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Thursday, December 16, 2021

How unique, really, is the seafood industry? (Part 1)

When I’ve spoken at conference events in various locations around the world, I often receive a question about a topic which concerns the industry as a whole, but where the questioner is asking me to comment on the “uniquely X perspective” on a macro-level problem, where X is whatever city, state or country we’re in at that moment.

In many cases, there is a unique twist at a local level to what’s going on, and I’m happy to comment about the unique challenges a broader issue presents for a specific area.

But in other cases, macro-level issues of the world boil down to pretty much the same issues for local participants. For example, to the extent that the nation is dealing with inflation, and my home state of Massachusetts is dealing with inflation, then the dynamics for northeast Massachusetts vs. southeast Massachusetts, when it comes to inflation, aren’t necessarily all that unique. The issues are real, but the “unique” label is spurious.

This applies to different industries, too. At some fundamental level, lessons learned in one industry can be expressed in generic terms which apply directly to other industries. But at other levels, what works for one industry can’t be guaranteed to work in another. The trick is to detect when the “unique” label is valid and when it is spurious.

Today, let’s focus on e-commerce platforms. E-commerce serves a wide range of different industries. A number of really strong e-commerce platforms which are wildly successful across these different industries, for both retail and business-to-business transactions. Take a look at how Alibaba and Amazon Business are doing, for example.

But do these platforms address the unique needs of the seafood industry? As we speak with processors and wholesalers in the seafood industry who have tried platforms such as Alibaba, it’s clear the answer is no. Industry-agnostic platforms leave both buyers and sellers of seafood down in a few ways:

1. They spread information more widely than needed

When buying or selling in bulk, it’s important not to get “gamed” by sharing too much information with too many parties. This is one reason direct messaging technologies such as Skype, email and WhatsApp are so prevalent in the seafood industry. In a world where there are actors who do not intend to transact, but stalk e-commerce platforms to gather information, sharing too much puts you at a disadvantage and can lead you to get less than the best price for your transaction.

2. They compound issues associated with trust and relationships

We’ve written previously about the importance of knowing your counterparty, of building trust, and of maintaining relationships. On many e-commerce platforms, what you post is available to any buyer – whether you know them or not. It won’t help you manage and incentivize those with whom you have the closest trusted relationships, and to the extent you don’t know your buyer, you also don’t know your risk.

We’ve heard horror stories about both issues. So – while there’s a need for e-commerce in the seafood industry, it has enough uniqueness to demand an e-commerce platform which has been specifically tailored to the industry’s needs.

Has your firm tried industry-agnostic or seafood-specific platforms for buying or selling seafood? What has your experience been?

Check back after the holidays for a different take on this subject.

Thursday, December 9, 2021

Seas, dinner plates, and everything in between: the certifiably complex state of traceability

Consumers want to buy seafood sourced through sustainable fishing practices. At least, they say they do when asked. As industry practitioners, we certainly want that, too. To position against sustainable fishing practices is like arguing with motherhood, baseball and apple pie.

There are many different and overlapping initiatives underway right now – all inspiring. The seafood industry is making great strides in sustainability and traceability, but it’s clear there is a lot more work to be done.

The current state of play is certification, where participants adopt practices to ensure sustainability according to documented standards and undergo audits and examinations in order to earn the right to advertise their product as processed per the standard. This is all well and good, and is a practice followed in other business domains too. It makes sense.

But, the certification game falls short of our industry’s aspirations, for two reasons –

1. We’re too good at it.

Certification is done with respect to a standard. In the seafood industry, there is no shortage of standards. And that’s the problem. In the words of a longtime friend, “I love standards, especially because there are so many of them." SeafoodSource offers an excellent guide to certifications and eco-labels. The fact that this guidebook – aimed at seafood industry insiders – fills 322 pages is indicative of the issue. We’re so good at creating new standards that we’ve built a maze we can barely sort out ourselves, much less expect the consumer to understand.

2. The wrong fish still slip through

Certification is certainly a logical step – no issue there. But, certification often relies on attestations and audits. That leaves gaps, which data, systems and enforcement aren’t currently equipped to address. That’s not the same thing as a fully transparent supply chain from sea to plate, which is the real aspiration. Our industry is in need of an audit trail which spans all stages of production and processing, for each final product produced.

There’s no silver bullet – moving the needle on traceability requires problem-solving, development and evangelism across a wide range of stakeholders. We’re all going to need to pitch in, and to study paradigms which have been successfully adopted in other verticals.

How do you feel about your firm’s role in achieving sea-to-plate traceability?

Thursday, December 2, 2021

Our supply chain forgot we’re supposed to be recovering from a pandemic

Quiz time: What do these three real-life scenarios from 2021 have in common?

1. This is a great time to be in the seafood industry. Seafood consumption is strong, powered by the continuation of the prepare-at-home trend triggered by the pandemic, and by post-pandemic resumption of restaurant and food-and-beverage business. And, depending on the sector, retail prices have soared, in some cases 50% - 60% within the calendar year and 140% year over year.

2. This is a terrible time to be in the seafood industry. If you produce, process or ship seafood, you’re struggling with labor shortages which make it challenging to deliver on your own commitments. And with ships sitting awaiting access to bottlenecked ports and continued challenges with closed borders, you’re concerned about the ability of your traditional suppliers to deliver on their commitments to you.

3. Completely unrelated to the pandemic, US Customs and Border Protection decided to take action to restrict a decade-old process used to ship whitefish from Alaska to the US east coast (if you’re not familiar with this one, it’s an entertaining look at how the lure of opportunity drives ingenuity… an excellent and informative podcast from Intrafish is here, which will enable you to see the humor and audacity in this video.)


All of these scenarios place pressure on seafood companies to expand their global network of relationships. Our supply chain is still broken. It’s exhibiting the symptoms of a COVID long-hauler, where it’s far from recovered, and it is not clear how or when recovery will take place. There’s a distinct need to increase supply to meet demand, to increase the number of supplier sources in order to buffer the risk of supplier unpredictability, and to build in flexibility to shift from one source to another as the regulatory and geopolitical environment introduce constraints.

There is cause for optimism - while Delta variant flare-ups are still occurring, and the true impact of Omicron is, as of this writing, yet to be understood, in large part we’re on a path to recovery from the pandemic. Many of us in the US just had a real Thanksgiving gathering with family, something not possible a year ago. Companies are starting to return to the office. We’re eating in restaurants more now.

Competitiveness – and survival – requires conscious action to build new relationships, and platforms to effectively manage them and pursue new business opportunities. Companies who do so rapidly will capitalize on the market-driven demand opportunity, and will increase the flexibility and agility of their sourcing relationships to buffer supplier and labor uncertainties. Companies unable to do so will face idled facilities, margin pressure, and declining revenue. It’s that simple.

Are you able to ride the wave of change? How are you expanding your network of supplier/buyer relationships?