Though U.S. consumption is well below other proteins today, seafood will likely be an increasingly important part of the American diet in the years to come. The country’s population is predicted to grow by 89 million between 2010 and 2050 to 401 million people. More people require more food—and land limitations mean the beef, pork, and poultry industries can only produce so much volume.
Increased domestic consumption will have a direct impact on restaurant operators who serve finfish and shellfish. On one hand, more Americans eating seafood means the potential for increased sales. On the other, it also means the potential for higher wholesale prices. And while space limitations largely don’t affect the seafood industry, it has its own challenges to contend with, especially in the U.S.
For starters, more than 90 percent of the seafood the U.S. consumes is imported from countries with their own growing demand for protein. China, the global seafood producer and processor leader, is experiencing a rise in its middle class. China used to be a net exporter of seafood, but now it’s a net importer. The same is true of other seafood-producing countries in Asia and South America.
“If I am a buyer of seafood,” says Sebastian Belle, executive director of the Maine Aquaculture Association (MAA), “global demand is going to make it harder for me to source.”
In addition, climate changes are forcing suppliers to reevaluate their sourcing practices and invest in new practices, like aquaculture. These challenges have all levels of seafood stakeholders looking at new ways to approach the present—and future—state of the seafood industry.
Today’s commercial seafood supply
A variety of factors and stakeholders—developers, fisheries, non-government and government organizations, and aquaculture—hold sway over the U.S. seafood supply. Coastal and marine commercial fishing contributes $70 billion each year to the U.S. economy.
Alaskan Pollock is the No. 1 fished seafood in the U.S. Two billion pounds of it are caught each year. But that might not be the case for very long. Alaskan Pollock comes from the Bering Sea, which has recently seen significant fluctuations in water temperature. The plankton Pollock rely on as their food source are sensitive to such changes; warmer water makes plankton a less efficient energy source for the fish, as they produce fewer fats and lipids.
A National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) study of the warming in the early 2000s found that two years of consistently warm waters negatively affected stocks of Walleyed Pollock. Younger fish saw a 40 percent decline in biomass and catch numbers declined by 40 percent over a three- to four-year period. Pollock stocks recovered as water temperatures dropped, but modeling efforts suggest 40 years from now incidences like that will be more common.
“It doesn’t look like Pollock is going to do well in the future,” says Dr. Ed Farley, program manager for the Ecosystem Monitoring and Assessment (EMA) Program at the Alaska Fisheries Science Center. “But other fish will take its place.”
Long John Silver’s is already planning for that day, says Marie Zhang, chief food innovation officer and senior vice president of menu innovation, supply chain, food safety, and quality at the chain.
“Limited Alaskan Pollock might increase prices, which in turn might hurt our franchisee margins,” Zhang says. “We know we might have to seek alternative supplies … and look at other sustainable proteins.”
Climate change and seafood
Whether they consider it speculative or gospel, stakeholders in the U.S. seafood supply are paying attention to the research around climate changes and their impact on fish. At the center of the conversation is the 2014 “Climate Changes: Implications for the Fisheries and Aquaculture” briefing jointly published by the University of Cambridge and the Sustainable Fisheries Partnership (SFP). The report stated that the global seafood industry is under threat from climate change and ocean acidification.
Researchers outlined the following: Earth’s atmosphere and oceans are warming due to carbon dioxide emissions. Weather patterns and sea levels are rising as a result. Global average temperatures will climb 2.6–4.8 C and sea levels will rise 0.45–0.82 meters by the end of the century if warming continues at its current rate. The negative impact on seafood on a global scale includes displacement of stock and a decline in shellfish due to acidic water. Catches might decrease 40–60 percent. Other factors—overfishing, habitat loss, and pollution—will worsen the situation. Coral reefs are already at risk in some regions.
The potential financial hit to the seafood industry, the report goes on, is $17–$47 billion by 2050. East Asia and Pacific markets are especially vulnerable, but so are U.S. supplies. Acidity in the Gulf of Mexico, for example, is projected to increase at two times the global rate. Adapting to these changes will require the reduction of non-climate-related stressors, such as pollution and habitat destruction; an increase in aquaculture production; and the adoption of new management policies—adjustments that would cost an estimated $30 billion a year for the next 35 years.
Cambridge and SFP did find some silver linings to these climate changes, including faster growth rates and food-conversion efficiency, longer growing seasons, range expansion for some species, and new growing areas as ice cover decreases.
The “Climate Changes” report states that reducing carbon dioxide emissions will save seafood. But those close to the domestic seafood supply are not so dire in their assessment of what needs to change.
“It’s important to understand we don’t have all the answers,” NOAA’s Farley says. “People need to understand that carbon dioxide is being absorbed into the ocean and will impact the food supply [of some] fish. It’s not doomsday. It’s a shift in the way we’re catching and eating. Forty to 50 years from now, restaurant operators might be serving something different.”
What sounds simple in theory can be a complex and costly undertaking for large seafood chains and time-intensive for smaller owner/operators with no direct ties to fresh or coastal waters. Those linked to the water have been adjusting to the ocean’s changes for generations.
“Climate change is real and is going to affect the seafood business,” says Luke Holden, president of Luke’s Lobster, a 13-unit fast-casual chain with locations in New York City and the Washington, D.C., metro area. Holden is the son of a Maine lobsterman and supplies his stores with wild-caught shrimp, crab, and lobster direct from Cape Seafood, his own seafood processing and distributing company based in Saco, Maine.
“There’s been a lot of climate variance the past five years,” Holden says. “There’s less predictability around when volume is going to be heavy, which makes it more difficult to manage the business. I don’t see climate change devastating any of the species populations we work with in the long-term, but it can impact our food costs.”
The business model behind Luke’s Lobster and Cape Seafood is set up to absorb such price fluctuations. Staying informed is a key part of that, Holden says.
But knowledge also has its costs, says James Walker, a 20-year foodservice veteran who sits on the board of seafood fast casual Boneheads. Walker says he’s relying more heavily than in years past on third-party information resources to forecast and keep food costs down.