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Sustainable Fish Served with Tales

July 14, 2011 |

Clean Fish distributes responsibly farmed and wild caught fishSome of the fish come from farms while others come from the ocean, but they all come with a story. The fish in these stories have all been produced or caught using sustainable practices and have names like Loch Duart Salmon, Fisherman’s Daughter Shrimp, and Nunavut Wild Arctic Char. The teller of these fish stories is CleanFish, a unique San Francisco-based startup that connects sustainable fish producers to conscious consumers, chefs and markets who have come to associate the company’s brands with sustainability, traceability and transparency.

“What CleanFish does is we create branded traceability. Loch Duart Salmon is a name. It means something specific and it’s easier to remember than 15 criteria you were supposed to order your dinner by,” said Alisha Lumea, Director of Marketing/Communications at CleanFish. For example, one of the company’s brands, Laughing Bird Shrimp, appears on the menus of such notable restaurants as Alain Ducasse in New York and Little Chihuahua Taqueria in San Francisco. “You just see it on the menu and you say, ‘okay, good’, that’s it. It’s a brand. That’s how I know what to get’,” she said.

CleanFish was founded in 2004 by Tim o’Shea, who has spent his career working with socially minded food business operations like Niman Ranch and Odwalla, and Dale Sims, a self-proclaimed ‘recovering commodity brokers,’ who sold millions of pounds of bass, and conventionally farmed salmon.  The idea for the company was sparked by a growing awareness of the negative impact on the world’s oceans resulting from the destructive farming practices employed by large-scale fishing operations. The two founders met at a conference where o’Shea presented his vision for a novel seafood company that would link sustainable practices, health and the environment to obtain a market premium and the rest is history.

Distribution and Education

CleanFish not only tells the story of sustainable fish, but also buys the fish from the artisan producers and then turns around and sells them into a distribution network. The sustainable fish that CleanFish sources then make their way to high-end markets, food services companies, and restaurants.

While CleanFish is not the end distributor in the sense that the company does not own any trucks, the company does market its products directly to potential buyers. In doing so, the company seeks to act as an educator and propagator of information to help food service organizations, markets and chefs understand why they should purchase sustainably produced fish and also how to communicate the value proposition to end consumers. To help its buyers market CleanFish brands to consumers, the company has disseminated several online viral videos and even provided QR codes for placement on restaurant menus for diners to scan and learn more about the producer and the origin of the fish.

“The key to seafood is for all of us to get the information,” said Lumea. “That’s the bigger barrier for seafood for consumers. And at the chef level, it’s access to appropriate information about where something came from because the direct relationships [with fish producers] are not as easy to make. You might be able to work directly with the farm that’s raising the pigs you’re going to use in your kitchen, but you don’t have access to the shrimp.”

CleanFish online video telling the story of Laughing Bird Shrimp:

A Sampling of Sustainable Practices

The producers that CleanFish sources from use a variety of different sustainable fishing practices. Here is a sampling of some of the practices used by its producers:

Loch Duart Salmon (farmed)

  • No hormones, antibiotics, growth promoters, grow-lights or GMOs
  • Salmon have plenty of room to grow: 98.5% water to 1.5% fish, which is roughly 30%-50% lower than industrial farms
  • Pioneers of integrated multi-trophic aquaculture (IMTA), raising companion species for an enhanced natural ecology

Fisherman’s Daughter Shrimp (wild caught)

  • Lighter nets, smaller doors and hydrodynamic design mean less drag on the ocean floor
  • Gear innovations result in a 30% less fuel usage, significantly reducing the carbon footprint
  • Larger mesh size and bycatch reduction devices reduce harvesting of non-targeted species by 50%. Turtle excluder devices ensure that sea turtles can easily escape

Gooseberry Cove Cod (farmed)

  • Trap caught – cod of legal size are trap caught, a method with no habitat destruction or bycatch
  • Hand fed whole fish – Feed comes from abundant local Newfoundland stocks of capelin, herring, squid, and mackerel. Cod feed naturally on these species
  • Controlled conditions – having the fish in a controlled setting allows for purging them for several days before harvest, resulting in a consistently firm fish

CleanFish Index

According to Lumea, CleanFish is very hands on when it comes to its producers and makes a point of working with them to improve and codify their sustainable production practices.  To evaluate, assess and subsequently help producers to adopt additional sustainable practices, the company has developed the CleanFish Index. “It’s an index of 250 questions that’s really a triple bottom line assessment, which allows us to get a real time place for where producers are in their practices and what they can improve,” said Lumea.

To be clear, Lumea said that the CleanFish Index is not another certification. “It’s not pay to play. There’s 50 certifications for seafood already.” In fact, CleanFish has created the CleanFish Index to combat the types of certification systems that create incentives for the industrial players to hire somebody to figure out how to game them. The true goal of the index is to provide a path not only for artisan producers, but also for large conventional fishing operations to improve and build upon their sustainable practices.

Working with Large Producers

As there are only so many small artisan producers, and as one of the company’s primary goals is to help solve the growing seafood crisis through promoting responsible fishing practices, CleanFish also reaches out to larger producers. “This is going to have to be industry wide to make a huge impact,” said Lumea. In working to source fish from and improve the sustainable practices of larger conventional producers that might possess hundreds of different farms with divergent practices, CleanFish takes a top down approach. “When we work with a big farm we can create demand and the right premium for the topline (sustainably produced fish) that gives them the business incentive and capital to start reforming practices further down,” said Lumea. “One of the CleanFish mottoes is ‘best of the season, better every season’ and we keep pushing that line further and further every year.”

Challenges to Growing the Market

The high price of sustainably produced and farmed fish presents a constant challenge for CleanFish when trying to find buyers. Lumea said that with most potential buyers the question is always about getting the price down. “There’s a sustainability threshold that we have to explain. It’s the basics of stocking density,” she said. “You have fewer fish in those cubic meters…that means fewer pounds of fish come out…the cost has to be different.”

Major supply constraints exist as well. According to Lumea, the demand from buyers interested in purchasing sustainable seafood far exceeds the current supply of responsibly sourced seafood. “We now definitely have more demand than we can answer for some of these small producers,” she said.

The complexity and expense of setting of setting up an aquaculture operation also presents a hurdle to market development and expansion. “If you were looking to farm on land, it might be passed down or you might buy a couple acres and explore that,” said Lumea. “That doesn’t really happen in aquaculture because it’s just so expensive to get up and running.”

The Future

Over the next 5 years, Lumea says that CleanFish wants to add more producers and grow the network that it already has in place. The company also hopes to add to the number of large producers that it works with in order to not only continue to push the industry to improve practices, but also to greatly increase the share of responsibly produced seafood that makes it to market.

“We don’t want to put another truck on the road, we want to change everything that’s in the truck,” said Lumea.

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