The catch of today
When chef Robert Clark moved to Vancouver in the early ’90s, simply stating “salmon” on a menu wouldn’t generate inquiries from the restaurant’s patrons.
Today, things have change. Clark, who operates The Fish Counter in Vancouver, explained customers now demand the story behind fish and seafood products before they place their order.
“Trends come and go and species become popular or less popular. What’s really evolved over time is seafood has caught up to farmed vegetables,” Clark said. “Chefs are using the name of the farm where there carrots came from to promote local or regional. Seafood has joined that.”
Unless the seafood product is farmed, Clark explained West Coast menus explain where the product was caught or at least put a fisherman’s name to the catch.
“Consumers know it’s going to taste different from different farms depending on how it was farmed and handled,” Clark said.
The mandate for traceable seafood options was born in professional kitchens, Clark explained.
“Chefs created that demand. The guys promoting local and sustainable created the demand,” Clark said.
“I’m a firm believer that demand doesn’t exist until somebody creates it.”
While customers want to know more about the product, the demand for traceability is not necessarily solely driven by sustainability.
“They’re curious for a number of reasons. Is it high in mercury? Does it come from anywhere near Japan? Is it radioactive?” said Clark, adding food allergies also play a part in customer curiosity. “We’re more interested in how our food affects our health. That is a real trend. It’s not trendy. It’s not like it’s in this year, and out the next.”
Big fish, little pond
The desire to know more about fish and seafood products is helping to revive small businesses, Clark explained.
“About 15 years ago, you couldn’t find a fisherman at a farmers’ market,” he said. “Now (in Vancouver), when you go to a farmers’ market, there is always at least one fisherman selling what they are catching.”
Clark added he doesn’t see the trend slowing down anytime soon.
“People want to know they bought tuna from the guy who caught the tuna. Our society will continue to demand more of that traceability,” he said.
No sea to see
In landlocked Ontario, local seafood isn’t possible. John Bil, owner of Honest Weight, a restaurant and seafood wholesaler in Toronto, explained restaurants might market themselves as a local option, yet include oysters on their menu.
“It’s fine with me, but it’s not very local,” Bil said. “They’re local in everything except the seafood. It’s funny people give a pass to the seafood portion of the menu.”
Despite Ontario’s 250,000 lakes and more than 100,000 rivers, Bil said the local movement in restaurants hasn’t equaled an increase in freshwater fish sales.
“People who like freshwater fish are huge fans, but it’s a tough sell. It’s got a bit of a bad rap, maybe from poor handling or availability,” he said.
“I think it has a way to go to become more mainstream. It may never become more mainstream.”
Price, influenced by availability, is one factor inhibiting sales of freshwater fish.
“Pickerel is quite expensive compared to ocean fish,” Bil said. “Trout has done well overall. There is a good farming effort for trout and the availability and pricing is a bit better.”
According to Statistics Canada, from June 2015 to June 2016, the price of fish and seafood increased 4.4 per cent, while the price of red meat decreased 2.6 per cent.
“Fish is in,” said Dr. Sylvain Charlebois, dean of management and professor in food distribution and policy, faculty of management and faculty of agriculture at Dalhousie University. “People are starting to look more at vegetables or seafood as protein.”
Bil explained part of the increase is due to fish and seafood becoming more approachable.
Ordering seafood at a restaurant is no longer tied to a higher check at the end of the meal.
With consumers demanding more fish and seafood options, more quick service eateries are entering the market.
“Seafood can work in a lower-price, quick service model as well,” Bil said. “I think that’s going to keep feeding into the increase in demand.”
For foodservice establishments, the increase in demand is good news.
“People are more likely, if they’re going to eat fish, to eat it out rather than cook it at home for fear that they don’t know how to do it,” Clark said. “That fear drives them to consume it in the restaurant and that trend is still growing.”
The emergence of poke (poh-kay) — a Hawaiian dish consisting of raw fish, a selection of toppings and served over rice — is one way fish is entering the quick service segment.
“It’s really more than just the dish itself — it’s an experience, and when one experiences a good thing, they spread the word,” said Angela Quan, who operates The Poke Guy in Vancouver with her husband Jak.
While visiting Hawaii, Quan explained their first stop after arriving was to get a poke bowl.
“We joked about how we needed to open up our own poke shop because we loved it so much. Well, we looked into it, and long story short, here we are,” Quan said.
Poke is found everywhere in Hawaii, from grocery stores to gas stations to fine dining restaurants. In line with several trend predictions for 2016, poke restaurants have been appearing across Canada.
“The local Hawaiians definitely knew what they were doing,” Quan said. “With a large population of seafood lovers, poke is quickly becoming the next fast casual grab. It’s an easy decision with it being so flavourful.”
Maintain plenty of fish in the sea
For Quan, operating a fish centric restaurant comes with the responsibility of ensuring their product is sourced in a sustainable manner. The Poke Guy only purchases fish products that are Ocean Wise recommended.
“Part of spreading ‘aloha’ is to ensure that our fish and seafood are obtained responsibly and sustainably to ensure future generations also get to enjoy this dish,” she said. “There really is no excuse as to why we should be sourcing fish unsustainably.”
Seafood sustainability is an issue that connects with consumers. A poll conducted by Ocean Wise found 80 per cent of Canadians are concerned by overfishing.
“People are becoming more aware of the issues facing our oceans and the impacts of global fisheries,” said Teddie Geach, a seafood specialist with Ocean Wise. “They want to make the right choices when it comes to ordering on a menu.”
However, identifying which seafood menu item is sustainable is difficult without knowledge of species, catch method and location of the item.
“This information isn’t always available directly on menus, which is exactly why the Ocean Wise program was created in the first place,” Geach said.
Talk to your wholesaler
On the wholesale side of Honest Weight, it’s seafood inventory depends on what is in season.
“We’re not going to stock something just to have it in stock. We’re trying to dictate the terms of the transaction a little bit,” Bil said. “Not from a profitability standpoint, but from an education standpoint, and a freshness and deliciousness standpoint.”
Bil believes the wholesaler and restaurateur need to have open lines of communication to ensure sustainable products are served to guests.
“This is a unique opportunity in the history of seafood wholesaling. We can actually be driving the menu decisions a little bit,” Bil said. “We have to be profitable to stay in business, but at the same time, we should be offering suggestions for our customers.”
With customers asking more questions about the origins of their meal, now is an ideal time for wholesalers to begin recommending the right seafood options, according to Bil.
“Chefs are asking me, ‘What should I be serving?’ That’s the kind of transaction model I think is very healthy,” he said. “If there’s no engagement with the wholesaler, the same mistakes are going to be made.”
Bil added seafood harvesters and processors should take a leadership role in ensuring sustainability of their products.
“Fish has a great future, but it has to be driven by the fishing industry as opposed to the chefs,” he said.
Education from the wholesaler is a growing trend in the seafood market. In 2011, EKOS Research Associates conducted a study on behalf of the World Wildlife Federation, which found 65 per cent of Canadians look to their retailers and producers for information about the origin of seafood products.
“Seafood wholesalers and suppliers have become more aware of the impacts our fisheries are having on our oceans and are now communicating that to their customers,” Geach said.
Ocean Wise works with more than 120 Canadian seafood suppliers from distributors like Sysco and Gordon Food Service to independent fishermen and farmers.
“All of these businesses are dedicated to sourcing sustainable seafood options and are making it easier for their customers to identify what those better options are,” Geach said.
Farm isn’t a four-letter F word
For the first time in modern history, the production of farmed fish exceeded farmed beef in 2012, reaching 66 million tonnes.
“As our global population continues to grow, the demand for healthy protein options grows with it,” Geach said. “At our current rates, wild capture fisheries will not be able to meet this increased demand.”
The idea of farmed fishing often leads to the assumption the product is unsustainable. However, a land-based, closed containment fish farm is considered an Ocean Wise option.
“For farmed fish that everyone can agree on, containment fishing is the way to go,” Bil said. “To me, that’s the future of farmed fish.”
He added a properly farmed fish doesn’t equal a lesser quality compared to wild fish.
“There may be a subset of the population, both chef and consumer, who think farm fish can’t be as good as wild fish,” Bil said.
Ocean Wise invites Canada’s restaurateurs to directly contact the organization to discuss sustainable seafood menu options. Ocean Wise offers a one-on-one sustainability assessment and offer advice on alternative product lines.
“Chefs work 24-7 running a business and they don’t have the time to be sifting through scientific literature to find out what fisheries are sustainable,” Geach said. “That’s why we’re here to help.”
Find the exact location where your shellfish is harvested
Clearwater Seafood is showing its customers exactly where their products are harvested.
Via Clearwater.ca, the company provides 24-hour GPS tracking of its vessels as they harvest clams, sea scallops, shrimp and lobster.
“Our vessel tracking feature is just one more tool that further demonstrates our commitment to sustainability and ability to share the ocean-to-plate concept easily with our customers,” said Christine Penney, Clearwater’s vice-president of sustainability and public affairs.
The company’s ships are also equipped with the ability to map shellfish habitats.
“(It is) ensuring we only target where we can fish most efficiently and leave sensitive habitats undisturbed,” Penney said.
Clearwater offers the widest selection of Marine Stewardship Council (MSC) certified species of any shellfish harvester worldwide.
“Foodservice operators are increasingly interested in the traceability and sustainability of seafood,” Penney said.
“As the demand for sustainable products continues to increase in today’s seafood industry, providing customers with ocean-to-plate traceability is more critical than ever.”
As well, ensuring their products meet sustainability guidelines ensures a bright business future.
“Sustainable harvesting practices protect the environment and longevity of fisheries,” Penney said. “They’re also good for business as choosing sustainably harvested and certified products remains one of the best ways to ensure a stable and consistent long-term supply of seafood.”