SeaWatch exhibits in Japan

SeaWatch International Ltd., the world’s largest harvester and processor of clams, exhibited at this week’s Foodex Japan 2010, Asia’s biggest food and beverage trade show, for the first time this year. It is the only overseas trade show at which the company will exhibit this year.

“We do very little exhibiting outside the country, but with the situation so tight in the U.S. now, we decided it would be a good time to try to drum up some business here,” said Steve Gordon, VP of the company’s eastern division, who manned the booth.

Easton, Md.-based SeaWatch operates a fleet of 34 dredging vessels, harvesting surf clams and ocean clams in the Mid-Atlantic from Norfolk, Va., north to Cape Cod, Mass. They run four processing plants along the East Coast.

Sea clams (Spisula soidissima), also called surf clams, live in waters 30 to 120 feet deep and mature in five to seven years, while ocean clams (Arctica islandia), or ocean quahogs, live at 120 to 300 feet and will often be older that the person eating it, as most commercially packed clams are from 40 to 100 years old. They have been determined by scientists to live as long as 229 years.

The fishery was a test case in the United States for introduction of the individual transferable quota (ITQ) system in 1990, and is generally considered an ecological success. A percentage of the allowable catch was granted to vessel owners as a right, based on historical data, and they were allowed to buy and sell these shares. Harvesting of 10 percent of the biomass is permitted each year, said Gordon.

Government reports on the experiment confirm that overcapitalization of the fishery has been reduced and vessel efficiency has been increased, while an incentive against over-harvesting has been provided. Yet, the socio-economic results are not all positive; there has been consolidation of share ownership with SeaWatch emerging as the Goliath of the industry.

According to a 1995 Congressional Research Service report titled Individual Transferable Quotas in Fishery Management, “In an unrestricted ITQ program, an individual or group of individuals could influence the market by obtaining a disproportionate share of allocations. Processors or wholesalers could also exert substantial control over the industry by obtaining a large portion of the quota shares. Under an ITQ program, operators with access to capital at the lowest interest rates will be in the best position to acquire additional quota shares. Thus, corporate investors, rather than more efficient fishermen, are likely to purchase available ITQ shares.”

In 2005 there was an industry shakeout, as Canadian and Vietnamese product contributed to an oversupply of clam meats in the marketplace, just as vessel operating costs rose due to high diesel fuel prices. Eastern Shore Seafood Products of Mappsville, Va., a vertically-integrated company operating both vessels and a processing plant, sold out to a SeaWatch-led consortium.

Gordon’s own former company, Mid-Atlantic Foods of Pocomoc, Md., also became a part of the SeaWatch family in January of that year and he has since been working both domestic and overseas sales for SeaWatch. Mid-Atlantic had been working with a Japanese distributor, Ras Superfries, for 25 years, and the relationship was carried over to SeaWatch.

Gordon said Ras has “done a real good job.” Not only does Ras sell the company’s existing line but has worked with SeaWatch to create dehydrated clams for use in powdered soups, which are popular in Japan. Ras represents many companies and had its own booth in the Japanese exhibition area, where it displayed some its latest innovations, including a layered “sole and shrimp sandwich” and bacon-wrapped sole logs, both processed in Vietnam.

Gordon offered samples of New England Clam Chowder at the show. As a clam processor, SeaWatch can easily use fresh clam juice in its chowders, while other soup companies may have to use juice products with artificial flavors or salty preservatives. Canned clam juice was also displayed. Gordon said the company does not offer Manhattan-style chowder, which contains tomato, because there are so many regional variations that it is hard to satisfy preferences.

“You go to New Jersey, and they expect something different. We’d rather sell them the clams and let them make it the way they like it,” said Gordon.

Seventy percent of the company’s products are for the foodservice market, and 30 percent are for the industrial market, as ingredients for further processing. However, the company does can retail-size soups under contract for other brands.

SeaWatch exports to Canada, Mexico and New Zealand, but Japan is by far its largest overseas market. “It’s also the most quality-conscious,” said Gordon.

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