For years, consumers buying eco-friendly seafood represented a tiny niche. These were the early-adopters – the first to download the seafood buyer’s wallet card from marine conservation websites, the same people who would ask of their chagrinned waiter, “Was this codfish taken from a sustainably managed fishery?”

Those people are no longer fringe. “Sustainable seafood” is big, and growth is on a meteoric trajectory, witnessed by the skyrocketing demand for product that consumers know is chemical and guilt free. Ecofish, of Dover, NH is riding that wave.

Selling under the brand name Henry & Lisa’s Seafood, Ecofish is enjoying steadily increasing sales, reaching $3 million last year. The company is poised to double sales in 2008. “We’re going pedal to the metal, fast as we can,” says company president Henry Lovejoy. He has spent the past year and a half positioning the Ecofish brand, setting up channels of distribution and procurement. “Now the fun begins,” says Lovejoy. “Just as the market is warming up to sustainable seafood”

Lovejoy proudly claims credit for bringing sustainable seafood as far as it has come. He and his wife, Lisa, started Ecofish in 1999 after working in the live lobster export business. As they traveled all over the world, they witnessed firsthand the results of overfishing, bycatch, and waste in their industry. The couple has always been environmentally aware, and out of their emotional response to unsustainable industry practices came a strong need to do something they could feel good about. They also saw a tremendous business opportunity.

In the late 1990s the market for natural and organic foods was starting to explode. Lovejoy realized that a core demographic looking for wholesome sources of protein had plenty of options for beef, pork, and poultry, but nothing for seafood. They saw an opportunity to differentiate.

Today, the concept of sustainable seafood has come of age. Even old time players are trying to get in on the business opportunity. “We’re seeing companies making claims and trying to profit off the movement. Great, if it’s for real,” says Lovejoy. “One of our goals is to create a model for the industry. We want to prove you can be profitable selling sustainable seafood and at the same time provide a source for seafood consumers can trust.”

What’s not to trust about seafood? Health and nutrition advocates have long touted the benefits of eating more of it. The dirty secret, says Lovejoy, is that it is rare to find seafood nowadays that has not been treated with any chemicals. He says fish is increasingly being frozen whole and shipped to China for processing. “A lot of Alaskan salmon is frozen, shipped to China, then soaked in sodium tripolyphosphate [preservative] and resold. The travesty is that it is being carried out purely in the name of cheap labor. It’s a crime. It’s tremendously sad,” says Lovejoy.

The Sustainability Tidal Wave

Ecofish relies on the leading marine science and conservation experts on its seafood advisory board for advice on product sourcing. The company also has a culinary advisory board, which helps select what species to offer, and as a liaison between EcoFish and chefs.

Heather Tausig, director of conservation at the New England Aquarium, is on the Ecofish seafood advisory board. Because of her deep involvement with sustainable fisheries issues, Tausig says she has been approached by retail giant Royal Ahold (parent company of Stop & Shop supermarkets and others) about seafood sourcing. She attributes these and similar calls to growing consumer awareness and education.

“We’re hearing from businesses that consumers are asking questions,” she says. “That makes them work to meet that challenge. There’s a general increased role of corporate social responsibility; more and more you see companies putting people in charge of sustainability aspects of their operations. This is true for seafood retailers and suppliers, depending on how big a role seafood plays in their business,” says Tausig. “Ecofish provides product to companies that want to incorporate sustainable messaging, and offers people a way to find it easily.”

Increasingly, the message about sustainability is trickling up, down and sideways through seafood industry channels. At the International Boston Seafood Show, more and more companies are openly advertising their practices as “sustainable” on the show floor, and panel discussions cover the topic annually.

The trend is the same, only working backwards, at the 2008 Seafood Summit. Put on by the Seafood Choices Alliance, the summit was originally a meeting of marine conservation advocates. Now, the venue brings together representatives of industry, science and conservation. “I certainly think it’s catching on. At the Seafood Summit this year there are more sellers than environmentalists,” says Carl Safina, co-founder and president of the nonprofit Blue Ocean Institute, and another member of the Ecofish seafood advisory board.

“Ecofish is committed to an honest and constructive appraisal of what they sell,” says Safina. “They ask us for our recommendation on any new product that they’re considering, and always take it as their determination. I’ve never heard them say, `Do you really think it’s a problem?'”

Tausig of the New England Aquarium agrees. “They take the advisory board comments seriously. There’s serious discussion on new opportunities and sources. It’s always a challenge to look at what the market demands, especially the most popular species like shrimp and salmon, and finding environmentally responsible choices for those,” says Tausig.

Ecofish originally launched the Henry & Lisa’s retail brand by targeting its core demographic, which shopped at the corner natural foods store or at chains like Whole Foods. Today, the product is in over 1,000 grocery and natural food stores, and over 150 restaurants nationwide. In Maine this includes Shaws and more recently, Hannaford’s supermarkets.

Henry Lovejoy is keen about the prospects before him. “When we started in ’99 no one knew what you meant by `sustainable seafood’ — you got a blank stare,” says Lovejoy. Two years ago, the largest seafood retailer in the U.S. changed all that. Wal-Mart corporation announced that by 2009 it would only sell wild fish that had been certified by the Marine Stewardship Council, an independent certifier of sustainably managed and harvested fisheries. “The whole movement caught on with Wal-Mart’s announcement,” says Lovejoy. “Our company has grown and gotten a lot of positive PR since then.”

And, based on this year’s sales projections, the market for eco-friendly seafood has a long way to grow.