Sure, the menu at your favorite restaurant declares that perfect pan-seared salmon to be wild Alaskan.
But how can you be certain that someone didn’t pluck it from a fish farm instead? Consumers might think they are splurging on better, healthier fish—wild-caught sockeye, sea bass, snapper, and others—but investigations repeatedly show that bait-and-switch seafood fraud is rampant. The conservation group Oceana recently reported that its researchers DNA tested fish from grocery stores and restaurants across the country and found 21 percent was mislabeled.
It’s been nine years since Oceana began testing seafood and raising awareness, but progress is swimming-upstream tough. Seafood fraud continues to be such a major problem that it dominated conversations in May at the National Restaurant Show, America’s largest gathering of food service professionals.
It’s why Randy Hartnell, a longtime Pacific Northwest fisherman and founder of Vital Choice Wild Seafood & Organics, makes traceability a priority and lends his voice to the fight for transparency across the category.
“We talk about our sources, we are proud of them, and we have nothing to hide,” says Hartnell, whose 17-year-old business based in Washington state offers home delivery of fresh frozen seafood, fish oil supplements, and organic meats.
Early adopter of transparency practices
Vital Choice was an early adopter of supply chain transparency practices, with Hartnell earning industry-wide praise for his dedication.
Most of Vital Choice’s fish—salmon is the company’s bread and butter—comes from runs in Alaska and British Columbia. Any customer who wants to know more about where the seafood is caught, frozen, packaged, canned, smoked or shipped from (which is never far from the Pacific coast), can find an abundance of information on the company website.
“Commitment to authenticity, transparency, and sustainable seafood for future generations is part of Vital Choice’s ethos and recognized by many in the industry,” says the Marine Stewardship Council’s Everette Anderson, senior commercial manager.
Vital Choice products bear the MSC’s blue fish label—the gold standard certification for sustainable seafood. It tells consumers that an item is verified wild caught, sustainably fished, and the product’s journey from ocean to market has been well documented. To earn the label, producers must submit to rigorous annual audits.
“It’s a huge and costly burden for a lot of businesses, but it is the price of being very credible,” explains Hartnell, who runs a relatively small operation, with just 38 employees.
Hartnell started working with the MSC a full year before he and his wife Carla launched Vital Choice in 2002.
“Randy and his team have been frequent participants on panels, contributors to stories or regularly leveraging social media to push stories that discuss wellness, quality or transparency,” Anderson says.
Started with a summer job
Hartnell’s career in seafood started with a summer job on a commercial fishing boat in Alaska to finance his way through college. One summer turned into two… and before he knew it, he was putting aside graduate school plans and buying his own boat.
Hartnell worked for 24 years as a commercial fisherman in the Pacific Northwest and Alaska “riding 20-foot tides and becoming intimately familiar with the wild sockeye salmon.”
But the industry took what he calls a dark turn in the 1990s as large-scale salmon farming began devastating traditional fishing communities.
It was around this time that he and other commercial fishermen traveled to grocery stores around the country to promote wild Alaskan salmon.
Here’s what he learned: “There was so much pressure on them (grocers) to keep prices low that they had no choice but to lower their quality standards.”
Hartnell’s experiences during the ‘90s led him to launch Vital Choice and speak out about what he sees as the nutritional, economic, and environmental downsides of farmed seafood, especially salmon.
Consumers will pay for quality and transparency
Today, Hartnell doesn’t shy away from the fact that many Vital Choice products cost more than industrially produced foods.
It’s the cost of quality, he says, claiming Vital Choice’s wild Alaskan and British Columbian salmon are some of the healthiest on earth. And all Vital Choice’s seafood offerings, which include sablefish, halibut, cod, albacore tuna, Alaskan king crab, Oregon pink shrimp, and Maine lobster, are supplied by fisheries certified sustainable either by MSC, State of Alaska, or the Monterey Bay Aquarium’s SeafoodWatch program.
Hartnell added Wild Alaskan Sockeye Salmon Oil to Vital Choice’s menu around 2004 in direct response to what he saw as a lack of transparency by other fish oil suppliers.
“My mom was buying Costco’s Kirkland brand fish oil. I wanted to find out what kind of fish were used so I called the company and got the runaround,” he says. “At one point someone told me it came from farmed sardines, but I knew there was no such thing.”
Vital Choice’s fish oil is made from the heads of freshly harvested wild Alaskan sockeye and processed within hours of harvest.
Coming soon: Hartnell is excited to put MSC-certified Chilean sea bass (a.k.a. Patagonian toothfish) on the menu, which is no small thing. This desirable, expensive, and buttery fish fell out of favor after a confluence of controversies. The deep-water species was illegally fished almost to the point of decimation. Diners ordering Chilean Sea Bass were being fed another cheaper fish. And toothfish fishing methods were hooking and drowning thousands of seabirds, including the endangered albatross.
But now, thanks to supply chain monitoring and crackdowns on poaching, toothfish is back on the table—as long as it has MSC certification.
“We are definitely in the age of the socially and environmentally aware consumer, and they like to have access to more information about the foods they buy for a variety of health and ethical reasons,” says Sara Lewis of FishWise, a nonprofit sustainable seafood consultancy based in Santa Cruz, CA.
For somebody like Hartnell, that demand is an opportunity to tell a story, a story that began when a college student climbed aboard an Alaskan fishing boat. “We are proud of our sources,” Hartnell says. “We know it’s important to our customers.”