John Connelly will retire as president of the National Fisheries Institute (NFI) in February 2023 after 20 years at the helm of the largest seafood trade association in the United States, he announced Tuesday.

He has served as NFI President since February 2003.

Announcing this decision now allows the NFI leadership the necessary time to engage members and get input as it chooses a new president, Connelly said.

Kim Gorton, CEO of Slade Gorton, will lead a search committee.

"We want to ensure we select the right leader for what NFI members expect and need in the coming years, and not just based on where we are now in 2022," she said.

In addition to Gorton, search committee members include Joe Bundrant of Trident Seafoods, Ellen Clarry of Ruby Tuesday, Justin Conrad of Bay Hill and Libby Hill, Jeff Stern of Central Seaway, Jan Tharp of Bumble Bee Foods, and Sylvia Wulf of AquaBounty.

"I very much appreciate working with member company leaders and an excellent and dedicated staff in creating the strong foundation on which NFI can build," Connelly said.

He revamped NFI

Connelly, a veteran of the trade association sector, came to NFI in 2003 after the departure of Dick Gutting.

Prior to joining NFI, he was member relations and corporate secretary for the American Chemistry Council, a trade association representing more than 200 members of the chemical industry.

At the time of his arrival, NFI was in need of restructuring after falling membership and flat revenues plagued the group throughout much of the previous decade.

In 2004, NFI approved a seven-fold increase in its communications budget.

“NFI is expending significantly more resources on both an offensive message about the benefits of seafood and aggressively defending the industry when its products are attacked,” he said at the time.

This approach became a hallmark of the group's strategy in succeeding years and remains so today.

In addition to bolstering its relationship with the media, NFI also began reaching out to health professionals around the country.

At the time, Connelly said he believed that even health experts are confused by media stories that one day champion the benefits of eating fish and the next day warn consumers of the dangers of seafood. In the early days of his tenure, the group worked to dispel the myth that seafood is high in mercury.

This outreach to doctors and dietitians remains one of the group's major communications strategies.

In 2006, Connelly was named IntraFish Person of the Year, and he also met with the Marine Stewardship Council (MSC) and soon after joined the sustainable-seafood group's board of directors.

The move was groundbreaking at the time because up until that point the two groups had been slow to embrace one another. When the MSC concept was first introduced to NFI members a decade before, they scoffed at the idea and most dismissed the eco-label program.