At Sacramento Natural Foods Co-op, the seafood case is more than just an eye-pleasing display of deep orange wild king salmon, delicate pink opah and pristine white petrale sole. Greenpeace recently named the Sacramento, Calif.-based co-op the number one sustainable seafood grocery retailer in California and number two in the nation.
Sacramento Natural Foods Co-op offers valuable lessons for retailers who feel overwhelmed by the complexities involved in selling sustainable seafood. For the last six years, the co-op has partnered with FishWise, a Santa Cruz, Calif.-based nonprofit dedicated to improving both the sustainability and revenues of seafood retailers, distributors and producers. For $1,200 a year (prices vary depending on store size and services provided), the Sacramento co-op can access FishWise's sustainability ratings for every type of seafood, get a quarterly audit of its seafood case signage, and receive staff training on everything from catch methods to mercury testing.
The partnership pays off for the co-op in a number of ways. Not only has the Greenpeace ranking resulted in increased publicity—Sunset magazine recently named the co-op's seafood department one of the best in the West—but it has also helped the retailer ring up more sales. Seafood revenues increased 16 percent last year, according to General Manager Paul Cultrera.
But what if you don't work with an organization like FishWise? Statistics show it's still profitable to stock sustainable seafood. Between April 2010 and April 2011, sales of refrigerated and frozen seafood increased 10.5 percent in natural foods stores nationwide, according to Schaumburg, Ill.-based market research firm SPINS. "Many of the top 20 food retailers in the country, including Walmart, Safeway, Target and Whole Foods, found it's good for business to establish sustainable seafood departments," says FishWise Executive Director Tobias Aguirre.
According to research by the Monterey Bay Aquarium's Seafood Watch, consumers want to know how their seafood is sourced, but they don't want to do the work themselves. "They want information at the point of sale, from the people selling the product," says Sheila Bowman, Seafood Watch senior outreach manager. That opens up marketing and merchandising opportunities for your store.
Here are expert recommendations on the best ways to stock your fish case sustainably, boost sales and educate customers.
Know where to get info
You can't always rely on your distributors to tell you if their stock is sustainable. In fact, Sacramento Natural Foods Co-op's meat, poultry and seafood manager, Robert Duncan, says his suppliers often call him to determine the sustainability of their latest catch. Do your homework by checking sustainable seafood rankings from third-party organizations. (See "Top sustainable seafood sources")
Vet your distributors
Aguirre says if your seafood supplier can't answer the following three basic questions about the sourcing of its fish, that's a red flag that traceability issues exist. Where was the fish caught or farmed? What method was used to catch or raise it? What is its scientific name?
Bone up on toxins
This is easier said than done, Bowman says, because there is no organization that reliably tests seafood for toxins on an annual basis, so data can be out-of-date. Mercury and PCBs are the two main culprits to watch for. In general, the larger and more carnivorous the fish (think tuna and salmon), the more toxins, she says.
Expand your offerings
According to Bowman, the top three seafood choices for U.S. consumers are salmon, tuna and shrimp. "You have sustainability issues if millions of people eat the same thing," she says. "When you ask 99 percent of people what fish is healthy and the only one they can name is salmon, you have a problem." Use signage to steer customers toward other sustainable fish options that also are high in omega-3s, such as lake trout, Atlantic bluefish and U.S. farmed sturgeon.
Don't overlook the freezer case
This is a good option for customers who want out-of-season fish, such as salmon patties and crab cakes, or specialty products such as gluten-free frozen haddock or cod nuggets, Duncan says.
Top sustainable seafood sources
Monterey Bay Aquarium's Seafood Watch
Outreach Manager Sheila Bowman recommends you don't rely solely on Seafood Watch's pocket guide, which lists only 65 species. Go instead to seafoodwatch.org, which has more than 2,000 wild-caught and farmed seafood ratings.
Marine Stewardship Council
This nonprofit is the largest certifier of wild-caught seafood, covering about 10 percent of the world's wild-capture fisheries and more than 1,800 supply chain companies, according to Kerry Coughlin, MSC's regional director for the Americas. MSC's global standard for sustainability was developed by scientists, fishers, academics, seafood industry experts and marine conservation organizations, and is consistent with United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization guidelines. You can track certified fisheries by species at msc.org. Another option is MSC-labeled packaged seafood, which now numbers more than 10,000 products and is traceable through the supply chain back to a certified sustainable fishery. The MSC program also certifies retailers, providing marketing materials, staff training and templates for seafood case signage. Cost varies, but runs around $2,000 for a small chain of stores, Coughlin says.
Aquaculture Stewardship Council
This nonprofit, founded by the World Wildlife Fund and the Dutch Sustainable Trade Initiative, is scheduled to begin certifying and labeling farmed fish this year. It lists standards for farmed abalone, bivalves, cobia, freshwater trout, pangasius, salmon, seriola, shrimp and tilapia at ascworldwide.org.
Blue Ocean Institute
This nonprofit's Guide to Ocean Friendly Seafood (blueocean.org) uses scientific and governmental publications to assess both wild-caught and farmed fish. It also has a guide to sushi fish, recipes and a list of substitutes for nonsustainable fish—for instance, pole-caught yellowfin tuna instead of Atlantic bluefin tuna.
This resource from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration offers sustainability lists by both species and region at nmfs.noaa.gov/fishwatch.
Greenpeace International Seafood Red List
The top 20 nonsustainable species are listed at greenpeace.org/international/en/campaigns/oceans/seafood/red-list-of-species.
Does sustainable seafood actually exist?
Some scientists insist that sustainable seafood is an oxymoron and that the only way to replenish our oceans is to simply stop eating fish. But others believe that, thanks to the sustainability movement, some stocks worldwide have stabilized and others are actually rebuilding, says Kerry Coughlin, regional director for the Marine Stewardship Council.
This reversal is fueled by consumer demand and led by industrial fisheries that see the profit in sustainable catches, Coughlin says. She cities Chilean sea bass as an example. The fish was flagged as a sustainability no-no until a few years ago, when one Chilean sea bass fishery approached MSC for certification. The fishery altered the way it collected data to prove traceability, instituted 100 percent observation of all its fishing boats and changed catching gear to reduce the number of sea birds snared in nets from 10,000 a year to zero.
"Not only did that fishery get certified, but it inspired other Chilean sea bass fisheries to do the same," Coughlin says. "Sustainability is all about these kinds of choices. It's exciting to realize that the choices of large retailers, small retailers and even consumers can actually make a difference."
5 tips from a top sustainable seafood grocer
Sacramento Natural Foods Co-op in Sacramento, Calif., which was recently named Greenpeace's number one sustainable seafood grocery in California, sells more than a quarter million dollars of seafood yearly with these merchandising tips.
Green for shop.
Label each type of seafood as either green (most sustainable), or yellow, and don't stop at the fresh case. Slap stickers on frozen and canned seafood as well
Be a pescado Picasso.
Think of your fish case as an artist's canvas, and display your seafood with an eye toward color, size and texture.
Freeze, thaw, repeat.
Just because Alaskan wild king salmon or another popular seafood isn't in season doesn't mean your customers should be deprived. Buy frozen filets, thaw them and put them in your fresh case, labeled as such.
Explain your prices.
Fish caught at the beginning of their season generally cost more than those snagged mid-season. Not only should you educate your customers about this either through counter staff or signage, but reward them for their patience by offering discounts as supply increases.
Grab and go.
Popular prepared seafood case offerings include fish fajitas made with strips of salmon and halibut, and seasonal vegetables; and salmon filets and petrale sole filets stuffed with crab cakes from the freezer case.