Special Report | April 2013 | By Sam Oches

The Story of the Sea

Customers are increasingly interested in the story behind their food. That’s good news for the seafood industry.

The fish used for McDonald’s Fish McBites and Filet-O-Fish sandwich is not local. Nor is the product used for Long John Silver’s Whitefish Fillet. Same goes for Wendy’s Premium Fish Fillet Sandwich, Jack in the Box’s Fish Sandwich, and Quiznos’ Lobster and Seafood Salad.

Not local, that is, unless the consumer lives in a place where the sun might not come up until 9:30 a.m., depending on the time of year. A place where even Subway and Starbucks have not ventured. A place at the edge of the world.

In a day and age when the story of food keeps the cash registers ringing—when local sometimes resonates more with customers than the industry’s trusty value or flavorful propositions—the vast majority of quick-service seafood represents a sort of anomaly. Some of the best sources for high-quality, affordable seafood—the North Atlantic, say, or the Bering Sea—are thousands of miles from many U.S. quick serves.

But seafood doesn’t have to rely on the local value-add. Seafood has its own story to tell.

The edge of the world

Dutch Harbor, Alaska, is not easily accessible for the common traveler. To reach its rocky shores—really, sheer cliffs—one must first dispatch to Anchorage, then catch a puddle jumper over half of the Aleutian Islands, a flight that may or may not include emergency fuel stops in towns bearing names like King Salmon and, appropriately, Cold Bay.

Americans might recognize Dutch Harbor and its host Aleutian Island, Unalaska, from the hit Discovery Channel show “Deadliest Catch.” In truth, the community is not a fend-for-yourself badlands filled with rugged seamen fixing to quarrel at the town’s only watering hole, as the show might portray; locals are quick to remind that the “Deadliest Catch” guys hail from Seattle. Most everyone is hospitable and moved there not for love of the harsh weather and severe isolation, but rather for the great pay, benefits, and vacation time offered by seafood companies like UniSea and Trident.

“The people are really friendly here because they’re from everywhere,” says Richard Bye, executive chef of the Grand Aleutian Hotel in Dutch Harbor. “Everybody has a story here, I’ve found; people like me—I sold my restaurant, in desperation I came up here to go into seafood processing, to pay off some bills, and worked 75 hours a week. And I turned into something else up here, which a lot of people do.”

Seafood sustainability boils down to three things: ensuring adequate fish stocks for future generations, protecting marine ecosystems, and investing in communities built around the fisheries.

Living on an island with more docks than trees, where bald eagles and ravens swarm in place of seagulls, might indeed change a person. But job opportunities abound in Dutch Harbor because it is the top seafood port in the U.S., No. 1 among commercial fishery landings by volume and No. 2 among landings by value. Some 515.2 million pounds of fish worth $163.1 million passed through the port in 2010, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). It’s one of six Alaska ports in the top 10 commercial fishery landings by value.

Together, Alaska’s fisheries employ approximately 52,000 people (about 7 percent of the state’s population; it’s Alaska’s biggest industry) and provide nearly $6 billion worth—an average 2.4 million metric tons—of fish to the global market, according to the Alaska Seafood Marketing Institute (ASMI). Roughly half of domestic wild-caught seafood in the U.S. is pulled from Alaskan waters, including most of the pollock and cod commonly used in quick-service seafood items.

“We do know that Alaskan seafood is the second-most commonly specified brand on U.S. menus,” says Michelle McKee, category leader at Jack in the Box, which uses Alaskan pollock in its Fish Sandwich. “We also know through research that 57 percent of diners prefer to eat wild-caught fish. So these two things definitely play a major role with [our sourcing].”

To understand the core of Alaska’s seafood industry, it helps to consider the diverse bunch of people who risks their lives on the Bering Sea to haul in crab, pollock, cod, and halibut, as well as the tightknit communities banded around the watersheds that breed Alaska’s famed salmon. But consider, too, that this is a story that has evolved since 1959, the year Alaska became the 49th United State, having pursued Union membership mostly so it could better manage its salmon industry; the same year that Alaska wrote into its State Constitution that fisheries would be sustainably managed.

“In many of these fishing communities … fishing is all there is,” says Randy Rice, technical director for ASMI. “So it’s sustainable fishing that sustains communities. The livelihood and future of Alaska rested squarely on the backs of managing fisheries for the long-term.”

While sustainability often has several definitions in the foodservice industry, experts interviewed for this story all say seafood sustainability boils down to three things: ensuring adequate fish stocks for future generations, protecting marine ecosystems, and investing in communities built around the fisheries.

The sustainability of Alaskan fisheries has evolved over the last 54 years. Much of the evolution has revolved around federal mandates implemented to protect domestic waters, like 1976’s Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act, the original incarnation of which phased out foreign fishing in the U.S. and created regional fishery management councils. Updates to the Act in 1996 and 2006 focused on ending overfishing, limiting bycatch (unintentionally caught species), and preserving the fisheries’ ecosystems. The Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) of the United Nations also set basic guidelines for sustainable fishing with its 1995 Code of Conduct for Responsible Fisheries.

While the entire U.S. seafood industry has made important strides in sustainability with these mandates in place and NOAA managing nationwide enforcement, Alaska has continued to be a sort of poster boy for responsible fishing. The state uses a collaborative process between state and federal agencies, as well as community members and industry experts, to set and enforce its sustainability practices. It also takes an incredibly conservative approach to fishing, employing scientists every season to set an Acceptable Biological Catch (ABC), which is the maximum number of fish that can be sustainably caught, and a Total Allowable Catch (TAC), which is the amount of fish that can be legally harvested. The TAC is always lower than the ABC as a precaution.

Observer programs, in which federally approved, third-party members in the field measure harvested seafood amounts, help ensure seafood companies are all playing by the rules.