Bringing Truly Sustainable Seafood to Market
26 Jun, 2011
One day a few years back Tim O’Shea, a long-term environmental business consultant and entrepreneur, took a look around and realized that someone should create a real marketplace for sustainable seafood. In an effort to turn the tide of an industry that had become, like agriculture, highly industrialized, he felt sure one company or another would pick up his ideas and run with them.
“I was actually consulting an investment banking group that was taking on some clients who were environmentally focused, which led me to a group that was in seafood,” Tim O’Shea told Organic Connections. “It became clear that this group, however, really just wanted to do some kind of new marketing campaign. They didn’t have any interest in what I was talking to them about in terms of devoting themselves to a whole sustainable platform. They thought they could do a green campaign or something and make themselves look good.
“I felt that a branded seafood entity should be created that would encourage the better practitioners and bring about a premium marketplace where superior practices would be rewarded with a premium profit. And just as it became clear that the seafood group I was talking to wasn’t really willing to make that move, it became evident to me that somebody should. I spent the greater part of two or three months talking to others who I felt were in a much better position to do this activity, but by then it was obvious that, no, nobody was picking up on this. It was one of those defining mornings; you wake yourself up and look in the mirror and say, ‘Guess what, big boy? If you think this is so important, you’re going to have to do it.’”
This realization ultimately led to the founding by O’Shea of CleanFish, a unique company that at one end brings together artisan fishermen and fish farmers and at the other end promotes them in the marketplace. The producers have been fully vetted by O’Shea and his team and meet a lengthy list of sustainable standards.
It had been a long time coming. All the way back in 1974, O’Shea had pulled together what he called a “futures think tank” for the purpose of creating visions of what might lie ahead. A member of this network was noted environmental scientist John Todd, who introduced O’Shea to his first aquaculture operation. “I’ve been in this conversation that long,” O’Shea said.
He spent the next 20-plus years of his career consulting corporations. “I made it my business to be involved in education and environmental work for at least half of my client portfolio, and they have always been very much a part of what I’ve been doing,” O’Shea related. “I was among 25 Americans who were the first group to go to Sweden and get trained in The Natural Step [a renowned nonprofit environmental education organization] in the early nineties.
“One of the core elements for me in grounding myself as I was running all over and doing these things has been operating a compost pile and an organic garden. The insights of the garden and the compost pile are always part of how I’m looking at things. Along the way I have also had the pleasure of being connected to some real mission-driven companies: there were a good three years or so of consulting work with Odwalla juices when they were still an independent group, as well as a few other natural and organic food groups I was involved with in the Bay Area.”
A primary motivation for O’Shea in the creation of CleanFish was the observation that the destructive methods of industrial agriculture were making their way to seafood—something he really began to notice in 2004. “There was a series of articles, notably one in Nature magazine, that spoke of bad practices in farmed salmon,” O’Shea recalled. “The more I read it, the more I realized that here again were bad practices in industrial-scale animal food systems. We’d seen it in chicken, we’d seen it in pigs, we’d seen it in beef feed lots, and here we were seeing it in fish.”
Unfortunately, that publicity caused a reaction from environmental groups that blanketed farmed fish in general. “Environmental organizations were forwarding a message that, instead of being focused on industrial practices, was just saying across the board, ‘Farmed fish is bad,’ and that everybody who cared about the environment should eat wild fish,” O’Shea continued. “It was a wrong-headed message. It wasn’t that farmed was bad; it was more Let’s insist upon good farming practices and how these things are done. Just as there are horrifying industrial poultry plants, I can also go locally here in Marin and get completely cage-free organic chickens. I wouldn’t put them in the same class just because they are both farmed chickens, yet it seemed as though these agencies were in fact drawing these big red-painted categories of ‘no one should eat this fish.’
“If we were to follow this strategic direction, two really bad things would happen. Number one, we would be out of wild fish even faster, and number two, the better farmed-fish practitioners—the better aquaculturists—would be the first ones who would have to go out of business; all we’d be left with would be industrial crap.”
There were also problems occurring with wild fishing; many species were being fished nearly to extinction. But as with farmed fish, O’Shea knew the source of these problems too. “The issues I observed on the wild side, again, weren’t being created by local fishing boats and local fishing communities,” he said. “It was big industrial floating fishing plants—factory boats that were no longer fishing but just hoovering up whole ecosystems and calling it a catch. Exactly as on the farm side, it was these industrial-scale producers.
“But for both wild and farm producers, in the middle was a sweet spot of artisan-scale high-stewardship practices.”
It was to this sweet spot that O’Shea and his company gravitated. And it is in that place that something was found, which caring producers in agricultural fields have also discovered: flavor.
“Sustainable practices are all very nice to talk about,” said O’Shea, “but if it doesn’t translate into a better-tasting fish, the chef doesn’t care. I always say, ‘I want to tell you the story, the practices, and why we have chosen this fish, and then I’m going to leave you with some fish.’ After I leave, that fish is going to have to speak for itself. Either they’ll love the flavor and call us back, or I’m simply another guy trying to sell them something just like the last guy did. Gratefully, 98.5 percent of the time we get a call back saying, ‘Oh my God! What were you saying about this fish? Whatever it was, let’s go back over your story again, because I just tasted this fish and it is the best fish I’ve ever had.’”
That story is a result of practices, and there is a great difference in methods of operation when it comes to fish.
“In the wild fisheries, it means using equipment that is appropriate in order to make as clean as possible a catch of the fish you’re targeting versus the other end of the spectrum,” O’Shea explained. “That other end would be a huge trawler that just grabs everything in that ecosystem, tears it up on the ocean floor, grabs it up in the midstream, and drags fish around behind itself for a whole day. At the end of the day they pull the nets in and the fish are in terrible condition. Then the fishermen bring them in, and because they’re out for several weeks at sea and they’re catching such huge quantities, the catch may not be frozen all that well or chilled in a uniform fashion, as there is just so much of it.
“The same quality of interaction is happening in the farms. They just set up these huge systems. It’s a production machine that in the end goes by the board. Fish get diseased, get stressed out, and one series after another of vicious negative cycles starts to take over and pretty soon you’re just in a toxic mess.
“To go the other way means to pay attention to where our pens are sited. Let’s site them in appropriate rough tidal flows where the wash of the fish in and out and the tidal pools will make the fish strong-swimming fish, not just overstock that’s sitting in a bathtub. They’re swimming in shoals the way they would in nature. Ideally the tidal flows are strong enough to both clean them out and give them their great strong muscle tone.
“Along with the tidal flows and proper siting is water quality and feed. Is it out in a fairly pristine rural nontoxic environment and constantly being tested and retested for quality? Are the feeding rhythms and personal care of the fish being observed on a daily basis? Does the feed you’re giving them mimic as closely as possible what they would be eating normally out in the wild? Are you trying to literally follow as much as possible the life-cycle pattern that they would be living?”
It is this line of thinking that unites CleanFish’s producers—wild and farmers alike. “I have over and again had CleanFish producer gatherings where wild fishermen come in and they’re happy to be part of the marketing that we do,” O’Shea said. “Suddenly they see they’re in a room with fish farmers, and they look at me like, ‘What the hell did you bring these guys for?’ Then the fishermen talk about their care, their concern about their environment, their fishing community and their ecosystem, and what’s happening to their wild fishery, the fish stocks, and the care that they’re taking on the boat. And then they listen to this fish farmer and they realize, ‘Wow—at a values level, we share a lot! You’re concerned for the environment; you’re watching your fish; you’re concerned about your ecosystem and you’re employment and your communities. Yeah, that’s just like us. You’re wanting to maintain sustainable practices. Yeah, that’s just like us. The way you interact with your ecosystem out in your walkways and out in the conditions you choose to be in—yeah, that’s what we look for when we’re out on our boats.’ And you see that there really is this common ground of husbandry, of stewardship, of care.
“At CleanFish that’s what we’re privileged to be able to do—to be a champion for people who are really standing up in their ecosystems for the species that they’re catching or cultivating, and really doing a remarkably different model job than the industrial players that we are all having such problems with.”
Tim O’Shea continues his work of widening the channels by which truly sustainable seafood can be brought to the broad market, and there is much more to come.
For further information about CleanFish, visit www.cleanfish.com.