Last week I wrote a column in which I argued that per capita seafood consumption in the United States is not likely to ever rise above its modest 16-pounds-person level, where it has been stuck for roughly three decades.
My outlook is, admittedly, bleak, but I base it on the fact that the United States lacks a seafood culture. It loves its beef and chicken, but seafood does not have deep enough roots in the country’s food culture to be able to weather threats from current and rising protein options (plant-based foods) or to significantly boost consumption.
In response to the column, Wally Stevens, executive director of the Global Aquaculture Alliance (GAA), sent me a letter asking, where is the leadership on this issue? Who or what group is going to take the lead on this and try and push seafood consumption forward?
It’s a great question.
There is no leader on this issue. There are people, companies and groups that are doing things to boost consumption, but mostly those are limited to their own goals and not the broader goal of boosting overall consumption.
You can argue that these individual efforts should collectively add up to an overall consumption boost, but there is no evidence to support that.
So, who will lead on this issue and what can this elusive leader do to make a difference?
Most eyes turn immediately to the National Fisheries Institute (NFI), the nation’s largest seafood trade group.
In the modern era of the group – since the hiring of its current president John Connelly in 2003 – NFI has sought to communicate directly with the media to spread its message about the benefits of eating seafood and to defend the industry when it is attacked. It has largely stuck to this approach since 2004, not wishing to embark on a generic marketing seafood campaign or other broader type of industry-sponsored effort.
I am not suggesting that if the organization had launched such a campaign, per capita consumption would be higher today, but as we explore what can be done to boost consumption, the option should be discussed.
The industry’s only all-encompassing generic marketing campaign that occurred in the late 1980s did not survive long enough to fully assess its success or failure. After federal seed money for the program ran out, the industry was unwilling to self-fund the program, which had already produced media promotions and other efforts, led by “Spokesfish,” a cartoon character that encouraged Americans to “Eat Fish and Seafood Twice a Week.”
Getting the industry to pay for such a campaign would be no easier today than it was 30 years ago, I imagine, but you still have to wonder if it would work.
What about the eco-certification groups – the Marine Stewardship Council (MSC), the Global Aquaculture Alliance (GAA) and others – do they have a role in leading the charge to boost consumption.
Stevens himself has been in the seafood industry since the 1970s, much of that time at the very top of the industry’s leadership ladder. He heads GAA, so it is fair to ask if he has an answer to who can lead us to the seafood consumption promised land.
But I do not think it is the job of the certification groups to market seafood for the industry. If the industry gets a knock-on effect from their marketing of sustainability, all the better, but they are not marketing groups in the pure sense of the word.
Linda Cornish’s group, the Seafood Nutrition Partnership (SNP), is doing some great work, but it doesn’t have the funding it needs to really expand. Maybe that could change, and SNP could be the industry’s tip of the spear for boosting consumption.
It most often comes down to money. No leader can take on a project such as this without a budget.
Maybe the industry just isn’t that concerned with boosting consumption in the United States. After all, consumption in other parts of the world shows much greater promise.
Or maybe the industry should just not pay any attention to seafood consumption figures (which isn’t hard right now because NOAA has yet to release the 2018 figures. It is months late and has no explanation for why).
Maybe for those who sell seafood it’s simply about their sales. Who cares how much seafood Americans are eating, as long as our company is selling all it can?
Who will lead on this issue? Maybe the better question is: Does anyone even want to?