Sustainable seafood

It tastes better and is good for the environment but can the traditional fish and chip shop afford to stock sustainable seafood? By Frank Leggett

With more and more consumers demanding that their seafood be sustainably sourced, high-end restaurants are happy to oblige—and pass on the cost to the customer in the process. But what about mid-range and quick-service restaurants? Can a neighbourhood fish and chip shop stock ethically sourced fish and pass on the cost without damaging its business?

First, we need to understand there is a big difference between ‘sustainable’ and ‘ethically sourced’. Sustainable seafood is caught or farmed in ways that do not have a negative impact on fish populations or the health of the marine environment. Ethically sourced seafood is sustainable but also encompasses how the seafood is caught and processed. It is similar to the way Fair Trade and Rainforest Alliance coffee is sourced.

Sealord, a New Zealand-based company that supplies seafood to Australia, NZ and over 40 other countries, has embraced ethically sourced seafood. “As a New Zealand company with main operations and vessels in NZ and Australia, we absolutely believe in fair trade, safe working conditions and sourcing seafood sustainably and ethically,” says Natalie Gerasimoski, marketing manager of Sealord. “However, ethical seafood is not something the market has really picked up yet—the focus and momentum is all around sustainability. I think the ethical seafood story will come but not for a few more years.”

There is a price premium for seafood sourced from sustainable and well-managed fisheries. There has also been an evolution in the consumer-driven demand for this type of seafood. Until recently, consumers were interested in environmentally friendly sourced seafood but not at the expense of price. “Nowadays we are seeing the social and ethical shift of consumers as they are prepared to pay more in order to ensure there is fish for the future,” says Gerasimoski. “This, in turn, has led to a lot more establishments sourcing sustainable seafood for their stores.”

The problem for mid-range establishments and traditional fish and chip shops is that they have to compete against similar establishments that don’t use ethical products. Yet the problem almost resolves itself as they are chasing two very different markets.

Fish and chip shops that are not sourcing sustainable seafood are chasing low-value, high-volume sales. They are appealing to the value end of the market and there is definitely an audience and customer base for this.

“Fish and chip shops that market themselves as a sustainable seafood shop tend to be premium establishments in a suburb with a high socio-economic demographic,” says Gerasimoski. “Their customers are willing to pay the price premium and, as a result, these establishments are doing well.”

Right on the border of the Sydney suburbs of inner-west Glebe and Annandale, the old tramsheds have been converted into a vibrant food destination. Tramsheds is now a beautifully restored dining precinct housing providores who are passionate about food, sustainability and education. One of the many establishments there is Fish & Co, an eatery, takeaway outlet and retail shop that prides itself on its ethical and wild caught sustainable seafood.

“Right now, more sustainable seafood is being consumed than at any other time. And its popularity is growing.”Juliana Payne, CEO, Restaurant & Catering Australia

“The seafood we sell is sourced mostly from Australian and New Zealand fishermen and fisheries that are 100 per cent committed to sustainable fishing practices,” says owner Sajad Akhlaghi. “We source sockeye salmon from Alaska as all salmon is farm-raised in Australia and we only sell wild caught seafood.”

With a clear and successful marketing strategy that highlights the sustainable credentials of Fish & Co, customers are extremely grateful to know that the seafood they are eating is fully traceable back to its sustainable source. “Our customers do have to pay a little more for Australian and New Zealand produce but they are assured it’s fresh, delicious, healthy and has been harvested on a level that’s sustainable,” says Akhlaghi.

One of the ways to assist consumers in the search for sustainable seafood is the accurate labelling of country of origin at point of sale, whether it’s at a market, shop or on a restaurant menu. Many in the seafood industry are pushing for mandatory labelling.

But is this the best way to go? Juliana Payne, chief executive officer of Restaurant & Catering Australia, would like to see a voluntary system in place. “The simple fact is that the cost of changing every menu to reflect the content of the seafood is just prohibitive,” she says. “The turnover of many restaurants and the changing sources of their produce really makes it unworkable. Educating the industry of the benefits of ethically and locally sourced seafood—and all other produce—is the first step.”

A voluntary system is also essentially self-regulating. If a cafe, restaurant or fish and chip shop is using sustainable seafood, they’re going to promote that fact. It allows the business owner to decide if their cost structure can encompass the promotion of their sustainable produce and then use it as a marketing tool.

On the other hand, the costs and logistics around mandatory labelling are massive. Voluntary labelling allows for information to be disseminated by such means as blackboards, whiteboards or a sheet of paper slipped in the menu. It means the customer is informed without the cost imposition of a heavy-handed regulatory approach.

While the growth of sustainable seafood has been largely consumer-driven, there is still a place for the old value serve of fish and chips. In lower socio-economic areas, the customers want a good meal at a value price. Often they are making a decision to choose the healthier option for themselves and their family. If these consumers are also encouraged to ask where what they are eating originates, then they can make more informed choices in regard to what they can afford. This will continue to drive change from consumers rather than mandating what types of information needs to be displayed on menus.

A takeaway shop in a high socio-economic area can provide sustainable seafood as the customers are willing to pay an extra dollar or two for their conscience. It makes them feel good as customers, and provides the shop with a workable business model. The fact that these two types of shops are servicing different ends of the market leaves plenty of room for both to operate.

“Right now, more sustainable seafood is being consumed than at any other time,” says Juliana Payne. “And its popularity is growing. That’s good for the environment, good for fish stocks and good for our industry.”

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