Tagging commercially caught albacore, offshore in Oregon. Photo by John Childers / NOAA

Above The Surface

As COVID-19 stagnates food chains, direct-to-consumer seafood provides a largely untapped solution

A line of customers spills out onto the sidewalk and around the corner of Fisherman’s Market on West 7th Avenue. Brisk fog and a timid drizzle — normal for a winter evening in Eugene — envelopes much of the city. 

Some groups huddle together for warmth, illuminated by the multi-colored neon signs of fish, crabs and lobsters permeating the market’s front windows. Others fidget, anxiously rocking back and forth, periodically sneaking glances behind them to ensure others are socially distant. 

Inside, the dining area once populated with long wooden picnic tables provides a space for the market to advertise other products and merchandise, and remind customers of safety protocols. 

Staff members hastily take orders, lobbing quips at one another in the process. Customers shuttle in and out, adjusting their masks, pointing out the fresh caught fish and shellfish that lined the glass cases. 

 In a year where nearly every aspect of society has experienced irreparable change, the scene was a testament to the need for a slice of normalcy. And, in the case of the Pacific Northwesterners, a testament to a love for seafood. But it wasn’t just seafood that reeled in customers in droves on a dark, chilly night in the midst of a pandemic. It was the promise of fresh ingredients and sustainably caught fish. For many, it’s what made the pricey takeout meals worth it. 

As COVID-19 has further stagnated food chains across the country, sustainably sourced seafood is at a premium. With the steady rise in ocean temperature around the world, pockets of fish are migrating to colder waters and aquatic ecosystems are in decay. Coastal communities are faced with an economic downturn in the face of the COVID-19 pandemic as fishers and farmers struggle to bring in needed funds. But, with a new appreciation for sustainably caught products, as well as a notable uptick in seafood consumption in Oregon, the doors to a largely untapped market are ajar, and the future of sustainable fishing is bright. 

Heating Up 

The earth’s temperature is rising, but for some climate change skeptics, the minute change — roughly one degree Fahrenheit over the past 200 years — isn’t steep enough to make them concerned. 

It should be. 

Just around one percent of the excess heat humans have created stays in the atmosphere. The remainder? Straight into the oceans. In the past 50 years, the world’s oceans have collected upwards of 90 percent of the heat. The temperature change, similarly insubstantial to some, has sent aquatic ecosystems into disarray. 

The burning of fossil fuels has resulted in an uptick in carbon dioxide in the atmosphere and, subsequently, the lowering of pH levels in the ocean by about 30 percent. The phenomena is referred to as ocean acidification. 

Acidification “can easily creep up on us and start us down another path of population decline that we can’t model for, because we haven’t seen these impacts before,” says Bob Rees, the executive director for the Northwest Guides and Anglers Association and a professional fishing guide.

An acidified ocean can limit some shellfish from growing shells and disable certain fish species from properly locating habitats and predators. The changes prompt many coldwater fish stocks to relocate, making it challenging for the fishing industry to effectively locate and catch them. 

“We’re worried about helping community-based fishermen retain access to fisheries in the face of climate change,” says the executive director of Alaska Longline Fishermen’s Association (ALFA), Linda Behnken.  

Enormous changes within ocean ecosystems and the drastic movement of species have left some fishermen out of work, while others hastily adjust to catch new species around the Pacific Northwest, such as bluefin tuna, opah (moonfish) and the occasional marlin, Rees says. Cold water species such as cod, winter flounder and lobster have moved farther north to colder waters, leaving an abundance of warm water species. 

Amanda Gladics, a coastal fisheries extension agent for Oregon State University’s Oregon Sea Grant, says the market for dungeness crab in Oregon has become increasingly important due to its high value, especially as other stocks begin to account for a lower percentage of total catch. 

Gladics says 20 years ago ports were much more focused on salmon as a major fishery, but given challenges with the conservation of their population, salmon has become a lower proportion of the total catch sustaining most Oregon fisheries.

“We are already seeing climate refugees, and some of them are fishermen because fish populations are moving,” Ryan Bigelow, senior program manager of the Monterey Bay Aquarium’s Seafood Watch list, says. “If you are not mobile, and for whatever reason don’t have the financial means and the population that you know how to catch moves north, then you’re out of luck. That’s already happening.”

Back to the Drawing Board 

Passed in 1976, the Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act (MSA) was the first sustainable fishing act of its time, serving as the primary act governing marine fisheries management in U.S. federal waters. According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), the act works to prevent overfishing, to enable the rebuilding of overfished stocks — such as Oregon’s salmon and steelhead runs — to increase long-term economic and social benefits and to ensure a safe and sustainable supply of seafood.

When the MSA first came into existence, it established a 200-mile territorial limit extending out from coastal states. The territory allowed the U.S. to govern and manage the area over time as it saw fit. On paper, the MSA requires every fishery in the nation to be sustainable. It also established essential fish habitats to help ensure necessary growth and spawning of fish species. To make certain of equal oversight, the MSA created eight separate management councils, including one for the Pacific that oversees Oregon fisheries.

The MSA has been amended several times over the years to combat the ever-changing nature of the ocean’s ecosystems. Most notably were the Sustainable Fisheries Act in 1996 and, 10 years later, the Management Reauthorization Act in 2006. 

Now, it’s again up for reauthorization, which is right in line with what Rees says is a growing focus on adaptive management styles in fisheries and conservation programs. He says the keys of adaptive management don’t simply focus on understanding the current state of fish stocks, but rather keeping tabs on trends and an eye to the future regarding the climate crisis. The fluid approach is necessary to prevent a repeat of what he calls the “dark days” of overfishing in the 1980s, when certain fish stocks were exploited in the Pacific Northwest.

Gladics says the biggest losses in Oregon during the ’80s came from the groundfish sector. She highlights species such as the rockfish, petrole, dover sole, black cod, sablefish and Pacific whiting. 

“We learn more and more each and every day, every year,” says Kevin Scribner, a member of the Marine Fish Conservation Network and owner of Forever Wild Seafood in Portland. “That’s where the reauthorization of Magnuson enables that adaptability at the high policy level. Council members are learning as they go along, too.”

He adds, “I really recognize and believe in the power of the marketplace to generate good, and to reward best practices.”

Open Market 

A recent study, “Power of Seafood 2021” from FMI, the Food Industry Association, found that since the pandemic began, 72 percent of frequent seafood consumers find themselves trying harder to find healthy and nutritious options.

Programs like the Monterey Bay Aquarium’s Seafood Watch list have helped educate consumers on the ins and outs of sustainable seafood. The aquarium says it hoped the list it launched in 2000 would improve sustainability of seafood production, while simultaneously increasing consumer demand for sustainable products. 

Early on, the list focused on chief seafoods such as shrimp, salmon and tuna, providing recommendations of the best places to buy such products and the environmental footprint of certain species. In the two decades since, the list has expanded and evolved. 

FMI finds that 41 percent of seafood consumers now, compared to just 29 percent in 2019, say sustainable seafood certifications have a significant impact on their seafood purchases. Furthermore, 71 percent say they want to be more knowledgeable about seafood sustainability.

“If you want to have this fish tomorrow, or you want your children to have this fish, we have to do better,” Bigelow of Monterey Bay says.  

“Seafood organizations like ours, businesses like Whole Foods and others, can push for sustainable production and that’s great,” Bigelow says. “But at the end of the day, unless those improvements become the standard, become the regulation and the law, we can’t make the entire industry move.”

The aquarium’s program now operates on a global scale, networking with consumers, chefs, businesses of all sizes and governments from around the world. It provides coverage of fisheries, 2,000-plus consumer recommendations, instructs companies on sustainable routes and illustrates how and where species are caught. Bigelow says the program operates on a peer-reviewed science and data system, allowing for recommendations and analysis to be altered over time. 

“The challenges to the ocean are just increasing,” Bigelow says. “Climate change is a real thing, it’s coming, and fish, outside of just seafood, play a very important role in maintaining the health of the ocean.”

Lyf Gildersleeve, owner and chief fishmonger at Flying Fish Company and Flying Fish Oyster Bar in Portland, says the Seafood Watch list has always factored into his process. He also acknowledges the advantages in serving communities in the Pacific Northwest with preordained and widespread seafood interest. Gildersleeve says most companies offer higher-quality added value products these days, making it easier for novice consumers to dip their toe into the seafood world. 

“With the [COVID-19] food system disruption, people are now wanting to have a better sense of where foods are coming from,” Scribner said. “How is it coming to me? Are the people who are in the supply chain being taken care of, or, you know, are they being beat up by minimum wage? So there’s going to be more and more interest in authentic and generous food systems.” 

Scribner, who’s in the process of launching his own brand of salmon jerky, continues, “If you wrap that product authentically, in a conservation message and a sustainable message, then right away, you’ve got somebody saying, ‘Yes, I believe in that.’” 

Shortly after the start of the pandemic, Oregon Sea Grant partnered with the Oregon Department of Agriculture, forming the “Eat Oregon Seafood” initiative. Through the summer, they worked to recruit chefs and influencers to develop recipes and post on social media about Oregon seafood products. They then housed those recipes and created a map for consumers to buy sustainably and locally sourced seafood. 

“We really did see a lot of interest in trying to cook more seafood at home and find ways to source locally caught products,” Gladics says.

She says they observed many businesses that primarily sourced their seafood to restaurants and other businesses pivot towards a more direct product to consumer sales. She also noticed a swift change in perception among many local fisheries as the COVID-19 pandemic has played out over the past 13 months. 

“Back in spring it was a lot of doom and gloom, people were very scared,” Gladics says. “They weren’t really sure how it was going to work, but I think coming into this season people have been pleasantly surprised at the strength of the market, and businesses are doing a little better than they thought they might be.”

Above the Surface

As spring rolls into Eugene and COVID-19 cases slow with an uptick in vaccines, local restaurants have reopened indoor seating. 

At Fisherman’s Market, it’s an entirely new feel. As the sun sets on a Thursday in mid-March, customer-filled tables now populate the previously empty interior. The sounds of a true restaurant emanate from the market, a stark difference from the school room attendance-like sounds of months past. 

“We’re selling less clam chowder, but beer sales are way up,” an employee taking orders at a cash register chuckles.  

Customers stay and mingle, asking questions and safely socializing in a carefree manner. 

Staying In-house

While some types are more eco-friendly than others, seafood tends to have a lower carbon footprint than beef or chicken. Behnken of the Longline Fishermen says seafood could be an important food sector for the climate-conscious consumer moving forward.  

According to FMI, 36 percent of consumers and 53 percent of seafood consumers say they are cooking more meals with seafood during the COVID-19 pandemic.

“There’s a positive trend of people in this country caring about where their food comes from, especially with COVID-19, of food insecurities and the need to shorten food chains and know your farmer,” Behnken says.

Through ALFA, Behnken helps facilitate a community-supported fisheries program called Alaskans Own. It was created in hopes of making seafood more accessible for Alaskans while simultaneously providing fishermen with consistent, fair wages. The program distributes Alaskan-caught fish throughout the state using a subscription-based model while also directly shipping fish to people around the country. It offers both monthly seafood shares which feature a selection of in-season fish as well as seasonal boxes of bulk order frozen seafood. 

According to its website, 100 percent of profit goes directly back into the community towards “projects that support conservation of Alaska’s fisheries, create equitable fishery access, and provide healthy seafood to communities in need.” 

Through grant support, Behnken says Alaskans Own Seafood was able to provide more than 400,000 seafood meals to people in need this past year. According to Behnken, less than one percent of Alaskan-caught fish stays within the state for consumption — a leading reason for the program.

While consumer supported agriculture is widespread, Behnken says direct-to-consumer seafood took a leap in 2020. ALFA’s approach, however, provides two caveats. ALFA works alongside local processors instead of cutting them out of the equation, and, most importantly, their profits 100 percent support Alaska’s fishery conservation network and young fishermen programs. The model is adaptable and could be scalable to the benefit of Pacific Northwest communities.  

ALFA’s focus on keeping regionally caught fish in state isn’t an isolated effort. Experts say that between 60 and 90 percent of fish caught in the U.S. is exported. On the flip side, according to NOAA, in 2016 more than 90 percent of seafood consumed in the U.S. was imported. That same year, the U.S. was the world’s fourth-largest exporter, by value. A vast majority of the fish eaten within the U.S. isn’t U.S. caught. 

“We’re a relatively small consumer secretly compared to the rest of the world,” Rees says. “We’re positioned to be kind of a seafood supplying mega-giant to the entire globe if we play our cards.”

The vast chasm leaves an open door, an opportunity to shorten food chains. 

“Whatever the U.S. can do to promote U.S. fisheries that are managed sustainably is a real positive for U.S. fishermen as well as for the ocean,” Behnken says. 

Michael Milstein, a spokesman for NOAA Fisheries West Coast Region, says the uptick in sustainable sourcing and educational resources — such as the NOAA’s Fish Watch list — could help prompt more people to eat domestically caught fish, something he considers to be a key moving forward. 

The FMI’s study reports 74 percent of seafood consumers, and 43 percent of non-seafood consumers, have interest in becoming more knowledgeable about the nutritional benefits of seafood.

Milstein says these trends must first catch on at the root levels. As fish stocks continually move, he says he hopes to see U.S. fisheries get the nod when it comes to fishing relocated stocks after the MSA reauthorization. 

“Really, a majority of [Oregon] fishing businesses are sort of small, family owned businesses, still,” Gladics says. “I think there’s this perception that commercial fishing is this big corporate thing, and it is in some fisheries and in some parts of the country. But really, in Oregon, and I would say California and Washington, it’s really a lot of small family businesses.”

Rees of Northwest Guides and Anglers says, “If we continue to manage these dots appropriately, people can start taking advantage of this wholesome, productive resource that feeds the world.”

This story has been updated.