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Thoughts from the Helm

Sea to Table: an Aberration or a Crisis in Sustainable Seafood?

Thoughts from the Helm

In the last decade, the company Sea to Table has emerged as one of the most important organizations in the sustainable seafood movement by providing home cooks, chefs, and colleges unparalleled new access to local seafood. As the CEO of one of the company’s chief competitors, I’ve admired their success from afar: they’ve done more to support a more transparent and ethical seafood supply chain than most NGOs working in this arena.

It’s why the bombshell report from the Associated Press last week detailing the company’s deceit is like a gut punch for those  of us in search of a better way to do things. Beneath the company’s shiny surface, the AP story appears to uncover a firm that relied on many of our industry’s most abhorrent practices—mislabeling, fraud, and supply chains linked to slave labor, among others. Massachusetts Senator Edward Markey has now called for a congressional investigation into the company.

Sea to Table’s CEO Sean Dimin has since released a rebuttal, calling the claims of the AP story “misleading” and filled with “false allegations.”  Looking at this from the perspective of an industry insider, the truth seems to sit somewhere in between Dimin’s vociferous defense of his company and the Associated Press’ story. In its quest for industry dominance, Sea to Table took questionable steps to acquire product and made sloppy moves to satisfy the exploding demand for sustainable seafood. They called international fish wholesalers they bought from “local docks” and they purchased from at least a few companies that didn’t seem all-that-well aligned with their mission. At times, they privileged the consistency and efficiency that came from working with larger, better capitalized fisheries, when dedicating themselves to the admittedly more difficult task of working with more small-boat fisheries would have better served their mission and our movement.   

Despite these missteps, I still believe Sea To Table has been a general force for good in the seafood industry. They’ve raised awareness about more sustainable methods of harvest.  They’ve celebrated the lives of domestic fishermen who are trying to do things the right way. They've improved the lives of many fishermen, some of whom I am lucky enough to call friends.

So, the easy answers that we sometimes reach for in situations like these are elusive and messy. And while it’s too early to render a meaningful postmortem, the whole episode does immediately call for a few lessons learned and takeaways that we must grapple with if we are to move forward as a movement of people who care about where our fish comes from and our oceans.

 For me, they look something like this….

We Need a New Lexicon: Or, Why “Local” and “Sustainable” Just Can’t Define Fisheries.

In the last twenty years, the terms local and sustainable have become the chief drivers of value creation in what some have called “the alternative food system.” These words have been so successful at value creation that they have now become a part of the mainstream food marketing lexicon. I’d argue that these words have now become industrialized themselves and put to work selling many of the very goods which they were originally deployed to resist. Sea to Table’s rampant deployment of these terms may just be a case in point.

Beyond that, the problem is that “local” and “sustainable” don’t adequately illuminate the values that a better seafood system needs them to reflect. In agriculture, the term local and sustainable capture the good food zeitgeist well: farmers, living locally and contributing to the spirit of a place (usually an urban hinterland), are utilizing the soil wisely to ensure it will produce in perpetuity.

In fisheries, however, localism is an imperfect term that obscures their complexity. Besides the obvious example that most of the country lives where commercially-viable, ocean-based food production remains ecologically impossible, the highly migratory nature of fish and fishermen, the lack of processing capacity and working waterfront where fish populations exist, and the lack of local markets where the processing capacity is extant all muddy the use of that term.

 In Alaska--a state adjacent to some of the world’s richest fishing grounds and best management, but close to few eaters--localism can only represent part of the picture. The livelihoods of our small boat fishermen and rich fishing heritage are inextricably tied to global markets.  That rich seafaring heritage and culture can’t be disentangled from the fish-eating markets around the world and no amount of re-localization of the supply chain is going to change that. Nor should it. Part of the beauty of abundant and thriving fisheries in remote areas are how they connect peoples and places around the globe. This is a story to be celebrated, not elided by marketing campaigns.

The term “sustainable” to describe fisheries consumers should embrace might even be more problematic.  In recent years, third party sustainability certifications like the Marine Stewardship Council have come under fire for being influenced by large corporations like Wal-Mart that seek these certifications because of consumer trends. In turn, these organizations have found themselves granting eco-certifications to controversial fisheries that may not merit such sustainability certifications.  Read more about that here

But, even more important, it’s now becoming painfully clear that even the best science-based management regimes, like Alaska’s, can’t ensure the sustainability of a fishery. Fisheries are too dynamic, too complex, and oceans are too changing, especially in the face of climate change. Case in point, the Copper River sockeye fishery is one of the most thoroughly studied and best managed anywhere in the world. And yet, as if out of nowhere, this year’s sockeye run has failed to materialize, which has left managers, processors, and fishermen searching for answers. A similar thing is happening with cod in the North Pacific. On the flip side, the North Atlantic’s halibut recovery happened unexpectedly.

This doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t eat fish. It also doesn’t mean that we should think it’s a bad thing if the composition of a local port’s catch is totally different a generation from now. What it means is that it might be better to start educating consumers  that the fish they eat 20 years in the future won’t be the fish they’re eating today. 

When Venture Capital and Exponential Growth Rule the Food System, Things Will Go Badly, Especially for Oceans

 If the 2000s were dominated by an explosion of novel harvest and distribution forms like urban agriculture and community supported agriculture (CSA), the 2010s have come to be defined by venture capital-backed home-delivered food services like Blue Apron, Plated, and Hello Fresh. It’s safe to say that these services have been a chief reason for the recent declines in CSA programs, where growth has stagnated for the past five years.

Venture capital demands exponential growth—usually something like 10* in 3 years. Venture capital then seeks to extract all that value from the company that undergoes that growth (and the nature and labor that made that company possible) as gains for investors.  I can think of few things more troubling for our modern food movement or food system than it being fully captured by venture capital. Sadly, that seems to be the way it’s heading. Exponential growth is anathema to healthy and thoughtful natural resource development and certainly doesn’t lend itself to thoughtful labor practices or relationships with producers.  For oceans, especially, the strain that exponentially growing markets put on fisheries resources is why we have management in the first place.

To me, one of the most revealing insights from the AP article are Sea to Table’s growth projections in their investor's prospectus—from $13M in 2017 sales to a projected $70M in 2020.  If these numbers are true, it certainly suggests a company seeking venture backing. If so, maximizing value for shareholders not only becomes a chief motive but a legal requirement, superseding any mission to make meaningful change in the food system. Once the mission is sold to a Private Equity firm or larger entity, it is forever changed. 

Of course, it’s hard not to look at companies like Plated and Home Chefand the nine-figure exits their founding teams arranged—and not be intrigued by the possibilities of doing the same. I sure have been! But that simultaneously begs the question that any company should ask itself, especially those with social- and environmental-benefit missions: Why do we exist? To enrich ourselves or to support our mission? There’s not an easy answer to that question, but certainly any social and environmental-benefit company must take extra precautions to ensure that it's more committed to “Mission Accomplished” than “Exit Accomplished.” I am deeply concerned that Sea to Table—and a new round of home-delivered seafood companies like Ocean Box—are seeking the latter.

Maybe Fisheries Just Aren’t Compatible With A Modern Capitalist Consumer’s Expectations and Needs

 Much like Sea to Table, Sitka Salmon Shares has dedicated itself for much of the last decade to building a better seafood system for our fishermen and for our consumers. Our fishermen rely on us to secure them better markets for their harvest. Our consumers rely on us to deliver them fish that tastes delicious and that they can feel good about feeding their families.

But this can be tricky business, mostly because of the way modern industrial capitalism has trained consumers to expect their food system to work. Consumers (be they chefs, grocery stores, or home cooks) now expect consistent, predictable, uniform cheap food that meets a certain aesthetic and is delivered at an astounding scale.  This is something that’s tough for small-scale agriculture to accomplish, but the dynamism of regional fish populations, weather, tides, fishing culture, finance, and regulatory caprice all combine to ensure there is virtually no possible way for the systems that ungird fisheries, especially small-scale ones, to neatly satisfy these expectations.

Take consistent supply: I sometimes joke that we can expect a fisherman to come to port with 10,000 pounds on a Tuesday, 2,000 pounds on a Wednesday, or, equally likely, find them at a coffee shop on a Thursday, where it’s the first time we hear that they decided not to go out because of predicted 8-foot seas that never materialized. All three of those scenarios are equally likely, happen frequently, and must be planned for. Imagine trying to build a marketplace and a business around such a reality, but it is a reality that we face in the industry everyday. 

As an industry, many companies ameliorate the risk of unknown supply by expanding their pool of fisheries, growing the number of fishermen in their fleet, and/or broadening the geographic reach of their buying programs.  Sitka Salmon Shares has done all three. Beyond that, most multi-national seafood companies that specialize in wild fisheries have also added products of aquaculture. Even less pleasingly, many companies resort to mislabeling and fraud to achieve a consistent supply. This is a systemic consequence of the capitalist system trying to make legible a wild system that just can’t be made to bend to capitalist logic.  

At Sitka Salmon Shares, we recently discontinued our wholesale program because we couldn’t feasibly provide a consistent supply to chefs and institutions, both of which need a certain level of consistency to successfully run their own businesses. Indeed, even the most committed farm-to-table restaurants are ill-equipped to work with small-scale fishermen and fisheries, having witnessed myself troubling mislabeling at some of our most celebrated restaurants in the Midwest.

But consumers don’t just expect consistent supply. They expect uniform product. They want to know how big portion and fillet sizes will be, even though the size and meat composition of a particular species can change, sometimes radically, from year to year, making that virtually impossible to accomplish with any precision. They expect predictability, even though sometimes it’s not a question of WHEN fish will arrive but IF fish will arrive. Most of all, consumers expect something cheap. One of my favorite authors, Marion Nestle, recently wrote, “A capitalist food system keeps labor and all other costs to a minimum and provides an enormous overabundance of cheap food, consequences be damned.”  Similar to agriculture, the fisheries that are best for society, communities, eaters, and ecology are the ones that are least efficient. Inefficient fisheries produce all sorts of ecological and social good: they leave more fish in the sea, they are less destructive ecologically, they spread the economic benefit of a fishery to more fishermen. Of course, being inefficient makes participating in purchasing these fish much more expensive. There’s no hard and fast rule, but generally purchasing fish from these inefficient, smaller-scale fisheries costs 2 to 3 times more for us as a company than to purchase from more efficient, industrial fisheries. In a world where eaters are trained to equate value to price (or at the very least, make comparisons), these inefficient fisheries just can’t compete.

 In the end, our industry has a trust problem that stems not just from the malfeasance of bad actors but from some profoundly systemic issues relating to the way the capitalist food system interfaces with the wild systems of which fish are a part. Sea to Table certainly didn't help things. But there is a better way forward, and maybe it starts by rethinking our seafood system using a few of the lessons I've pointed out. Or, maybe, fish make better wild creatures in our oceans than food on our plates. Or, as I recently read, maybe the best fish is the one not eaten. 


Dr. Nicolaas Mink is the Chief Executive Officer of Sitka Salmon Shares, a direct-to-consumer sustainable seafood company based in Sitka, Alaska, and a lecturer in the Environmental Studies Department at Knox College in Galesburg, Illinois. He earned his PhD from the University of Wisconsin-Madison in History and Environmental Studies.

CEO and Professor Nic Mink