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Gone Fishing

In the seafood category, retailers are focusing on sustainability. Consumers just want fish

When I moved from Toronto to a Nova Scotia fishing village, in 1995, it was in the throes of a cod-fishing moratorium that was robbing the locals of the one industry that had sustained them for more than 200 years. Even the occasional afternoons my family spent “jigging” for cod–up to seven fish each–during the early years of the moratorium are bittersweet memories. Today, 80% of the world’s fisheries are fully fished, over-fished or depleted, according to the United Nations. Sustainable seafood harvesting–the catching or farming of only non-threatened fish–is more than a buzz phrase; it’s the very future of our oceans.

Just as the world’s waters are emptying, demand for seafood is set to surge. That’s largely because people know the health benefits of fish. A recent report from the World Health Organization and the UN went so far as to warn of the health risks of not eating seafood. The report’s sense of urgency will likely cause governments to push for more seafood consumption, says Holly Reardon, director of marketing at Bedford, N.S.-based Clearwater Seafoods Ltd. Partnership.

Growth will come for other reasons as well. The fastest-growing population segment in Canada is South Asian and Chinese, and seafood is a big part of a traditional Asian diet. Asians get 25% of their protein from seafood, versus an estimated 7% for North Americans, according to the Alaska Seafood Marketing Institute. And, as Reardon points out, 85% of North Americans say they’re eating more seafood than they did two years ago. So making
sure there is enough haddock and scallops to go around is becoming a priority for retailers and manufacturers.

Of redlists and bluefin tuna

In most countries, major retailers now have policies to follow about sourcing seafood only from fisheries that have been certified by the Marine Stewardship Council (MSC) or other not-for-profit organizations that have developed standards for independent, third-party certification of sustainable wild-capture fisheries.

Some retailers are also cutting back on sales of so-called “redlist” seafoods–fish considered endangered, such as yellowfin and bluefin tuna, shark and Chilean sea bass. Holding Canadian retailers accountable is Greenpeace, which for the last two years has graded the country’s eight largest supermarket chains on their sustainable seafood practices. (This year’s top-ranked chain was Overwaitea; last year’s was Loblaw.)

Loblaw, which claims to be the largest seller of MSC-certified products in Canada, has pledged that all seafood in its stores will come from sustainable sources by the end of 2013. That includes not only fresh fish, but also frozen and canned seafood as well as the seafood in cat treats, says Paul Uys, Loblaw’s vice-president of sustainable seafood.

But are these efforts resonating with shoppers? Loblaw says its research shows that 41% of Canadians consider sustainable seafood to be “a very important issue.” Says Uys: “As consumers become more aware of the issues facing our oceans, we believe there will be an increasing consumer demand and expectation for sustainable seafood.” To that end, the company is waging an ambitious consumer awareness campaign that consists of a website (oceansfortomorrow.ca), a Facebook page, brochures and a documentary film titled The End of the Line about the state of our oceans. Loblaw has distributed this movie to more than 700 schools across the country.

Seafood brands are also talking to consumers about sustainability. High Liner Foods just launched a website at highlinersustainability.com, says its vice-president of retail marketing, Teresa Armstrong. “As the knowledge grows with our consumers, sustainable seafood’s going to continue to grow in importance with them.” Jean Lamontagne, vice-president of marketing at True North Salmon in Saint John, N.B., concedes that consumer involvement in seafood sustainability is still low. But Lamontagne points out that True North’s research shows that fish-eating customers are typically receptive to messages around sustainability.

Any discussion of sustainability must also encompass aquaculture–farmed fish–which accounts for 50% of seafood consumed worldwide. While there are no international standards for farmed fish, the World Wildlife Fund’s Aquaculture Program has developed draft standards for sustainable salmon farming. Providing an example of environmentally friendly fish farming, Ken Berger, the Thornhill, Ont.-based Canadian representative for the Catfish Institute, says farmed catfish are raised in closed, inland ponds using recirculated freshwater and fed a mostly vegetarian diet.

Fish without the guts

Regardless of sustainability issues, consumer shopping habits for fish are hard to pin down. The latest figures from Nielsen show moderate growth at best in mainstay products while niche products are enjoying spectacular growth. For instance, sales of canned and bottled pink salmon were up only 1% and flat in volume during the 52 weeks ending July 3, 2010, according to Nielsen (see chart on pg. 44). Meanwhile, canned and bottled coho soared 138% in sales and 271% in volume.

One thing consumers want more than anything in seafood is convenience, says Brandon Gremont of Toppits Foods, a provider of frozen fish and seafood in Woodbridge, Ont. “They have a fear of preparing fish, and when some or all of the work is taken away from them, they are more willing to try it.” At Charlie’s Seafood Market in Saskatoon, owner Charlie Wong finds that his customers want “something they can just take from the freezer and throw in the oven for a quick, healthy meal–the least amount of preparation.” No wonder manufacturers and retailers report that their big sellers are seafood items that are convenient for consumers to prepare. High Liner’s 454-gram Wild Salmon Individually Quick Frozen Fillets are a huge seller, the company says. And Loblaw’s top-selling item by volume is canned tuna.

Value-added products are also becoming increasingly popular with time-starved consumers. “We’re looking at several value-added offerings, whereas in the past we have mostly supplied our retail customers with primary offerings of scallops, lobster, shrimp and other shellfish,” notes Clearwater’s Reardon. “The population is divided between people looking for restaurant-quality meals that they can put on the table in a hurry, and others who, due to the increased culinary knowledge from Food Network [TV shows] are looking for simple and pristine products, either fresh or frozen at sea,” adds Stefan Czapalay, a chef and chief culinary consultant for Clearwater.

Armstrong notes that value-added products, such as High Liner’s Signature breaded and battered fish fillets, its newer Pan Sear Selects and old favourites like fish sticks are big sellers. At the fresh counter, Berger cites the popularity of catfish fillets marinated in lemon pepper, Cajun or Italian seasoning. Many retailers are now doing their own in-house mixture. Meanwhile, there is a movement in Europe to offer prepared value-added fish and seafood meals in the refrigerated section, says Gremont, noting that it “may become a trend in Canada in the next five to 10 years.” By that time, hopefully all fish will be harvested in a sustainable way, as we’ve learned from the tragic tale of the vanishing Atlantic cod.

4 Merchandising Tips

1. Pick a fish of the week and offer customers easy recipes (think simple, convenient prep methods with few ingredients) that they can try at home.

2. Put the spotlight on sustainable seafood and provide species information, such as the location and method of harvest.

3. Use end caps and bunkers to drive sales of frozen fish in combination with flyers. Cross-merchandise with complementary products, such as frozen vegetables, to provide meal solutions.

4. It can be tricky, but consider offering samples. The Catfish Institute, for example, offers retailers what it calls a “Demo in a Box” kit for sampling. It also has a “Promo in a Box,” which includes talking points, recipes and other promotional information.

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