The COVID-19 outbreak is dramatically altering the sustainable seafood industry, upending global markets and introducing new business uncertainties daily for fishers, distributors, restaurants and retailers. Members of Sea Pact, a collaborative group of 11 seafood distributors in the U.S. and Canada, are working to maintain progress on sustainability while meeting shifting consumer demand at an unprecedented moment.
I spoke with Rob Johnson, Sea Pact's managing director, and Richard Stavis, Chief Sustainability Officer at Boston-based Stavis Seafoods, about how companies are adapting to the crisis.
Why is an ongoing commitment to seafood sustainability important during the COVID-19 crisis?
Rob Johnson: Sustainability is critical to long-term business viability and resilience, so we need to double down on sustainability in crisis times. Every link in the food chain is being affected right now, but that doesn't mean you can abandon or backtrack on sustainability. We need a long-term supply of sustainable seafood. That comes from a resilient supply chain that adapts to changes in market conditions.
Richard Stavis: Talking about whether sustainable seafood is still essential in the midst of crisis is like talking about whether electricity is still essential. A crisis doesn't change these priorities. We need to source products just as sustainably as before. A lot of the demand for seafood has been shifting towards retail rather than food service – and the retail customers want sustainable products. If anything the demand for sustainability in seafood has increased.
What has been the most significant impact on seafood distributors?
Richard: There has been a dramatic reordering of peoples' understanding and consumption of seafood. Every member of Sea Pact has found that our food service business – business with restaurants – is down between 80% and 90%. It is literally decimated. At the same time, retail and home meal replacement business – services like Hello Fresh and Blue Apron – is off the hook. Retail is up between 200% and 300%.
Rob: We have other Sea Pact members making more direct-to-consumer sales, home deliveries and even engaging in mail-order business to get seafood on peoples' dinner tables.
The supply chain starts with fishermen. How is this crisis affecting them?
Rob: Fishing communities are in the eye of this storm. A lot of fishermen just aren’t on the water. They’re dealing with immediate concerns about health and safety, disrupted fishing seasons and uncertainty if they will be able to sell their catch. We are in solidarity with fishermen and want to support their ability to catch fish and keep waterfronts working so the hardworking people and communities on the front lines of the industry continue to provide healthy sustainable seafood. Everyone in the seafood industry needs to work together now to fulfil our responsibility to help feed the planet.
How are you adapting to that shifting market?
Richard: Our quality assurance regulatory department is working like crazy because any new products we are piloting must be legal, safe and appropriate. When you sell seafood for home meal replacements, for example, as opposed to restaurants, you need to put product in tray packs or vacuum bags. So it's extraordinarily labor intensive.
Rob: Our members have rapidly adjusted their business models. Besides working with a more limited array of products and adapting to the surge in retail demand, our members are managing other disruptions, like having to figure out whether they need more staff or fewer.
How are seafood distributors preparing for the future with so much market uncertainty?
Richard: It's a tough question because you need to decide whether you want to buy seafood. Demand is as uncertain as supply. My concerns aren't just about, 'How do I buy more fish?' They're also about selling what I have. Or, when is demand going to kick back in?
Rob: There is a greater focus on transparency and traceability – all the things that have a positive impact on seafood as a healthy, viable, sustainable protein. As we look to come through the other side of this, we are focusing on ways to be more resilient, more robust, stronger. Our members are a community of colleagues who share ideas and challenges. We've always been business competitors, but we collaborate on sustainability. One thing we are starting to implement is a business marketplace within Sea Pact, recognizing that some members will be short on some seafood products and some will have extra product. Where we're selling to each other or doing innovative deals like bartering, that's one way of sharing and supporting each other.
I think we are being extraordinarily nimble.
What makes you proud about how the industry is responding?
Rob: Sea Pact members are mid-supply chain actors and pride themselves on being nimble. That's how we rallied the group to bring our voice and purchasing power to bear on sustainability efforts. The complexity of the supply chain for seafood is often cited as a challenge to being nimble, more transparent and sustainable. We are demonstrating those things are possible, but also necessary in challenging circumstances.
Richard: I think we are being extraordinarily nimble. It is a challenge when your company's business is highly reliant on the food service sector and 90% of that business disappears in a day. Before this crisis, 8 out of 10 people said they only ate seafood in restaurants. Now the restaurants are closed. So what do we do? We are all working incredibly hard and we've all been incredibly creative. Every one of us goes home exhausted every night. We should all be proud of what we've done. I view us all as essential workers in getting healthy food to people sheltering safely at home. We’re keeping companies operating and people employed.
Sea Pact is a Walton Family Foundation grantee.