NFI Chair, Seattle Fish CEO Derek Figueroa bullish on seafood industry’s 2021 outlook

Despite the enormous challenges and tragedies that COVID-19 has inflicted upon the industry and the world, new National Fisheries Institute (NFI) Chair Derek Figueroa said the pandemic has been a catalyst for change for seafood.

Figueroa, the president and CEO of Denver, Colorado, U.S.A.-based Seattle Fish Co., told SeafoodSource he is looking forward to "bringing diverse voices together” in his new, one-year position at NFI.

“It is a great opportunity to lead the organization that I have had enormous respect for, for a long time. I am really excited to contribute more to the organization and collaborate with leaders, especially in this time,” he said.

Taking over the chairmanship of NFI in the midst of a global pandemic isn’t a challenge, but rather an opportunity, he said.

“Change brings opportunity. It prompts us to make necessary adjustments and adapt to new situations,” Figueroa said at the virtual Global Seafood Market Conference on 5 February.

Figueroa said he’s optimistic the seafood industry will adapt and thrive as a result of the pandemic, he told SeafoodSource. However, future growth of the industry is dependent upon the industry working together as a whole; not pitting themselves against each other.

“My challenge to the industry is: let’s make sure we are we are positioned as the protein of choice. Better results come from real good alignment on a shared mission and shared focus,” Figueroa said.

Seafood sales have exploded in retail establishments this year, which has been a boon that the industry needs to capitalize on by continuing to push new and different species and formats onto customers freshly turned on to the category.

“We really want to make the case that quality seafood can come in many different forms,” Figueroa said.

But the COVID-19 pandemic has also exposed vulnerabilities in seafood and restaurant supply chains that the industry must improve upon, Figueroa said. For example, the pandemic exposed the vulnerability the seafood supply chain has in terms of technology and base innovation, according to Figueroa.

“I’ve been in the seafood industry for 30 years. We have seen stress in terms of labor, wage, and costs. These are areas that are ripe for investment in technology such as forecasting, visibility across the supply chain, and traceability,” Figueroa said. “It is an opportunity to engage the customers and reduce costs.”

Figueroa said the challenges facing the foodservice sector can be overcome, aided by the shared values of restauranteurs and members of the seafood industry.

“They are a lot of resilient people who are really scrappy, who don’t give up, and find new ways to do it. I’m really positive about some of the opportunities [for the seafood industry],” Figueroa said. “It really is a pivotal time in our industry. There is uncertainty in the market for our customers. But change can be a catalyst, such as people becoming more adventurous and eating new species.”

With the surge in take-out caused by the pandemic, the seafood and restaurant sectors quickly learned they needed to update their packaging to improve the take-out experience, Figueroa said. Retailers are also improving their tray-packed seafood offerings, catching up with the poultry and beef sectors. And they’re adding more grab-and-go items, meal kits, and ready-to-cook products. Figueroa said that’s a response to the question: “How do we make seafood more available to folks on the retail side?”

Figueroa said the industry needs to keep pushing the message that seafood is a healthy, nutritious protein with a lower carbon footprint than some other proteins. And one of the main targets of that message has to continue to be the U.S. government. The fruits of that effort could be seen in changes made in the most recent update of the 2020-2025 U.S. Dietary Guidelines for Americans, he noted.

“We now have government telling people to eat seafood twice a week,” Figueroa said. 

But Figueroa said there’s more work to be done in getting the government to further back seafood, such as the Farmers to Families Food Box program, which finally made seafood eligible for inclusion this year, though bureaucratic red tape essentially has made it impossible for seafood providers to participate in this year’s program.

“Parity doesn’t necessarily extend to seafood. We want to make sure our fishermen suppliers have the same opportunities,” Figueroa said.

Figueroa also wants NFI to focus more on telling the positive stories about seafood, in addition to “playing defense about bad stories,” he said. The organization can communicate “how proud of the seafood industry we are and how we have changed.”

Figueroa said it’s too early to tell how the approach of the new administration of U.S. President Joe Biden will affect the industry, but he said he’s hopeful some Biden policies will align with the industry’s goals.

“President Biden’s focus on climate change is a positive for seafood, and we have a positive climate change story to tell,” Figueroa said. “if you compare the environmental impact and water usage, seafood stacks up pretty well to other proteins.”

With the new administration, “we will see a lot more focus on conservation,” Figueroa said. “The folks he has put in place really do value science, data, and collaboration, which will help stay the course on some of the gains we have made.”

Trade agreements and foreign relations are likely to take a back seat in Biden’s priority list as his administration attends to pressing domestic issues, at least for the first part of this year, Figueroa predicted.

Photo courtesy of Seattle Fish Co.


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