Salmon and grouper share the same shelf at Northwest Seafood Inc.’s Millhopper Marketplace store, but how they got there is a different story.
The distinct paths they traveled to Gainesville illustrate the past and present of the commercial seafood industry, which, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, now increasingly relies on imports.
This is a problem for local fishermen and consumers alike.
The red grouper sold at Northwest Seafood in early June was touched by only three people: employee Matt Baez; owner Scott Richardson and David Runkel, the Yankeetown, Florida, fisherman who caught it.
But there’s no telling how many people handled the 500 pounds of salmon that arrived three days later.
Nova Sea farm-raised it in Norway. Rank Trade Services Inc. received it in Miami. Go Fish Inc. hauled it up the Florida peninsula. And more than 4,000 miles later, Mike Litrell unloaded it, at Northwest Seafood’s back door.
This journey is increasingly common. According to NOAA, about 90 percent of seafood consumed in the U.S. is imported.
“I’m surprised by how many imports there are. And I think people would be surprised by that, too.” said grouper fisherman Paul Loughridge of Crystal River. “We have fresh fish that’s available right here from the Gulf.”
NOAA states on its website that a significant portion of imported seafood is originally caught by American fishermen but is exported to countries with lower labor costs then reimported to the U.S.
“Labor rates to fillet a small flounder are not really feasible (in the U.S.) for any real volume,” Deaderick said.
The large gap between where seafood is caught and where it is sold raises questions of consumer safety because seafood is highly perishable. But if the fish is handled according to guidelines set forth by government agencies, such as the Food and Drug Administration, Deaderick said, safety should not be a concern.
Flavor, on the other hand, may be compromised due to routine food-processing measures, like chemical treatments to retain water and color, Deaderick said. But there is more to it than taste.
Ethics are part of the picture, too.
Jim Anderson, director of the forthcoming Institute for Sustainable Food Systems at the University of Florida, said imports bear a question mark because some trade partners offer limited transparency of labor practices and standards.
“When you’re importing stuff from every country on the planet for Americans to eat, it has to make you wonder,” he said. “We gotta make sure that the products we are importing aren’t riskier to eat than the products we have locally.”
Little Fish, Big Pond
“I went to my first little conference in Orlando, and what did they serve?” Anderson asks rhetorically.
He’s shocked by how often he comes across salmon on menus, recalling a recent visit to Ballyhoo Grill.
“You ask (waitstaff at local restaurants), ‘What’s the best thing on the menu?’ And their favorite thing is salmon,” Anderson said. “So you go, ‘what are the local guys doing wrong that they’ve been out-competed by salmon?’”
It is partially a supply-and-demand issue.
Local fishermen can’t fill orders despite the fact that per-capita consumption of fish has decreased in recent years, according to the National Fisheries Institute.
“Local harvest does not come close to supplying the demand,” Anderson said.
Unpredictable fishing weather is another reason imports continue to grow.
“If you’re a big company like Darden Restaurants … you want something that’s available all the time (and is) relatively consistent,” Anderson explained. “What’s the characteristic of local fish? Not consistent. Not consistent and a bunch of variation.”
And as Anderson put it, “you gotta get your fish from somewhere.”
“If you want salmon all portioned, cut, bone out, the Chileans will provide that — week after week after week after week.”
One way local fishermen can even the playing field, Anderson said, is by marketing their fish as a speciality good rather than a commodity.
“When you have a highly variable or special product that only pops in occasionally or can be harvested in one bay or region, don’t try to pretend you’re corn or chicken.”