The demand for sustainable seafood is far from losing traction with consumers. But, as with all things pandemic related, there’s been a significant impact on the diversity and quantity of inventory across the board.
Foodservice operators are doing their best to work around the complexities by adjusting menus, forging relationships with new verticals and going hyper-local with their seafood sourcing where they can.
Sophika Kostyniuk, manager, Ocean Wise Seafood in Vancouver, says prior to the turnaround, sustainable seafood was booming. “Last fall, when things were still ‘normal,’ there was tremendous appetite for diversity of seafood on the market and supply chains opened up to meet demand. In 2018, we saw record volumes in seafood consumed per person per year.”
The rise in seafood’s popularity grew from the diversity of offerings and growing demand for leaner protein sources. Fads such as poke bowls and sushi grew as North-American palates evolved. Up-and-coming species before the pandemic included halibut, spot prawns and geoduck giant clams.
When the world turned upside down in March, it created instability in the supply chain, particularly for higher-end offerings, Kostyniuk explains. “Export markets shut down. The market wasn’t there to sustain the volumes harvesters needed to sell them. High-end restaurants were severely impacted.”
Currently the top five go-to items continue to be tuna, salmon, shrimp, whitefish and cod. “There simply isn’t the diversity of supply, so restaurants are paring down their menus to just a few staple offerings to make them as broadly appealing as possible.”
Peter McCallum, owner/manager of The Whalesbone Group in Ottawa, reports his restaurants are currently running at 50-per-cent capacity. This is relatively strong compared to some operations, because Ottawa has a preponderance of government and tech companies that have fared well. “We haven’t seen customers go to cheaper options. They don’t seem to be price conscious at all.”
Not being in a coastal region however, shipping costs for sustainable seafood have tripled since COVID-19 began, McCallum reports. “Where there used to be 10 commercial flights a day coming in, now there are two, making it more difficult to book space.” East-coast products are shipped in by truck, which helps to defray the costs. As for international shipments, “The cost is just too prohibitive.”
Supply is also limited, largely because fishermen and growers aren’t catching as much. “If there isn’t the market, they’re not going to fish it.”
To accommodate the fluctuations, his restaurants have changed their menus to a combination lunch/dinner in order to offer cheaper, more-accessible, lunch-type items.
Adam Colquhoun, owner/operator of Oyster Boy in Toronto, says his oyster orders have dropped from an average 27,000 a week to 6,000 to 9,000. “Right now, we’re only doing takeaway and some small catering events.”
Suppliers are feeling the collective pain of COVID-19 as consumption has seen a 60- to 90-per-cent decline, he says, adding he’s had to reduce his list from 17 to about five options.
Since Colquhoun has not re-opened his restaurant, he’s foregone fresh fin fish, and now works with frozen items for easy takeaway offerings, such as fish and chips and tacos. “You can’t cook a fresh fillet and put it in a box because it will be overcooked once it’s delivered.”
NAVIGATING COASTAL WATERS
For many sustainable-seafood aficionados, Ocean Wise and Marine Stewardship Council (MSC) are considered to be the “right and left hand of sustainability,” says Ned Bell, co-owner and chef at Naramata Inn in Naramata, B.C. and chef ambassador for Vancouver-based Ocean Wise.
He notes the West Coast is uniquely positioned when it comes to variety and supply of seafood. “East Coast is cod, lobster, scallop, shrimp and tuna. On the West Coast, the king is wild B.C. salmon followed by a number of other species important to the economy.”
His own restaurant has been incredibly busy, he reports. “We’re serving a heck of a lot of B.C. seafood and charging accordingly so we can pay fair prices to the fishermen. There hasn’t been a single complaint.”
In the last six months, he’s seen a decided uplift in community support for local produce. “There is a real hyper focus on supporting the region and small business.”
Shane Robilliard, executive chef and Food-and-Beverage director at Fox Harb’r Resort in Wallace, N.S., says even though the East Coast has lagged the West when it comes to sustainable seafood, “We’re finally getting to a place where customers are appreciating it and willing to pay more. It used to be draining to try and get the message across, but it’s been exciting to see the education of the guest has finally caught up.”
He reports that choice has been stable through the pandemic in his neck of the woods. “I’d say we’re at 85 per cent of where they were last year in terms of revenues. But I do worry about some smaller suppliers struggling with lower volumes. I hope they can make it through all this.”
Menu offerings such as locally farmed Sustainable Blue salmon have picked up over the last couple of years. “It’s one item that has skyrocketed. It accounts for up to 20 per cent of menu sales,” Robilliard says.
He says another item gaining traction is Arctic char. “We added a locally farmed product at the end of July. It completely blew me away how fast it sold, so we immediately put it on the menu.”
Popular sustainable staples also include longline halibut, fresh trout from the property’s trout farms and even octopus on occasion. “Of course, we go through mountains of lobster when it’s in season. This year, the cost is about $1.50 less a lb., which is nice to see.”
Oysters continue to be a significant piece of business at Fox Harb’r Resort and Robilliard is doing his best to support the local suppliers, who he estimates have lost 30 per cent of their overseas sales and are down 50 per cent on their overall sales.
Wade Scott, Quality Assurance manager for Fisherman’s Market in Halifax reports that for both shellfish and fin fish, volumes are somewhat limited, but improving. “The market sucks up every pound we can ship.”
Within three weeks of the lockdown, Fisherman’s Market’s sales dropped 70 per cent, but then started to pick up to the point where it’s now down 40 per cent from the same time the previous year.
Scott says they were fortunate in that they developed a crisis-management program early in the pandemic. “We did a quick inventory when lockdown came and ordered well ahead because of the slowness of delivery. We never ran out or had to refuse a client.”
Beyond coastal waters, sustainable freshwater seafood is having a surge of its own, as the number of aquaculture operations grows. St. Thomas , Ont.-based Susan Cole, board president of the Ontario Aquaculture Association and co-owner of Cole-Munro Foods Group Inc., says rainbow trout accounts for 93 per cent of freshwater-farm seafood supply in the province, followed by shrimp.
Up-and-coming species also include tilapia, Arctic char and barramundi. Freshwater-lake wild catch is mainly yellow perch, pickerel and whitefish.
Beyond the variety of options, reliability of supply is critical, Cole says. “It’s not only how you grow it, but also how well you can supply it. People selling to restaurants need to know if they can fulfill sales orders. [Operators] need that predictability to plan their menus and fixed costs.”
She’s been excited to see a number of innovative approaches on the part of chefs and restaurants in areas such as meal kits and prepared meal services through retail partnerships. “Prior to COVID-19, 38 per cent of meals consumed were in restaurants. That went down to nine per cent during the height of the lockdowns, which meant turning more to retailers. Operators have had to really change their thinking and delivery mechanisms. Partnerships will be key.”
Kostyniuk is also pleased to see operators applying a number of innovative approaches to promoting sustainable-seafood consumption. “People are going out of their way to stay in business and keep offering incredible food — whether it’s food trucks, food delivery, takeout or pickup. We’re seeing unbelievable resilience and a commitment to staying open.”
Written by Denise Deveau