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.

“Sustainability is a process,” Rice says. “It’s not a target and an endpoint, and you could determine that a fishery is sustainable at [a certain] point, but it’s [only] going to be sustainable if there is a management process in place to keep it that way. The management process that’s going to keep it that way has to have certain essential elements, and the first is that it’s got to be based on science.”

Its use of science helped Alaska, in 2000, become the largest fishery in the world to be certified sustainable by the Marine Stewardship Council (MSC). The MSC has come to be known as one of the preeminent third-party certification standards for sustainable seafood.

“The Alaska pollock fishery, that’s a real model for the world in sustainability,” says Kerry Coughlin, regional director of MSC Americas. “It’s a large fishery, but their management of that has been exemplary over the years. The managers in Alaska and the federal managers on that fishery are very knowledgeable, very committed on pollock.”

Pollock is the most abundant commercial fish species in the Bering Sea, making up 60 percent of the total biomass, according to ASMI. Alaskan pollock is also the largest whitefish fishery in the world and the largest U.S. fishery by volume—good news for companies like McDonald’s, which uses the fish in its Filet-O-Fish Sandwich and Fish McBites.

Pat Shanahan is program director for Genuine Alaska Pollock Producers, which represents more than 95 percent of the state’s production. She says the pollock industry in Alaska is a prime example of sustainability because of its use of data to protect fish stocks. Every year, she says, fishery scientists conduct surveys to create quotas for the TAC. All pollock catches are then weighed at the time of catch and reported against the quota—statistics are reported by federal observers at 100 percent of the boats and processing plants—and fishing is stopped once quotas are met.

“The fishermen really defer to the science,” Shanahan says. “We wait to see what the scientists say. There are years when they’ve cut back fishing in order to adjust to natural fluctuations in the stock, and the industry just readjusts to that. That’s not always the case with other fisheries.”

Alaskan pollock’s story has more to tell than sustainability. The product is nutritious (high in protein and omega-3s, and low in fat and calories), low in waste (nearly all of the fish is used in some fashion), and low in harm to the environment (greenhouse gases associated with the industry are lower than those for red meat and poultry, while bycatch stands at a seafood industry–high 1 percent). Pollock pulled from Alaskan waters is also processed and frozen within 72 hours of catch, Shanahan says, and isn’t thawed until it’s cooked for consumption.

“I think that’s particularly of interest to [quick-service] operators who are looking at distribution over a wide geographic area,” Shanahan says. “They’re nationwide and want to have consistent branded items that are going to be the same no matter if I eat them in Kentucky or I eat them in California.”

No, Alaskan seafood in Kentucky and California cannot be considered local. But those invested in the people, the history, and the production of Alaskan fish products are committed to a different kind of food story.

“The Alaska brand that we’ve tried to build for many years now stands for … quality, it stands for sustainability, but it also stands for a pristine environment and ‘wild’ and it kind of brings up that ‘fishermen in the elements’ kind of thing,” ASMI’s Rice says. “So there’s a lot of really positive messaging that goes with the association with Alaska seafood.”

The sea’s supply

Gulf Shores, Alabama, is not nearly as isolated as Dutch Harbor, but travelers may still find it’s off the beaten path. To reach its palm tree–lined, white-sand beaches, plenty of tourists could tell you the best plan of action is to fly into Pensacola and then take 292 West along the coast, with an obligatory stop at the Flori-Bama dive that straddles the states’ borders.

Gulf Shores sits near the mouth of Mobile Bay and is home to a number of fisheries and seafood processors. Whereas Alaska’s fishermen are grizzled workers accustomed to the rough elements of the Bering Sea, Alabama’s come across as everyday sportsmen, Southern drawls and sharp tan lines to boot. But don’t let the laid-back vibes of the Gulf Coast fool you: The Gulf’s seafood industry is hard at work hauling in shrimp, oysters, crab, and various finfish. According to the Gulf Seafood Marketing Coalition, Gulf Coast fisheries like those found in and around Gulf Shores account for 70 percent of domestic U.S. oysters and 69 percent of domestic shrimp.

“The fishermen really defer to the science. There are years when they’ve cut back fishing in order to adjust to natural fluctuations in the stock, and the industry just readjusts to that.”

While Gulf Shores and Alabama aren’t nearly the hub of Gulf Coast fishing—that would be Louisiana, with three of the top 10 commercial fishery landings by volume, according to NOAA—it did play host in October to industry executives from Texas, Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama, and Florida, who met as part of the Gulf Seafood Marketing Coalition. The Coalition was established by the Gulf States Marine Fisheries Commission in the wake of 2010’s BP oil spill to help promote the Gulf’s fisheries, something the executives had at the top of their agenda during the October meeting.

The problem is, in the last 10 years, the Gulf Coast’s seafood industry hasn’t just had sustainability to focus on; storms like Hurricane Katrina devastated oyster supplies, while the oil spill severely damaged consumer perception of the Gulf’s products.

“I think the Gulf is a great example of a place where natural and man-made disasters have really impacted the fisheries there,” says Gavin Gibbons, spokesman for the National Fisheries Institute (NFI), an industry trade association. “Despite their obvious resilience, it has been a tough row to hoe in the Gulf. So that is a far different challenge than what you might find in Alaska based on whether the salmon is running that well or not. Those are very different challenges, and they have to be managed regionally.”

That’s exactly what people like Chris Blankenship, director of Alabama Marine Resources Division, are doing. Blankenship oversees the state’s reefs, opening and closing access to them based on the stocks available, and manages the amount of harvested seafood each season.

“We have a limit on the number of oysters that can be harvested per person per day,” Blankenship says. “That keeps our reefs healthy, puts product on the market, but also allows us to not overharvest those regions where they won’t be productive the next year or the next year.”

Blankenship says the Gulf is hard at work improving the sustainability of its fisheries. The Gulf States Marine Fisheries Commission is rolling out a voluntary traceability program, Gulf Seafood Trace, that ensures customers know where their seafood is coming from, and the industry is also working on a third-party sustainability certification program with New Orleans–based Audubon Aquarium of the Americas.

“The things that we’re doing are to give the buyers confidence that what they’re getting from these Gulf seafood processors is sustainable or is traceable, all of those things that they want,” Blankenship says. “We’re doing that to improve the markets and improve customer confidence in what comes out of the Gulf. But it’s a work in progress. It’s not going to happen overnight.”

Much like Alaska’s seafood industry, sustainability in the Gulf Coast and the rest of the world’s waters has been long in the making. According to the Monterey Bay Aquarium, industrial-scale fishing that sprung up in the late 1800s overexploited most commercial fisheries. By the late 1990s, stocks at nearly two-thirds of assessed fisheries were in need of rebuilding, and seafood practices like bottom trawling—in which enormous nets are dragged along the ocean floor—had heavily damaged marine ecosystems.

But moves like the Magnuson-Stevens Act and the FAO Code of Conduct helped bring about real change. Adding to that effort were organizations like the Monterey Bay Aquarium’s Seafood Watch Program, which gives consumers and businesses sustainably caught seafood recommendations based on a green, yellow, and red level system; and third-party certification programs that use scientist-approved standards and audits to validate fisheries’ practices and provide eco-labels for retailers to use on their products.

The MSC is the most high profile among sustainability certifications. The Council, launched in 1997, teamed up with a few hundred scientists, academics, and seafood experts around the world to determine best practices for sustainable fishing. Today, the MSC grades fisheries on a scale of 1 to 100, Coughlin says, where 60 is the minimum for sustainability and 80 is a “global best practice.”

“Whenever there is a score from 60 to 80, there will be an improvement action on the certificate,” Coughlin says. “So the idea is to get to that global best practice. Not everyone will agree with every single assessment. Some people have more [stringent] agendas, where they want to ban all of a certain type of fishing. But that’s not what the MSC is about; it's about global scientifically defensible consensus on what is a best practice in sustainability.”

The MSC logo has become one of the most widely used eco-labels. In 2010, Walmart committed to selling only MSC-certified seafood, and this year, McDonald’s began printing the MSC eco-label on all of its Filet-O-Fish and Fish McBites packaging, acknowledging the sustainable Alaskan pollock industry.

But there is some controversy surrounding the MSC’s practices. For starters, there are costs associated with the certification that prevent some well-managed fisheries from pursuing it, thereby creating a perception that they are not sustainable. And a National Public Radio story published in February suggested that the MSC certifies some fisheries “with conditions,” giving undue credit to fisheries that are not as well managed.

All experts interviewed for this story had a favorable impression of the MSC, although many believe eco-labels are becoming less necessary as best practices become more widely accepted. Many of Alaska’s fisheries have abandoned the MSC certification in favor of Responsible Fisheries Management Certification, which is based on the FAO Code of Conduct and does not have an eco-label. ASMI’s Rice says an eco-label like MSC’s would be “redundant” for Alaska’s fisheries.

Michael Rubino, fisheries director of NOAA’s aquaculture program, says third-party certifications are mostly market-driven processes. By adding an eco-label to a product, retailers and foodservice operators are able to use verified marketing materials that communicate best practices to customers. But he says certifications are not necessary to prove sustainability; NOAA is required by law to make sure that is already happening in the U.S.

“The kind of regulatory requirements we have in the United States and the science that we do and the best management practices that the industry uses, whether it’s commercial fishing or aquaculture, are often the kinds of things that these certification groups turn to as a baseline,” Rubino says. “Because we are doing it well here.”

Aquaculture is the burgeoning new fishing practice that now accounts for about half of all seafood consumed in the U.S., according to the FAO. Aquaculture programs are essentially fish farms, in which fish are raised and harvested in a controlled environment, either in freshwater ponds or seawater shelters. Though the sustainability of aquaculture programs has been called into question—some have contested the fact that aquaculture feed programs often use other fish, for example, while others are worried about the effect seawater shelters have on their ecosystems—NOAA is diligent in its aquaculture enforcement. Further, certifications like the Global Aquaculture Alliance exist to validate aquaculture programs around the world.

“The good news is … there’s a new scientific consensus emerging that [aquaculture] is the most resource-efficient way to produce protein when you compare it to other terrestrial animals,” Rubino says.

That may give seafood end users more reason to turn to farmed fish, especially as the world’s population—and with it, seafood demand—grows.

“We see wild-captured fisheries as basically static,” says Ed Rhodes, co-director of the division of aquaculture and sustainability at provider Phillips Seafood. “There’s 100 million metric tons that comes from wild fisheries every year; they’re going to be stationary at best. If we’re going to try to feed another billion people or two billion people in the next 10 or 20 years and we’re going to eat the same amount of fish as we do now per person, it will have to come from aquaculture.”

The fish out of water

Louisville, Kentucky, doesn’t have a seafood industry. It’s not to say the Ohio River does not have fish to eat; a patient fisherman may haul in a few bass or catfish on a good day. Just set up shop downtown near the Belle of Louisville, the city’s treasured steamboat-turned-National Historic Landmark, and throw a line in the river.

This kind of fishing, however, would be hard-pressed to feed a family, much less an entire quick-service seafood concept like Long John Silver’s, which calls Louisville home. That’s why the brand has established a seafood supply chain that stretches to Alaska, Latin America, and Southeast Asia.

“We do have supplies from a number of different places from time to time,” says Charles St. Clair, chief marketing officer for Long John Silver’s. “Whereas, if you’re a smaller brand, you might be able to guarantee that what you’re serving is always from the North Atlantic or the North Pacific, with us, because of our size and scope … it will always be cod, but the destination source may vary from time to time, depending on supply.”

Major quick-serve brands, of course, do not have the luxury to serve local seafood products. And the truth is that there is simply not enough supply in this country for brands to stick even to domestic products; Rubino says roughly 85–90 percent of all seafood consumed in the U.S., by value, is imported. That’s the case for 100 percent of Long John Silver’s shrimp, St. Clair says.

In reality, there hasn’t been enough demand in quick service for anything different. While seafood-specific brands like Long John Silver’s and Captain D’s have risen to prominence, fish-based menu items have struggled to gain much menu share across the quick-service industry. Many companies feature only one fish-based item—usually a fried fillet sandwich—and sometimes that’s only during Lent, the most popular season for seafood sales.

But seafood might soon find stronger footing on menus at quick-service restaurants. As commodity prices go up for proteins like beef and chicken, seafood presents a real opportunity for operators to diversify menu offerings without breaking the bank. Consumers are also increasingly interested in eating more nutritious foods, and the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s MyPlate guidelines, which offer suggestions on dietary intake, recommend that people eat two seafood servings every week.

The NFI’s Gibbons says quick serves have the power to change consumer perception of seafood through innovation and involvement with kids’ menus.

“McDonald’s is doing it right now with the McBites item,” he says. “There’s a possibility that introducing seafood items to kids and on kids’ menus could help both change the palate and also spearhead some of the health benefits. If you look at the potential, that’s really an audience that is maybe underserved in their ability to have a seafood item.”

Indeed, McDonald’s Fish McBites, available in Happy Meals and in snack, regular, or shareable sizes, have helped the biggest fast-food restaurant in the world put seafood innovation front and center. Others are similarly trying to innovate in the space. Long John Silver’s and Jack in the Box, for example, are using different sauces to expand the flavor profiles available with seafood items.

“We know that fish is something that’s very adaptable to different flavors, and a lot of times, especially with [quick service], while we’re not going to get too intricate with products, sauces are a really good way to bring out certain flavors and make something spicy or make it a little bolder or mild,” says Jack in the Box’s McKee. “There are a lot of directions we could go.”

Quiznos, meanwhile, menus a Lent LTO using a product more often fit for fine-dining restaurants: lobster. The brand’s Lobster and Seafood Salad product has been a success for the last three years, says Susan Lintonsmith, chief marketing officer for Quiznos.

“It’s something that’s differentiated from the others out there,” Lintonsmith says. “There is a lot of fish fillet that’s promoted during this time period, and our positioning at Quiznos is about being premium, about being quality. So it fits very well with being differentiated and quality and premium. We didn’t want to fall in with what everyone else was doing with a fish sandwich.”

“If we’re going to try to feed another billion people or two billion people in the next 10 or 20 years, fish will have to come from aquaculture.”

Quiznos can afford to run a lobster LTO because of what the product contains; while it does include cold-water lobster from the North Atlantic, it also contains surimi, a seafood product made with pollock. About 36 percent of all Alaskan pollock is used to make surimi, which is created by breaking down the fish and adding starch and colorings. Many retailers call this “imitation” seafood—the product is commonly used for fish sticks in grocery stores and school lunches—but Shanahan says that’s a misnomer, as the product is definitely seafood. She adds that the term imitation is getting in the way of people understanding that it’s a highly nutritious product that can be flexible in its use in seafood dishes.

“There’s all sorts of ways we could be using this product, and the challenge is coming up with those ways and working with the industry to show them that it doesn’t have to just be a breaded portion,” she says. “It can be all these other things.”

Operators aren’t just upping their commitment to seafood innovation. Like providers, they’re upping their commitment to sustainable seafood. Long John Silver’s St. Clair says sustainability is “hugely important” to the brand, especially at its overseas suppliers. He adds that even though customers aren’t necessarily asking for sustainable products, the company is using point-of-purchase and other messaging to communicate how the company sources sustainably.

McDonald’s is taking big steps to similarly talk about sustainable seafood. The Golden Arches rolled out a commercial earlier this year depicting a Dutch Harbor–based pollock fishermen and spotlighting the company’s sustainable practices. And its decision to add the MSC eco-label to its packaging was widely praised for its attempts to raise awareness about seafood sources.

“It’s not a message of ‘you should;’ it’s a message of ‘you are,’” the MSC’s Coughlin says. “Now when you buy a Filet-O-Fish sandwich at McDonald’s, you are making a difference as a consumer because you’ve made a choice to choose sustainable seafood.” She adds that the MSC hopes to partner with more foodservice brands in order to further encourage companies to focus on sustainability.

The promotional aspects behind sustainable fishing run both ways; not only is it beneficial for the brand using the sustainable seafood, but it’s also beneficial for the producers who have done all the work to get to a point of sustainability. Shanahan says McDonald’s efforts in particular are “wonderful for the industry.”

“Particularly I want to point out that identifying the product as Alaskan pollock—so that consumers actually know what they’re eating—is, we think, a really positive step to having consumers understand more about the food they’re eating,” she says. “Consumers at all levels of foodservice want to know more about where their food comes from, and so I think that those ads showing where it’s coming from and saying what it is on the product packaging is really, really positive.”

Today, knowing more about where their food comes from is often a chief desire of quick-service consumers looking for transparency, looking for an attraction that rises above value and flavor. And for operators, where their seafood comes from is one of the most interesting messages they can share.

“These things tell a story,” NOA A’s Rubino says. “So if you want to attract customers into your restaurant or into your store, putting a human face on it and a story behind it often sells.”