direction they went in. 

“The question was, how do we scale up to feed the world with cheap food?” he said. “We know where that’s gotten us.”

Without scaling the values of the supply chain, keeping those values won’t work. Of course, how that can be accomplished is an issue on its own. 

“I don’t know that I see a clear answer to scaling the values up-front, except doing it thoughtfully and slowly,” said Stowell. 

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