Why Sourcing Domestic Seafood Requires Due Diligence
Our seafood sustainability blogger, Justin Boevers, is the program director of Fish Choice, an environmental nonprofit dedicated to helping businesses advance their seafood sustainability efforts and provide the tools and resources needed to make it easier to buy and sell sustainable seafood. Boevers holds a master’s in Marine Affairs from the University of Washington and serves on the boards of Chef’s Collaborative and Food Alliance. His monthly seafood blog will cover topics ranging from seafood certifications to menu nomenclature and substitutions with invasive and underutilized seafood. Read more posts from Boevers here.
Provenance (or origin) of domestic seafood is arguably the most common way it’s identified on menus—think Alaskan salmon, Louisiana (or Gulf) shrimp, and Maine lobster. In nearly all cases, I can usually make a seafood recommendation to chefs if I'm confident about its origins. However, this isn't always such an easy task.
Old news to many, but still news to some is that 90% of seafood consumed in the U.S. is imported (this number is inflated by supply chain logistics where a lot of U.S. harvested seafood is exported for processing, re-imported, and then counted in this 90% figure, maybe to the degree of 10-20%). So it’s no surprise it can be difficult to find local seafood even with the best intentions. In San Diego, 60+ restaurants responded to a survey regarding the prevalence of local seafood on their menu. Only nine restaurants self-identified as regularly serving local seafood, with 33 revealing that they never serve local seafood (coincidentally, San Diego is also home to chef Rob Ruiz who is passionate about promoting local seafood on menus).
So what are some of the harder-to-find options for domestic seafood? I ask this question for many reasons, not only because a lot of imported seafood gets sold as domestic, but because the value of local provenance can make a huge difference in the market. Trying to find answers is challenging because the available information varies significantly based on the seafood species. We can look at domestic production, export, and import data where available to get a sense of the remaining balance available in the U.S. market.
I’ll start with swordfish, an item I’m cautious about ordering for a few reasons. On a big picture level, the U.S. only produces about 3% of the global volume of swordfish. Luckily, the numbers for swordfish are relatively available compared to other seafood. The good news is the U.S. exports very little of our domestic swordfish (roughly 6 million lbs. +/- annually since 2014). The bad news is that we import triple the volume of our domestic production, meaning that about 75% of swordfish in the U.S. market is imported from six countries: Ecuador, Canada, Costa Rica, Singapore, Panama, and Brazil, and then a long tail of nearly 30 countries in all.
Looking at another species, mahi-mahi (aka “dolphinfish”), it’s not surprising that a lot of this species would be imported given that the U.S. produces an even smaller relative percentage of global volume than swordfish at about 1% (and U.S. consumption appears to be about double that of swordfish). The U.S. landings for mahi-mahi are 2-3 million lbs. per year and like swordfish, most of the product stays in the domestic market according to export statistics. However, mahi-mahi imports are considerably higher than swordfish, and the numbers indicate about 95% of mahi-mahi in the U.S. market is imported, with 80% coming from Peru, Thailand, and Ecuador.
For chefs wanting to increase their sourcing of domestic seafood, adding another layer of knowledge at the state level for where given items are most commonly is useful. In the case of swordfish, 80% is caught in Hawaii, California, Florida, and Massachusetts and for mahi-mahi, 85% is landed in Hawaii, the Carolinas, and Florida. This research might seem like a lot of work, but it's worth it to your customers and your bottom line. At FishChoice we help chefs understand where seafood comes from with our seafood guides (examples of mahi-mahi and swordfish) to help them have more informed conversations with their suppliers and to help them find new sources of seafood. When diners eat seafood, they're connecting with the people, community, and ecosystems from the part of the world where the fish came from. When seafood provenance comes with certainty, that value is hard to put a price on.