Hannah Heimbuch and her brother Ivan are third-generation Alaskan fishermen.
On the best of days, moving seafood from ocean to plate is no simple task. In 2020, it was extraordinary. COVID-19 required sweeping changes from fishing vessel to grocery counter, demanding unprecedented cooperation and diligence in order to keep our seafood systems safe and functioning.
As an Alaskan commercial fisherman working in remote parts of the North Pacific, I can attest first-hand to the industry’s substantial efforts to protect communities and workers. Processors, distributors and grocers around the country rose to the same challenge. The result? While some seafood businesses are weathering major financial and logistical hardships, harvesters continue to bring their catch to market, and in U.S. grocery stores, fresh and frozen seafood sales are up 25-30% as consumers adapt new at-home cooking habits.
COVID-19 has highlighted what has always been true for the seafood supply chain: Access to sustainable, reliable product depends upon trusted partnerships. Most recently, Alaska’s Governor Mike Dunleavy applauded efforts led by United Fishermen of Alaska and regional processors to coordinate COVID-19 safety in some of the world’s most remote fisheries. Seafood Harvesters of America joined the Independent Restaurant Coalition to support relief for both sectors’ emergent needs. Whether we’re expanding business, addressing emergencies or developing long-term policy, we’re more effective working together.
The year ahead offers ample opportunity to expand collaborations with retailers. While the fishing grounds seem far from the seafood counter, fisheries and oceans policy are the direct link for retail access to seafood. Here’s what we’re watching:
COVID-19: While we have developed robust safety guidelines, and vaccines are on the horizon, 2021 will require federal relief to cover additional operational costs and protocols that keep seafood in business. Though challenges are expected to continue, so is the upward trend of seafood sales. Industry coordination supporting essential funds and safety policies helps ensure access to a stable domestic seafood supply to meet growing demand. Support relief programs aimed at seafood businesses and efforts to bolster essential fisheries management tools like stock assessments.
Magnuson-Stevens Act (MSA): This comprehensive legislation is the cornerstone of the nation’s sustainable fisheries management. In mid-December,Rep. Jared Huffman (D-Calif.) introduced a draft reauthorization of MSA, after a year of coast-to-coast listening sessions with stakeholders. MSA has a long legacy of rebuilding and conserving depleted stocks, and provides the management structure for a robust seafood economy. Future iterations must maintain the science-based tools that have grown America’s seafood economy for the past 45 years. As the direct seafood source for American consumers, retailers are important voices in any MSA discussion. Congressman Huffman is accepting comments until Jan. 31, and we expect additional opportunities to comment in the coming year.
Oceans Legislation: Named a top priority by the incoming Biden Administration and the U.S. House of Representatives, actions in the next Congress could include fast-moving changes to ocean access. A provision within the Oceans-Based Climate Solutions Act referred to as “30x30” could limit American seafood access by establishing marine protected areas in 30% of U.S. federal waters, limiting access to waters producing the majority of American seafood. Consider your business or industry trade organization joining harvesters, processors and other supply chain voices in ensuring America’s sustainable seafood economies remain intact, and that important oceans protections are developed with seafood business input.
Monitoring Ongoing Sustainability Challenges: American seafood consumers are discerning buyers, andincreasingly concerned about sustainability issues impacting specific products and the oceans at large. Retailers increasingly track issues affecting broad fishery health, including the proposed Pebble Mine in Alaska’s Bristol Bay, climate and ocean policy, legislation addressing oceans plastics, aquaculture policy development and more. Keep track of ongoing opportunities to comment on these and other issues that impact ocean health by following the Ocean Strategies Fisheries Policy Report.
According to FMI - The Food Industry Association’s Power of Seafood report, a shopping basket with fresh seafood is valued at nearly three times the average basket, making the growing protein economy increasingly important to retailers.
The year 2020 left us with a few key lessons: American seafood is a resilient and valuable food economy; seafood sales are up and projected to stay there, and core policies connecting the seafood supply chain help us meet demand. In 2021, stay up to date on policies impacting seafood access and supply chain resiliency. Ask your trade organizations to track key seafood issues and connect with your supply chain partners on their priorities.
Together, we can keep America’s sustainable seafood economy thriving. From my wheelhouse to yours, and everyone in between, let’s stay connected.