When chef Scott Drewno serves seafood at his upscale Washington, D.C., restaurant, he wants to know exactly where that fish came from.
Fifteen years ago, the answer to that question likely stopped at his supplier's truck. But now the grouper Drewno buys comes with a small "Gulf Wild" tag on its gills. He can enter the tag's number into a website and see a photo and short biography of the fisherman who caught the fish. The page also details the boat, catch method and distributor and plots a 10-mile square on a map showing where the grouper was caught.
From ocean to plate, a revolution in seafood tracking has begun. By building on new fishing practices and mobile technology, catchers and distributors are tapping into a burgeoning high-end market of seafood consumers who want more information than ever before on how and where their fish was caught.
As the executive chef at Wolfgang Puck's The Source restaurant, where entrees are in the $30 range, Drewno is committed to sourcing quality ingredients. He has visited farms in Virginia and Pennsylvania that supply his pork and duck. But until recently, he could not trace the seafood on his menu in the same way.
"The first thing with seafood is sustainability; we want to make sure we're being responsible. ... The next step is traceability," Drewno said in an interview. "I want to know where it comes from. With seafood, it has been a little more difficult, but the cool thing is, with this new program, I can see the fisherman, where it came from and who is handling it."
A group of entrepreneurial fishermen developed Gulf Wild in an attempt to find ways to market their fish and boost buyers' confidence in the wake of the 2010 Gulf of Mexico oil spill. Fishermen who are part of the voluntary program sign a "conservation covenant" and commit to practices above and beyond federal regulations.
The fishermen involved represent about 30 percent of the grouper and snapper catch in the Gulf of Mexico, and a tiny fraction of U.S. seafood. Nearly 90 percent of seafood consumed in the United States comes from foreign imports, most of which have few traceability or sustainability standards.
But in the two years the program has been in existence, that relatively small group has made inroads with U.S. seafood distributors, smaller grocery chains like Wegmans and high-profile chefs from Florida to Las Vegas.
Interest is growing, especially in light of recent reports that have found widespread mislabeling and seafood fraud in grocery stores and restaurants across the country (Greenwire, Feb. 21).
"When I started in this business it was basically, the grouper showed up at the back door and if it was fresh, the chef kept it. He really didn't care beyond that," said John Rorapaugh, director of sustainability for Profish, a major seafood supplier for East Coast restaurants and hotels, based in Washington. "But now, what's the catch method, what's the harvest area, who is the captain? There are all these questions that are asked now by the chefs and by my buyers."
Seafood distributors like Rorapaugh are working to find the answers. He sells Gulf Wild seafood and wanted information for the hundreds of other seafood products the company distributes in its $50 million in annual sales. So he created a database that allows chefs to scan QR codes -- two-dimensional bar codes -- to see an item's "Fishprint." It includes information on the species, fishermen and sustainability rankings.
The company recently contracted with outside labs that will conduct DNA tests on the fish to make sure they are what they purport to be. Profish has had its own uncomfortable history with seafood fraud. In 2010, the company was found guilty after a Justice Department investigation over illegally harvested striped bass. The company was "blindsided," Rorapaugh said, and it is part of his motivation for making sure all his products are thoroughly tracked now.
Several other new traceability programs with varying degrees of detail also have sprung up.
In the past year, the Gulf States Marine Fisheries Commission launched a "Gulf Seafood Trace" program, separate from Gulf Wild, that allows seafood processors to create electronic tracking for shrimp, crab and other seafood from the Gulf. A quarter of seafood processors in the region have started to use it.
Canadian fishermen have their own online tracking program, This Fish.
'Starting to be an open slate'
Many restaurants and grocery stores have only just begun to take advantage of the new programs.
At some restaurants, the information is kept in the kitchen, unless asked for. The menu at The Source does not include any details about the grouper's origin. Waiters at the restaurant said that a few times a week, diners might ask where fish is from, whether it is sustainable and whether it was wild or farmed. The waiters sometimes bring curious diners a Gulf Wild tag or print out the map that shows where the day's fish was caught.
Rorapaugh, whose company supplies most of the seafood for The Source, is also developing "waiter cards" with his QR codes that restaurants can distribute.
Other restaurants build their brand around promoting the environmental friendliness of their catch or even emblazon the information on the food itself. Southern California restaurant chain Harney Sushi announced a new program this week, under which its sushi will bear edible QR codes. If customers use a smartphone to scan the codes, printed on rice paper wafers, they will be directed to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's "FishWatch" website with seafood profiles and sustainability standards.
"It is great to see because 10 years ago, the seafood industry was 'Draw all your blinds and close your doors and hide your secrets'; that was kind of the power in our industry ... but now it is starting to be an open slate," Rorapaugh said. "I think the public demands to know where their product is coming from. We can have the technology now where you can take your smartphone and scan almost anything to find out information about it; that has become the new norm."
It is still a niche market, to be sure. The majority of American consumers are not keyed into ideas of sustainability, according to Charles Adams, a marine economist at the University of Florida who has conducted consumer seafood surveys. But he said a growing concern in the industry and consumers is mislabeling and traceability.
"We've done surveys of consumers, and when they buy seafood they are looking for healthful attributes, is it locally caught, is it what I think it is? That is what makes traceability attractive: You can trace it from the boat to the throat," Adams said. "There are a variety of traceability programs ... they are kind of a new thing and still getting off the ground, but they are finding acceptance by some in the industry."
Gulf Wild became one of the leaders of this movement, with a program born out of opportunity and necessity.
For years, some fishermen in the Gulf had talked about finding a way to make their grouper and snapper stand out, especially in comparison with cheaper foreign imports from fisheries that do not face as strict environmental oversight. At the same time, restaurant associations in the area had talked to distributors and fishing associations about a desire for better traceability and marketing.
Those conversations became much more urgent in the wake of the 2010 oil spill, when fishing grounds were closed and fishermen worried whether there would be a market for their product.
"When the oil spill hit, there was just so much concern at that point," said T.J. Tate, managing director of Gulf Wild and executive director of the Gulf of Mexico Reef Shareholders Alliance, the fishing group that started the program.
Fishermen from the alliance worked together with the Environmental Defense Fund, Florida's agriculture department and a Tennessee-based marketing firm. The effort was financed in part by a grant from the Walton Family Foundation.
They created the tagging system that tracks back to the spot where the fish were caught. At the time, it was part of an effort to show they were not fishing in closed areas. Fishermen agreed to put their seafood through extra safety tests. The program is unique because the fishermen also agree to participate in extra research and conservation measures, like mounting video cameras on their boats to monitor bycatch.
"They had a traceability problem long before the oil spill, but the oil spill just kind of created an immediate need to do something very quickly," said Timothy Fitzgerald, who manages the Environmental Defense Fund's sustainable seafood program and assisted with the launch of Gulf Wild. "Now there is all this information, but it is all built on a system that is not very fancy: It takes five minutes to fill in the database, and then consumers can see all of that information."
The role of catch shares
Some fishermen in the program also credit a new management system for creating the opportunity to start the program. In 2010, snapper and grouper in the Gulf became part of a "catch share," which totally changed management and how they could approach their business. Instead of setting a limit and letting the boats race to meet it, catch share management sets a hard cap and then divides the catch among designated participants in the fishery.
One result, according to those involved with the fishery, is that fishermen have been more willing to cooperate with each other and have the time and incentive to fish more carefully and find new ways to market their fish.
"The two go hand in hand. When you are in a catch share, you have a finite amount of fish to catch; you know you can't just go keep catching," said Jason DeLaCruz, a fisherman who is part of the "Gulf Wild" program and owns a fish house that helps distribute the fish. "If you have a finite number of fish to catch, you have to figure out a way to maximize the value."
Catch shares have their critics, and some lawmakers have tried to kill the programs. They are concerned catch shares could shut fishermen out of a fishery. But advocates -- including chefs, some environmental groups and fishermen involved in the programs -- say they create a stable environment for fish and fishermen and a steadier supply for the market.
Rick Moonen, a renowned chef and advocate for sustainable seafood, is among them. Moonen supports catch shares for the environmental benefits but said his business also benefits with better-quality fish. Fishermen in a catch share can work more slowly and try to get a premium for fish that were handled carefully.
"Sometimes, with other fisheries, you end up with a beat-up fish, and as a chef you're thinking, this sucks," Moonen said. "I would rather pay another dollar a pound and get a better fish. Boom, there you go, catch shares make that possible."
Moonen had not served grouper or snapper in his eponymous Las Vegas restaurant for years, but now serves Gulf Wild fish. He had avoided the fish because they are common culprits for seafood fraud and because snapper and grouper from fisheries outside the Gulf rank poorly on environmental groups' sustainability ratings. Those rankings form the basis for his decisions in a restaurant that purports to serve only sustainable seafood.
But the strict catch limits and conservation measures in the Gulf earned snapper and grouper a green light from environmentalists. Once Moonen could prove the fish in his kitchen really came from the Gulf, he had confidence in putting it on his menu.
"More and more chefs are starting to ask where their seafood is coming from and how it is being caught, so now the industry is becoming more transparent about the information asked of them," Moonen said. "Absolutely, no question about it, Gulf Wild is just the beginning."