Sustainable seafood has created such a buzz in the marketplace that it headlined this year’s Seafood Business Summit at the Boston Seafood Show. A panel of seafood buyers and fisheries experts shared their experience on procuring seafood that is sustainably harvested from plentiful stocks, or farmed without ecological impacts. All the panelists, from the large-volume buyer for a grocery chain serving 20 million customers per week to a 30-restaurant chain were singing the same tune: “sustainability” isn’t just a buzzword. It is here to stay.

From the panel’s opening remarks it quickly became clear that recognizing the trend is one thing, but getting a handle on what it means for fishermen, processors and sellers is a different kettle of fish. The “sustainable” buzz is still new, and there are more questions than answers about even the most basic ideas: What is “sustainable” seafood, and who gets to decide? How is it different from organic? If a seafood product is deemed sustainable, will that add value? Amid these swirling questions there was broad agreement among both panel and industry members in attendance that sustainable seafood is not a fad. From wild fishery to fish farm to stores and restaurants, everyone who handles seafood will have to answer, “Is this product sustainable?”

According to Lisa Duchene, senior editor at Seafood Business magazine and the summit moderator, environmental issues placed among the top three challenges for retail and food service seafood buyers in the magazine’s biennial industry survey. Health of the fishery, bycatch, the method of harvest and its impact on marine habitat, pollution — all come into play now more than ever. Sales of organic seafood are growing by more than 21 percent annually and are projected to reach $30.7 billion by 2007, according to the Seafood Business survey. Consumer guides like “The Fish List” and Seafood Watch (see box) are finding their way into more consumers’ wallets and factoring into buying decisions.

But who, or what, is really driving this? Are consumers becoming more sophisticated about the fishing industry and marine ecosystems, informing their demand for sustainable seafood? Has the “blue revolution” matured to the point where it affects industry trends? The answer is both yes and no. Retail seafood buyers rank consumers’ lack of knowledge as their second highest challenge after competition from retail supercenters in the Seafood Business survey.

Panelist Dr. Barry Costa-Pierce, University of Rhode Island professor of fisheries, asked, “Do consumers really care? They seem to be amenable to purchasing `ecolabeled’ seafood, but show little knowledge about species that are overfished.”

If consumers aren’t driving the sustainable trend, what is? That answer came from the three remaining panelists, seafood buyers representing three strata of the seafood chain: Chuck Anderson, VP of seafood procurement for Ahold USA, the fifth-largest grocery chain in the U.S. with 1,600 stores (including Stop & Shop and Giant Foods); Kurt Friesland, sales/purchasing agent for J.J. McDonnell & Co., Inc., which provides services and seafood products to restaurants and retailers throughout Baltimore, Washington and Northern Virginia; and Bill Holler, VP of operations and purchasing at Legal Seafoods, the venerable Boston-based restaurant chain now with 30 U.S. outlets.

Supply and Demand

“The fish are driving it,” said Anderson. “There are not enough fish.” Watching catches decline during the 1980s as seafood buyer for Giant Foods, he said, “It was easy to figure out that we were losing catch. To fill the gap I was trying to find farmed seafood.”

“Demand is driving it,” said Legal Seafoods’ Bill Holler. “American seafood consumption is increasing fast. We need to be responsible how we harvest it. I don’t know if the consumer cares. Promoting sustainability falls on our shoulders — the onus is on industry. It’s who we are and what we are about. It is important that [the seafood] industry sustain itself by promoting sustainability.”

Legal Seafoods has been in the forefront of sustainable seafood for years. The company requires all of its vendors to take sustainability seriously. “We monitor them closely and ask them to provide us with that information as part of doing business with us,” said Holler.

Kurt Friesland of J.J. McDonnell & Co. sees sustainability as being a requirement to be an industry leader. “Anyone in a leadership position has to make this part of their business plan. It can’t be second thought,” said Friesland. “Some will work hard to be out front, and others will be reactive.”

None of the panelists offered sustainability as an economic incentive for seafood businesses. Rather, they said it simply makes good business sense that the long-term future of the seafood industry incorporates ecological as well as economic principles. “Some consumers will pay more, but I won’t sell more seafood at a higher price because it is sustainable,” said Anderson. “It has to be industry-driven. As a large-volume buyer, that means much more work. Sustainability is a pain in the ass — it really is a lot of hard work and study. When you’re making decisions not to sell things, you’re not making money.”

Legal Seafoods promotes its sustainability practices everywhere — on menus, placemats, ads and trucks. “Anyone who isn’t promoting sustainability isn’t up to speed with the industry,” said Holler. “It’s in the marketplace now. The general public reads newspaper. Believe it or not, it drives what we do. We try to educate the public about sustainability, to keep them informed in a positive light.”

Sourcing Information

Managing all available information on sustainable seafood can be overwhelming, and each panelist handles it differently. Legal Seafoods has a full-time person and a clipping service looking at newspapers worldwide. “Nowadays seafood purchasing has to consider a lot more,” said Holler. “How is it caught? What is the fishery doing to the environment? What are the local government’s regulations? You need to do your homework! We look at all educational and governmental tools available to us and come up with our own sustainability value system. Consumers depend on industry to take in all the information…they trust us to discern.”

Anderson said Ahold USA obtains scientific input through its partnership with New England Aquarium, which supplies thoroughly researched information: when his company requested data on snow crab, the Aquarium delivered a 32-page paper; a paper on another species listed 84 sources. Recognizing that not everyone can afford third party partnerships, Anderson recommended seafood buyers find sources at government agencies like NOAA, National Marine Fisheries Service, Canada’s Department of Fisheries and Oceans, as well as educational foundations and University Sea Grant. He specifically named University of Maine as a resource. “There is so much information out there. Use all of it. And, talk to fishermen,” said Anderson.

J.J. McDonnell & Co., Inc., also incorporates a broad spectrum of information, from the august Smithsonian Institution all the way to National Fisheries Institute, an industry lobby. “We need it all. We do it ourselves,” said Friesland. “I am hands-on. You can’t use one specific outside source; there isn’t accountability. Bottom line, does all the information make sense?

Don’t Say No

Seafood procurement may be experiencing growing pains of a burgeoning sustainability movement, but change is not going to come overnight. Seafood is a global commodity, and different countries pose different definitions of environmentally, sustainably fished or farmed seafood. Sources from the UN Food and Agricultural Organization (FAO) down to the local seafood market know that global demand for fresh, quality seafood is on the rise; FAO recently released a report projecting the world will need to quadruple the volume of farmed seafood by 2015 to meet this demand. Whether the consumer buys for a large-volume grocery chain or for a single family, the best he or she can do is make informed decisions.

Anderson, buyer for Ahold USA, figures that if he sources from enterprises that are doing right by the fishery, the environment and the local community, positive change is inevitable. “There are a whole lot of people in this industry who care,” said Anderson. “I give my money to the guys who are doing a good job. Take hook-and-line caught cod: there is very little impact on the environment, and it is higher quality fish. It costs 20 percent more. I think we should talk to the New England Fisheries Management Council to allow [hook fishermen] more Days at Sea, give [trawl fishermen] a reason to switch their gear.”

Aside from insightful industry discussion, this year’s Seafood Summit offered two truisms to take away: the clout of being big still carries sway; and if you want to speed up change, focus on pocketbook issues.