The price of fish

seafoodThe demand for sustainable seafood continues to increase. But what does ‘sustainable’ really mean? And how do you convince diners that one fish is worth more than another? By Chris Sheedy.

An increasing number of restaurants are choosing to offer seafood products that are in some way ethical or sustainable. They may be line-caught or from a populous species; they may be from a local fisher and have travelled fewer food miles; or they may be from a supplier that is certified carbon neutral.

The multitude of definitions (and there are plenty!) of ‘sustainable seafood’ is one of the problems the industry faces in marketing ethical seafood says Oliver Edwards, sous chef with the McConnell Group and founder of ethical seafood website

“As a chef, I was always really interested in seafood sustainability,” Edwards says. “But basically there was a lack of information. What I could find was often conflicting or contradicting itself. There are a lot of resources available, some from the government, some from industry and some from conservation groups. But they are not always consistent.”

It is for this reason that Edwards launched the GoodFishBadFish website, in an attempt to clarify and simplify the message about sustainable seafood. Though even with clarification and simplification, individuals still have different ideas about what makes seafood sustainable.

The ‘sustainable’ puzzle

“I don’t like the narrative of doom and gloom that we often hear,” Edwards says. “Over the last six years, the more I have explored seafood sustainability, the harder it has become for me to pin down exactly what it means. Some of the narratives in a global context are not applicable in the Australian context. Sustainability means a lot of different things to a lot of different people.”

A restaurant’s first job when it comes to marketing ethical seafood is to understand what your customers think ‘ethical seafood’ means. What is important to them and what narrative actually interests them?

Austral Seafood Solutions, for instance, is the only fishing company in the world to be certified carbon neutral. Whether a customer is ordering Patagonian toothfish, mackerel icefish or Canadian clearwater scallops, they can rest assured that the supply of the seafood left no carbon footprint.

“We offset the carbon even for the products we import,” says Markus Gerlich, general manager of Austral Seafood Solutions. “Many chefs talk about food miles but the big benefit with our products is that the carbon is offset.”

Austral Seafood Solutions offers another feel-good factor for consumers: its seafood is always delivered in its natural state. None of it is processed.

Carbon offset and not processed: already, we have two perfectly marketable benefits of ethical seafood that consumers may, or may not, be interested in.

This is where knowing your customer base comes in handy, Edwards says. If you don’t know what interests them, how can you market specific benefits to them?

“For some customers, it means eating locally caught seafood,” he says. “For others, it means adhering to certain certification schemes. Once you know what is important to your customers, successful marketing is about providing a message that is positive, not negative.”

Getting the message right

Edwards says he always tries to resist preaching; he never attempts to tell people what they should and should not eat.

“I’d rather give people a list of fantastic things that they could be eating rather than making it difficult for people by telling them what to avoid,” he says. “On GoodFishBadFish, we previously had a colour-coded ranking system for the seafood species we discussed. Now we have removed that and instead we simply have our list of favourites—seafood that we can wholeheartedly get behind.”

“If you make it all negative and constantly tell people what not to eat, you’ll likely leave them thinking it’s all just too hard, so they’ll have a chicken breast instead. I try to enable people rather than kill them with guilt.”

The best way to communicate the value in the meal and the reason for a small price bump, Edwards says, is to tell the story around the seafood. Freshness, quality and provenance are more important to people eating seafood than they are to consumers of most other food groups. So restaurants selling seafood should begin telling stories of where the product originated.

Just as important is the story behind why the restaurant itself decided to source their seafood more sustainably.

“It may be that they chose to source locally so the seafood didn’t travel very far,” Edwards says. “In this case, they should be promoting the fact that it was caught today and, in fact, here is the name of the fisherman, and here is where he caught the fish etc. It’s about communicating as much information as possible to create a story around the seafood product.”

Cost may not be an issue

It is important to resist the temptation, Edwards says, of implying that ‘sustainable’ means ‘more expensive’.

“Often that’s an impression that’s come out of organic meat, fruit and vegetables, where sustainability might mean decreased stocking density or an increase in the labour required to produce the product and, therefore, an increased price,” he says.

“With seafood, it doesn’t always mean an increase in price. Certainly if it’s a certified product, then there’s a need to recoup the cost of certification and it might be more expensive. But often the most sustainable stuff is the local, small scale fisheries that can offer the cheaper species.”

So the process of putting in place a purchasing policy and marketing it to customers must begin with a strong understanding of what sustainability means to you.

“There are so many meanings of ‘sustainable’ and there is not one meaning that is more correct than any other,” Edwards says. “The important part is that the business understands what it means when it talks about sustainable seafood. Do they mean supporting the local economy? Are they concerned about food miles? Are they worried about stock status? Whatever it is, communicate it through story.”

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