Positively Groundfish convenes supply chain experts for discussion with Congressman Jared Huffman

Photos by Bill Reitzel

The weather in San Francisco at the Aquarium of the Bay on October 7th couldn’t have been nicer, but for those passionate about California’s commercial fisheries, the sunny weather was just a bonus for an exciting opportunity to be heard in their own district. Congressman Jared Huffman (CA 2nd District) was in town to hear from fishing community leaders as part of his MSA listening tour.

After the listening session finished, the congressman was invited to sit down with 20+ West Coast Groundfish & seafood supply chain experts (processors, harvesters, chefs and distributors, to name a few) for a candid conversation focused on marketing challenges and their solutions from a wide range of perspectives.

Sharing a few laughs together at the start of the meeting.

The event was coordinated by Executive Director Jana Hennig, while Board President Melissa Mahoney moderated the discussion that sought to unpack the ‘Profitability Squeeze’ – how profits are being eroded both through topline revenue/demand-side factors as well as from the cost/supply-side factors. Over the last few years many groups have researched and diagnosed what ails the groundfish market, but so far no one has been able to shift the paradigm. Supply-side costs keep growing, infrastructure along the coast is ailing, competition with whitefish substitutes remains challenging, and a general lack of consumer awareness has the market in a slump.

A summary of market related challenges raised by the group

As highlighted by recent articles (NOAA, San Jose Mercury News), the groundfish trawl fishery (90+ species of rockfish, sole and roundfishes like sablefish) has seen a remarkable conservation comeback in recent years. However, prices for rockfish and sole have remained stale or even dropped due to a host of social, economic, cultural and political factors. That’s why Positively Groundfish (PG), a 501c6 trade association, was co-founded by several groundfish industry leaders in partnership with the Marine Stewardship Council (MSC) and Environmental Defense Fund (EDF). PG’s mission is to cultivate consumer appreciation and support for sustainable West Coast rockfish and sole for the long-term economic success of our local fishing industry and communities.

Mike Okoniewski: “Groundfish is currently a non-profit operation…”

Mike Okoniewski from Pacific Seafood Group said “Groundfish is currently a non-profit operation…costs to trawl fishermen are 10-15% right off the top…that makes it impossible to have profitability in this market”.

Congressman Huffman asked the participants “What makes West Coast groundfish special?” Distributor Joe Conte exclaimed “Their firm flesh. American consumers prefer a firm texture.”

Distributor Joe Conte (on West Coast rockfish): “American consumers prefer a firm texture.”

Roger Burleigh from the Monterey Bay Fisheries Trust added “they’re sustainable and locally-caught.” Jana Hennig spoke to their nutritional and health benefits remarking that Pacific rockfish and sole have amongst the highest levels of protein and Omega-3 of any white fish. Whereas chef Matthew Beaudin followed with “We have got to tell their story to set them apart.” Finally, the Congressman himself got to taste a variety of groundfish species prepared by chef Geoff Reed of Ichido, and noted that they were “absolutely delicious.”

Positively Groundfish has taken actionable steps to coordinate resources and messaging around the comeback of this iconic fishery. They received a $300,000 Saltonstall-Kennedy grant in 2018 to conduct market research and outreach at food shows to create a buzz around sustainable, delicious and healthy rockfish and sole. And it seems to be working. During 2018 and fall 2019 they sampled over 26,000 bites of rockfish and sole at nine shows and festivals, and the response was overwhelming. At some events PG partnered with mission aligned company One for Neptune, who are now making the first-ever rockfish jerky sourced from the West Coast. And PG is hoping to secure another major grant from Saltonstall-Kennedy to update nutrition aspects of the major rockfish species.

As the congressmen heard, there are numerous challenges to bringing profitability back to the groundfish market. The participants noted some areas where government could provide support through creating new policies, reworking outdated ones, and acting to appropriate funding to reduce harvester costs so they are more equitable with other regions. Going forward, PG will continue partnering and collaborating on solutions (including some new ideas brought forward), and with continued support from industry through our growing membership, the conservation community, and government, the profitability of the West Coast rockfish and sole market will be making a strong upswing within the next five years. The team at Positively Groundfish is betting on it.

For more information about Positively Groundfish, including how to join as a member, go to www.positivelygroundfish.org or contact the authors:

Melissa Mahoney, Board President, mmahoney@edf.org

Jana Hennig, Executive Director, jana@positivelygroundfish.org