For decades, small fishing communities along Mexico’s coast have been told by environmental organizations that if they improve their fishing practices, they could access competitive markets and potentially earn more money on their catch. The demand for quality, sustainable seafood, after all, is skyrocketing in some of the world’s largest markets.
But making good on this promise has proven challenging. Even if local fishing cooperatives (co-ops) could convince their members to fish more sustainably, third-party certification of these practices is expensive, cold storage and transportation are complicated, and most co-ops are too small to reliably meet the high-volume demand of large retailers. Instead, small fishers rely on expensive middlemen to combine and market their catch.
“Most of these fishers never even know where their seafood is going,” says Cecilia Blasco, executive director of SmartFish. “They sell it to a truck on the beach, and that’s it.”
SmartFish, a Walton Family Foundation grantee, believes it has created a “value-rescue model” that makes it easier and more profitable for local, entrepreneurial co-ops to adopt sustainable practices.
SmartFish’s model has made the market more inclusive for small entrepreneurs who were previously unable to compete with large commercial operators.
SmartFish works with 12 Mexican fishing cooperatives, providing education and training on current fisheries regulations, better fish handling practices and business administration. In collaboration with other NGOs, SmartFish helps the cooperatives implement fishery improvement projects (FIPs) in order to progress towards Fair Trade or Marine Stewardship Council certification.
The Mexican nonprofit also collaborates with the SmartFish seafood company (SmartFish, Inc.), which treats fishers as equal partners in the industry, conducting open-book price negotiation, ensuring transparency and building trust across the system.
If fishers can meet sustainability, good quality and traceability requirements, Smartfish, Inc. will buy, aggregate and freeze this high-quality, sustainable product, cutting out the middleman and selling directly to consumers in one of its three retail locations in Mexico City.
The strategy works. Compared to their traditional landing price, fishers can earn between 20% and 200% more for their quality, sustainably harvested catch with SmartFish Inc.
It’s also creating more stability for these small fishing entrepreneurs, who can rely on frozen stock in times of uncertainty.
During the pandemic, fishers participating in SmartFish’s value rescue model maintained their market access, despite general supply chain upheaval. “Most small fishers here sell fresh seafood directly to restaurants, so when the pandemic hit, they simply stopped fishing,” says Cecilia. “Co-ops that were selling to us froze it and hung onto it, and as people stayed at home learning to cook new recipes, the SmartFish Inc. stores were able to offer a frozen, clean, almost ready-to-eat product directly to consumers.”
For Mexican small-scale fishers once skeptical of sustainability, SmartFish’s model has leveled the playing field, making the market more inclusive for small entrepreneurs who were previously unable to compete with large commercial operators.
This mission aligns closely with the foundation’s new Oceans strategy to support inclusive, sustainable fisheries, while also ensuring that fishing communities remain economically vibrant.
Women in particular benefit from this work. Despite being historically undervalued for their contribution to a traditionally male-dominated profession, women in Mexican fishing communities play a critical role in bringing high-quality product to market – from repairing nets and preparing food to processing catch and keeping records.
“There is a strong cultural bias against women’s participation on the fishing boats,” says Cecilia. “But in reality, the entire value chain depends on their involvement. Through SmartFish programming, we are helping these communities acknowledge this value in a more visible way, through formal training and fair payment for their work.”
While some product is exported to international markets, the majority is sold to Mexican consumers and restaurants, a burgeoning market for sustainable seafood. Cecilia is proud that demand for high-quality, sustainable seafood is growing in Mexico and more is making its way into Mexican kitchens. “We are a young, urban, transitioning economy, all conditions for consumer interest in sustainability. The market potential is already here. Quality product shouldn’t only be for export. It should be for local consumption.”
SmartFish plans to continue to expand their value-rescue model throughout the country, bringing more co-ops into the fold and sharing what they have learned with other NGOs operating in the space. “Our hope is that this commercial model becomes the norm, not the exception,” she says.
That hope comes with a very clear vision for the future, according to Cecilia: “A majority of co-ops are producing high-quality seafood with less waste, they are contributing to the management of their fisheries and accessing markets in ways that are transparent. At the end of the day, to be successful means more of the value that is coming out of the sea needs to stay with the communities that value this resource.”