Don't Underestimate Buyers' Influence


James Wright, Senior Editor

Published on
April 3, 2008

Safeway's decision to restrict farmed-salmon purchases from Chile wasn't surprising. Infectious salmon anemia (ISA) has torn through Chile's aquaculture industry for months, causing losses in revenue and consumer confidence. Marine Harvest ASA, the Norwegian conglomerate that operates many of the hardest-hit farms, first admitted a "challenging biological situation" last fall. Challenging would be a kind description of the current state of affairs.

In the New York Times' controversial report last week, "Salmon Virus Indicts Chile's Fishing Methods," ISA and a slew of other environmental and social issues regarding salmon farming were explored. Leaders of Chile's embattled salmon industry refute many of the details of the story, in which a Marine Harvest official in Chile named Safeway and Costco as two of its salmon buyers, bringing the two major U.S. retailers into the fray.

So Safeway reacted, and its decision brings up an important point â?¢ that seafood buyers are the true power brokers when it comes to affecting change. Without a market, there is no production.

For instance, Sea Web's "Give Swordfish a Break" campaign in the late '90s enlisted many influential chefs who removed the species from their menus. The movement ended two years later, when the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration offered enough proof that swordfish stocks had recovered. The market spoke.

Bluefin tuna is another example, but the movement to conserve the fish has not taken hold. With a precipitous decline in bluefin tuna stocks in the eastern Atlantic Ocean and Mediterranean Sea, the International Council for the Conservation of Atlantic Tunas (ICCAT) opted not to place a moratorium on tuna fishing in those waters last year, despite the urging of the United States and Canada to do so.

Without any measurable backlash from seafood buyers (especially in Japan, where sushi restaurants are judged by the quality of their tuna) fishing continues in those regions.

Farmed salmon, however, is a complicated issue. The industry's enemies â?¢ and there are many â?¢ have been sharpening their swords for years. Just this week, the Coastal Alliance for Aquaculture Reform in Vancouver, British Columbia, devoted a Web site urging Safeway to rethink buying any farmed salmon, citing environmental concerns.

But salmon is one of the best-selling seafood items in the United States, and the only way to provide fresh fillets year-round is to procure farmed product. In 2006, U.S. consumers ate 2.026 pounds per capita, ranking salmon (the consumption figure includes both farmed and wild) behind only shrimp (4.4 pounds) and canned tuna (2.9 pounds). Complete removal of fresh salmon is not going to happen.

Safeway is doing what it feels is best for business and its image. Making the call now is the safe way to salvage consumer confidence while buying time to explore other options. And if ISA continues to plague Chile, expect other retailers to follow Safeway's lead.

Thank you,
James Wright
Assistant Editor
SeaFood Business

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