The Boston Convention Center, with its more than 500,000 square feet of cavernous exhibit space, was recently home to the 2014 Seafood Expo North America (#SENA14). It was the Northeast’s largest convention center playing host to the largest seafood industry trade show in North America—an appropriate match-up given Boston is the oldest continuously operated fishing port in the Western Hemisphere.
But there is also some irony in hosting SENA14 in Boston.
In 1950, nearly 600 million pounds of seafood were landed in Massachusetts, but by 2012, those landings were cut in half. Today, New England’s iconic groundfish fishery is officially a federal disaster. Despite the decline in the fishing industry, the “Codfish State” remains the Nation’s second most valuable fishery (behind Alaska), although fishing now takes a back seat to higher education, biotechnology, health care, and tourism.
The dwindling size of the New England fishing fleet means “redevelopment” is increasingly replacing shoreside infrastructure once critical to commercial fishing. For some, there is no greater irony than to have the seafood industry’s largest event in North America take place in a building that stands as an unmarked cenotaph to a dying domestic fishing industry.
More Imports, More Aquaculture
At least 20,000 buyers, suppliers and other seafood industry professionals from more than 100 countries came to Boston to do business at SENA14. That last figure—over 100 countries represented—is telling given roughly 90% of seafood eaten by Americans today is imported. In 2012, the United States imported nearly 2.5 million metric tons of seafood valued at $16.7 billion. In that same year, the U.S. exported almost 1.5 million metric tons valued at $5.12 billion. We’re talking more than $11 billion in trade deficit based, at least in part, on the fact that an overwhelming majority of American consumers demand cheap fish that is easy to prepare and “not too fishy tasting” (tilapia fish sticks, anyone?).
The future of the global seafood industry is uncertain, but it’s likely, as many industry professionals pointed out, seafood will play a significant role in closing the gap on an emerging global food shortage. The overwhelming consensus coming out of the conference sessions held a couple floors above the busy exhibit hall at SENA14 was that an increasing amount of seafood will be produced in aquaculture facilities overseas. A few proposed the future of seafood is biotechnology–genetically modified fishes, for example. In short, the average American consumer’s notion of an oilskin-clad fisherman with a big ole’ sou’wester catching wild fish is pretty far off the mark these days.
In terms of capture fisheries, discussions with emerging fisheries managers in developing nations suggest some of the greatest opportunities exist in small scale, artisanal fisheries, but those fisheries also pose some of the greatest challenges. While fisheries improvement projects (FIP) are addressing some of the challenges in places like Indonesia, fisheries managers say FIPs are easier to implement at larger scale (e.g., longline fleets). Illegal, unreported and unregulated (IUU) fishing, currently estimated to be a $20 billion problem annually, remains a significant issue. Coupled with the greening of the developed world consumer base, as well as concerns over the overall sustainability of fishing, IUU is a key driver behind more comprehensive and effective traceability and sustainability initiatives.
Sustainability & Traceability: Money, Marketing or Morals?
The words sustainability and traceability were ubiquitous at SENA14–on signage and collateral, in conference sessions and private conversations. Nearly every producer seemed to have a great story to tell when it comes to where and how they source their seafood, and retail buyers expressed a desire to communicate that story to consumers through myriad marketing campaigns at the point of sale. All this talk, not to mention the not insignificant money invested to communicate the message, would have the uninitiated believing the seafood industry is leading the way when it comes to environmentally proactive industries. Dig a little deeper, however, and one finds the grass on this side of the fence may not be quite so green.
Allegations of greenwashing, distain for the growing costs associated with proving sustainable practices and an outright denial that the seafood industry lacks in the sustainability department were all present in both public and private forums at SENA14. It was not hard to find industry professionals advocating publicly for industry to band together to fight “over-reaching regulation,” “vulturistic lawsuits,” and “ideological environmental activists.” As many suggested, the seafood industry is in a battle against government, NGOs and environmentalists, and while that may well be true, some government agents, representatives from NGOs and even a few environmentalists reiterated their commitment to a robust seafood industry, but one which was also sustainable. As one presenter said, “We better find out how to talk, find common ground and develop solutions.”
Critical Mass to Address Critical Issues
“We better find out how to talk, find common ground and develop solutions.”
Therein, at least for me, lies the immense value in event like SENA14. It’s an opportunity to bring together a critical mass of industry professionals and provide an opportunity to have the discussions, forge the relationships and transact the business that will shape the future of the seafood industry. While I certainly would like to see the conference sessions better attended, and while I think it would be helpful to dial down some of the rhetoric, the event itself provides a valuable opportunity for face-to-face conversations. There are no doubt a lot of challenges ahead for the seafood industry, but it’s events like SENA that have the capability of making us able to make the most of the opportunities.
…And with that in mind, I look forward to SENA15. In the meantime, be on the look-out for much more follow-up on SENA14 here at The Good Catch Blog.