Your relationship with fish is about to change

lionfish
ShutterstockJef Thompson

It’s 2027, and we’re no longer gorging ourselves on shrimp. Or tuna. Or salmon. Not because they’ve disappeared from the oceans or we’re appalled by how they’re produced, but because we’re eating so many other delicious fish from land and sea — such as porgy, dogfish, lionfish, barramundi and others we’ve yet to meet.

We also know exactly what fish we’re eating and where it comes from — sometimes we even know the fishers by name — so we can make confident choices based on nutrition and sustainability factors. Fishing communities are healthier, too: They serve local as well as export markets, and new seafood products boost their economic base. Unsustainable seafood just doesn’t sell: Consumers walk away from it the way they avoid foods with transfats today.

This scenario might sound ridiculous to people focused on the historically slow rate of change in an industry with a complex and often low-tech global supply chain. People assume that change will continue to plod along. I don’t believe that.

The pace already has picked up dramatically. Governments, big industry players, entrepreneurs and investors are focused on seafood sustainability like never before. Several drivers are kicking in at once.

  • We’re realizing that we’ll run out of food if we don’t find alternative supplies and environmentally sound production methods. Seafood is a healthy, high-quality protein source. It tastes good and we can grow it sustainably.
  • People are more interested in where their seafood comes from and what’s in it. And they increasingly see quality and sustainability as linked product attributes — I hear this from seafood buyers all the time.
  • Emerging technologies that will clear up seafood’s murky supply chain or allow aquaculture to flourish are being developed by multiple players, big and small.
  • Investors are realizing that the seafood market is huge, and they’re seeking opportunities to make change in it. Feed for farm-raised fish alone is a multibillion-dollar opportunity (PDF).

Over the past five years, as I’ve built the Fish 2.0 business competition, I’ve seen an overwhelming number of creative ideas bubbling up with highly qualified entrepreneurial teams behind them. Their innovations, combined with powerful social and environmental forces, are creating a new world both above and below the ocean’s surface.

How seafood is like lettuce

It’s not so unlikely that this magnitude of change will happen quickly. What happened with greens in produce is going to happen with seafood: more variety, more demand for local products, greater awareness of sustainability factors, a focus on quality and the rise of seafood superfoods. We’re already seeing seafood follow the broader food world.

The Emerging Trends to Watch in 2017 report from Rabobank’s senior analyst for consumer foods, Nicholas Fereday, calls out increased attention to food waste, more capital flowing to early-stage consumer brands that respond to unmet consumer needs, the demand for supply chain transparency and ethical sourcing, and the rise of personalized approaches to nutrition. These trends already are emerging in the seafood industry.

Considering them in light of the momentum behind solutions to seafood’s specific challenges, I see seven key changes happening in seafood over the next decade.

1. Diversity rules

Right now, seafood is in its iceberg lettuce stage. Americans generally eat five types of seafood: shrimp (the most popular by a wide margin); tuna; salmon; tilapia; and Alaskan pollock (usually in fish sticks and the like). We’re about to grow out of that. Is lionfish the new kale? I don’t know, but I am confident that within 10 years, people will eat a much greater diversity of seafood, they will trust the people who introduce new items to them, and they’ll always be on the lookout for something new, just as we are with our greens these days.

The trends outlined below will contribute to the shift toward diverse seafood diets. We’re starting to see a glimmer of this shift with sustainability-focused chefs such as Bun Lai introducing diners to invasive species or fish that used to get tossed off the boat, and companies such as Love the Wild packaging sustainably farmed fish with sauces to make trying something new easier than eating the same old thing.

2. Seafood goes local

Every place where seafood is captured will have supply chains that put local seafood in local markets. Right now, locavores often get stumped by seafood. Even if you live on the coast of a major fishery, it’s hard to get local fish outside of high-end restaurants. The supply chain simply isn’t set up for local distribution.

In Monterey, for example, there’s no landing and storage facility for local seafood. And that is typical of coastal regions throughout the world. Consumer demand, combined with the need for local fishers to diversify their supply chains and earn higher prices, is changing this situation.

You can see it in the emergence of community-supported fishery (CSF) options, which apply the direct-from-the-farm (CSA) model to seafood. The Wall Street Journal counted 30 CSFs in 2014; LocalCatch.org’s Seafood Locator lists 75 CSFs, and the organization believes there are many more. Real Good Fish sells local seafood this way in Northern California, and Catch of the Season does it in Alaska, to name just two of many operations I know.

3. Traceability and transparency are the price of admission

Remember when coffee was just coffee? Now we know where it’s from, who picked it, if it grew in shade or sun, and more. Ten years from now, I believe that seafood will be the same. We’ll know where our seafood came from, how it was captured and how long it’s been out of the water. This information will become so common that there won’t be a price differential for pedigreed fish, and mystery fish just won’t have a market in the U.S.

In fact, it’s already happening, as tightening government regulations, expanding consumer interest in knowing where their food comes from and technological innovation converge. Entrepreneurs worldwide are targeting links throughout the supply chain, including TRUfish, which offers DNA testing of sample fish from batches, allowing resellers and consumers to verify that the species on offer are what the seller says they are; Salty Girl Seafood, which allows consumers to trace their preseasoned frozen or smoked fish via a code on the package; and Bangkok-based FairAgora Asia’s Verifik8 software, which tracks, manages and displays social and environmental data on seafood operations.

4. We solve the fish feed problem

Farmed fish need food, and it’s in increasingly scarce supply. Fish eat other fish in the wild, and right now, they do in farms, too. Fish meal and fish oil also turn up in foods for people and pets. With wild forage fish stocks either stable or declining, demand is outpacing supply as aquaculture grows and fish feed prices are rising.

This is obviously not sustainable. The fish feed industry is a huge target for innovation, and we’re starting to see results from the hunt for nutritious fish feeds that don’t require other fish. Algae, soybeans, oil seed, insects and bacteria are all getting trials. Development is proceeding quickly enough to say that seafood produced at scale without fish-based feeds is a realistic vision for the next decade.

The result will be not only a more stable supply of feed for aquaculture, but also new opportunities for islands to diversify their economies by growing locally abundant new feeds using algae and seaweed — perhaps leading to even more nutritious seafood products on our tables.

5. Aquaculture fills more of our seafood plate

It has to. We can’t keep drawing on wild fish stocks, and seafood is one of the few animal proteins that we can grow sustainably. The advent of new fish feeds will fuel aquaculture expansion. At the same, innovative technologies and farming approaches for scalable closed-loop aquaculture systems on land and responsible open-water systems will provide healthier, more delicious fish.

Already, Acadia Harvest is selling California yellowtail, or "hiramasa," grown on land in Maine; Kampachi Farms is pioneering sashimi-grade fish farming in the Sea of Cortez; and SabrTech’s RiverBox system, which reduces pollution from farm runoff and grows an algae-based feed from the captured wastewater, and Bangkok-based Green Innovative Biotechnology’s advanced feed supplement could remake aquaculture in Southeast Asia.

6. Waste turns into value

Waste will drop from being about 40 percent of seafood to about 10 percent over the next 10 years. Not only will we use more of the seafood we capture, we’ll also turn today’s wasted byproducts into valuable co-products.

People are making leather out of fish skins. Fish scales, which are highly conductive, could be useful in solar cells and other applications. Less exotically, seafood entrepreneurs are looking at upcycled food uses for what’s often treated as waste, such as bottarga (cured grey mullet roe) and salmon jerky made from flesh that is typically discarded.

7. Sustainability is a given

Sustainability will become so closely associated with quality in consumers’ minds that it’s nonnegotiable. Consumer demand for organic food continues to show double-digit growth, and sustainable seafood is primed to follow that path. We’ll want sustainable seafood because it’s better. In turn, businesses will recognize that a strong sustainability profile is critical to maintaining market share. We may even cease to use the term "sustainable seafood," because sustainability will just be intrinsic to the word seafood.

A connected industry makes this future real

The innovations we need won’t emerge from a vacuum. To make this vision real in a short time frame, partnerships are essential, just like in the tech world. In order for any of this to happen we need greater connectivity in seafood’s vast, complex global supply chain. The links in that chain — including investors — need to get to know one another. Those connections will breed product and business model innovations. Seafood will move through a distributed network instead of a fragmented supply chain. Together, we’ll spark something new.

And we’ll be able to have our fish and eat them, too.

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