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Takeaways from the seafood show floor

A few things really stood out at this year's Boston seafood show.

Another year, another Boston. While current geopolitics might dictate a dour mood, there was a spring in the collective industry’s step, even among sectors -- think smoked salmon, Alaska pollock, tilapia and pangasius -- that one would think would be down in the dumps.

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Why the smiles? Well, I put it down to a general belief in the future of the industry. Slowly, surely, seafood is taking its rightful place in the world, and it seems like this industry may finally be finding out how to capitalize on a protein that has everything going for it.

Walking the floor this year, there are some clear trends that jumped out indicating some big changes ahead -- mostly good ones.

Salmon is king. If it wasn't so already, this year only put an exclamation point on it: salmon is running the seafood show. Not only are the companies making more money than ever, but they are leading the way in product development, which is breaking the ice for others to follow.

This industry still has character. Nothing is more fun (if, like me, you are a seafood nerd) than wandering the Boston or Brussels floor and seeing the sometimes motley crew of companies that make up this sector. You can’t say there isn’t a lot of passion, and you can’t say there aren’t a lot committed people.

Ah, but there’s a 'but'. By this stage, it’s not necessarily a good thing that one company specializes in live lobster, another in shrimp poppers, and yet another in salmon jerky. It’s time for the industry to rationalize. I know, that takes away some of the life from this wonderfully diverse sector, but it is also a natural part of the evolution needed for it to thrive, especially against powerful retail and distribution forces. Which brings me to…

Consolidation. There are a lot of companies looking for succession plans, and a lot of acquisitive groups. A lot of private equity execs were spotted on the floor, and quiet chats in the corners between CEOs were enough to get people’s imaginations going. There are some very real and very sizeable deals right around the corner, so stay tuned. You can expect established companies that have been on the hunt to make some big announcements soon, as well as some surprise entrants.

Get ready for innovation. For the last 15 years, it’s pretty hard to point to any quantum leap in new product development. Yes, we’re happy that you’ve discovered a new kind of breadcrumb, and wow! Sriracha flavor. Snarkiness aside, I will say that I saw and heard some real attempts to break out a bit.

Sustaina-what? Eco-labels aren’t enough, and it’s showing. There were a lot more groups focusing on traceability and chain-of-custody this year, and you sense that maybe -- finally -- the eco-label wheat has been separated from the chaff. Like it or not, we have what we have. That said, eco-labels alone aren't enough, and they are not necessarily the ticket to entry anymore. A solid traceability system may trump a good-looking sticker, and increasingly people are unwilling to accept “sustainable” as an answer.

Less packaging, fewer barriers. No term is more of a business cliché than “game changer” -- with maybe one exception -- but when a large enough number of people cite something as, well, a “game changer,” then you should probably take a look at it. My colleague John Fiorillo pointed this out in our blog: The realization seems to have set in that skin packs solve a number of the biggest barriers to purchasing in the US (by the way, the Brits figured this out years ago). If we’re lucky, this could herald the death knell of the fresh fish counter, or at the very least a severe paring back.

Wild and farmed, living in perfect harmony. It’s official, haters: the war is finally over. No, really. Let it go. Cooke and Icicle’s shared presence heralds a new era, and seeing farmed salmon side-by-side with wild and noticing how the innovations are crossing species is a refreshing thing. For all the uncertainty about a company built on farmed salmon moving into Alaska, it looks like it’s going to be a good match, and word is Cooke isn’t done looking in the Pacific Northwest (or anywhere else for that matter).

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Brands, brands, brands. No, a logo is not a brand, as any overpaid consultant will tell you. It’s about the look, the feel, the company culture, the…yeah, you’ve heard all this before. It could be that out of fear of making a mistake, the industry has been too hesitant to market its product on its unique attributes (even when it may not have that many). But this realization that the commodity mindset has to change was present all over. Now, most of these brands will tank, granted, but hey -- this year’s array of new entrants shows the industry is realizing there is more value in the fish they sell.

Chile's ready for change. Nowhere was the focus on brands more clear than at the Chilean booths, with several of the producers making clear efforts to reposition a sector that has faced phenomenal challenges over the years. The group announced a new plan to shake up the US salmon market: the Chilean Salmon Market Council. Chile has done an incredible job developing the fresh salmon market and now its new mission is now to help grow it further, and do it not by fighting for market share, but by pushing provenance.

Focus on the protein. Seafood has a major advantage over rivals – high quality protein. And yet, for years, the industry has been missing out on an opportunity the rest of the food sector has taken advantage of. I saw some initial attempts to highlight “protein rich” and “protein packed” on consumer-facing packaging, and I think the industry should rush to embrace it, particularly as terms like “natural” and “healthy” get more labelling scrutiny by authorities.

Of course, time moves quickly, and before we know it, the Brussels seafood show will be upon us, and the way this industry moves, there will be a whole new set of takeaways.

You can take a read of our Seafood Expo North America (#SENA17) coverage here, and catch videos from the showfloor here.

Feedback? Contact: drew.cherry@intrafish.com

Follow me on Twitter: @drewcherry

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