US West Coast Groundfish – Key Market Channels

Continuing our market demand assessment work with US West Coast Groundfish, our partner, Changing Tastes completed an assessment of key distribution channels to prepare for the survey they’ve just initiated. In this post, we discuss what the key distribution channels are, their preferences for fresh and frozen, and why any of that matters.

As we and others have said, the story of US West Coast Groundfish is one of best fish stories you probably haven’t heard. The fishery was declared an economic disaster in 2000, but in 2014 thirteen species were MSC certified in 2014, eight groundfish in the California Groundfish Collective fishery are green-rated by Seafood Watch plus more from the fishery that are green- or yellow-rated. In an effort to increase overall value in the fishery, we’re working with Changing Tastes to help determine who could be purchasing this fish and the key characteristics of demand.

Changing Tastes recently initiated a survey to assess demand, but they had to identify key market channels in order to focus assessment efforts. The following information is based on their work, which they completed using a combination of methods, including:

  • Government data for whitefish consumption
  • Publicly and privately held company data
  • Professional opinion gained from working with some of the nation’s largest restaurant and food service companies and grocers

Total sales of whitefish (a broad category that would include the species landed in the fishery) are estimated at US $542.9 million in the three West Coast states based on US government data, with $442.7 million of that spent in California. Total dollar value of whitefish was second to shrimp, unsurprisingly.


Click to see table of approximate dollar values

Sales and format value comparisons of whitefish in California, Oregon and Washington. Green is the proportion of the value sold fresh; blue is the proportion sold frozen. Size of the graph is relative to the total values of whitefish bought. (“School and government institutions” and “Hotels” are shown larger than their proportion of the total for visibility purposes. Grocery is actually ten times larger than hotel, and 40 times larger than schools and governments.)

These channel categories are generalizations—different companies and brands within each category may use different mixes of fresh and frozen—but the generalizations are useful for determining which channels to concentrate on for survey completion.

Interestingly, an unpublished May 2016 study by Globescan noted that California consumers are 20% more likely than the average national consumer to buy fish from fresh counters in grocery stores.

Click to see table of approximate volumes

Click to see table of approximate volumes

Changing Tastes then screened the channels using their professional opinion on parameters based on the desired outcome of improved values, including their ability of a market channel to:

  • pay a premium for higher quality, local or sustainable
  • use whole or minimally processed fish, frozen or fresh
  • practice seasonality by varying menu options
  • be flexible with species offered

Based on values, volumes and their professional opinion, Changing Tastes is prioritizing receiving feedback from the following channels, and the specialty distributors who supply them:

  1. grocery
  2. full service restaurants
  3. institutional foodservice sub-segment of colleges, corporate dining, and cultural and leisure destinations
  4. hotels

The survey started landing in inboxes last week. By mid-October, we should have more to report about the initial findings. Until then, if you have questions, comments or suggestions, we’d love to hear from you.



Groundfish Market Demand in California

We’re pleased to announce that Changing Tastes and Wilderness markets will be collaborating to carry out the market research for groundfish in California announced in our RFP. Having robust data about business and institutional buyers close to the consumer will address one of the key information gaps we identified in our value chain analysis; the ultimate goal of the work is to improve the economic value of products from this fishery. 

Read more

Sustainable Fisheries Investments: Lessons from the Field

Three years ago, we set out to to explore a perceived anomaly in the impact investment market. While sectors such as carbon and agriculture were attracting a range of capital investment in sustainable fisheries appeared to be neglected. Given the geographic scope, industry scale and potential impact, we wanted to understand the reasons behind the lack of capital.

Our conclusion, following three years of field based research and due diligence in three countries, five fisheries, and over 220 interviews with financial, corporate, government, community and NGO representatives, identified the following key constraints:

  • Data
  • Management
  • Market differentiation
  • Infrastructure
  • Finance
  • Lack of investable entities

The first two, data and management, are the most pressing constraints to the effective deployment of capital at scale in developing country fisheries (DCFs), as discussed in our recently released report, “Connecting the Dots”. Each need to be addressed simultaneously if  equitable participation of the harvester is important to investors.

Concerning specific investments, there’s a fundamental need to distinguish between who and what benefits from value chain investments and investments in the drivers of stock health. While a healthy value chain benefits from a healthy stock, the benefits do not cut both ways, that is, a healthy value chain does not necessarily make stocks healthier; the drivers of stock health must be addressed.

Another general assumption holds that by changing the practices of one or two players in the value chain, we can secure stock health – this was found to be exceedingly unlikely in the open access system of fisheries which suffer from the tragedy of the commons. Addressing artisanal tuna harvester needs is socially and potentially economically positive, but it is difficult to prove environmental benefits if the next village over has unrestricted access – along with the purse seine factory fishing boat from the country next door!

The drivers of stock health are all external to the value chain, and, unfortunately, most financial interventions are reliant on the value chain in order to secure repayment. This disconnect is seldom recognized by practitioners, and it is often assumed that by changing the practices of one or two players in the value chain, we can secure stock health. At the other end of the spectrum are improvements aimed at stock health and improved socio-economics for fishing communities that rely on the “build it and they will come” theory, failing to integrate harvesters and buyers into improvements.

Our findings are that value chain based investments in open access systems are unlikely to improve environmental outcomes, and, in practices, are likely to accelerate resource extraction, in some cases, of already pressured stocks and resources.

Our research also identified significant investments in fisheries are an ongoing reality in many DCFs. Whether from the private sector (DDI and DFI data), and from national governments, fisheries are well capitalized.

The inequality experienced by artisanal harvesters is not, in our view, an issue of capital. It is a systemic failure, requiring multiple components be addressed simultaneously

There is an urgent need to focus efforts on improving the drivers of stock health in DCFs, over and above deploying yet more capital into the value chain without investment in stock health.

Markets for Groundfish in California, Part 4 of 4

This is part 4 of a 4-part series intended to invite conversations in advance of our planned end market demand analysis for groundfish in California. The larger goal is to provide quantified end market data to inform profitable value chain investments that will positively impact harvesters, local communities and the ocean.

Waste and discards

The opaquest parts of the value chain are the discard and waste streams; we don’t have volume figures to distinguish between discards and processing trimmings and how much of each goes to secondary processors or to landfills. We believe this to be important given the high level of biomass discarded – in some cases as much as 70% of the landed fish (e.g. Dover sole, which has one of the higher quotas).

We identified one secondary processor and were told that disposing of processing byproducts is not a moneymaker; indeed, disposing of trimmings is a cost for processors which may be passed to harvesters. Just how much of a cost is unknown. Also unknown is what proportion is sent to the secondary processor and how much may be destined for landfill. In addition, we don’t know what volume of fish or fish waste enter this stream since the final end-market forms for domestic consumption is unknown (and thus how much fish is processed or sold whole is unknown).

A potential local solution to unvalued fishery byproducts was initiated in Morro Bay in which local farmers picked up bins of fish parts and turned them into soil amendment. However, discovery of state regulations that limit processing of the fish parts prohibited the continuation or expansion of the program.[1]

Questions: Would improving the value of discards and trimmings improve the value realized by harvesters? Is this a viable alternative market?

Final Thoughts

The West Coast Groundfish fishery could be a case study for successful fisheries management for hundreds of other fisheries around the world if it weren’t for the fact that so many harvesters still seem to be struggling economically. Until the harvesters are profitable enough to cover management costs, the most important part of the puzzle isn’t in place. Figuring out where the different pieces fit—value drivers, product flows and the like—will be a boon not only to these harvesters and their communities, but also to parties interested in investing in this, and other, fisheries.

[1] Kathy Johnston, “Hook, Line, and Sinker,” New Times, December 7, 2011, Volume 26, Issue 19 edition,

Markets for Groundfish in California, Part 3 of 4

This is part 3 of a 4-part series intended to invite conversations in advance of our planned end market demand analysis for groundfish in California. The larger goal is to provide quantified end market data to inform profitable value chain investments that will positively impact harvesters, local communities and the ocean.

Can local demand be met with local fish AND will it increase prices paid to harvesters?

Determining the consumption of seafood products in California with any precision, much less the product characteristics or species composition, is difficult. Considering average per capita seafood consumption in the U.S. is 14.6 pounds per person and 2014 California population is an estimated 38.8 million people, expected seafood consumption in California is about 257,000 metric tons. This is about 38 times the groundfish landings in 2014.  

Estimates from 1993 through 2004 show that estimated consumption of flatfish, a subcategory of groundfish that includes fish like Dover and petrale sole, should be 5,300 metric tons in California. [1] Compare this to the 2,845 metric tons of flatfish landed in California in 2014 and you realize it’s far less than estimated consumption and even lower when processing is considered. Again, this indicates a substantial market that would be interested in purchasing groundfish.

Another strong indication comes from recent work by Changing Tastes.[2] “Whitefish” and “other” currently compose 20% and 15% of U.S. consumer purchases from all sources. Whitefish is a generic and nebulous category, but groundfish species should fall somewhere in either “Whitefish” or the “other” category. The math again indicates a substantial market–about 90,000 metric tons of “Whitefish” and “other” are expected to be consumed in California each year.

All the data indicate there should be a local market for California groundfish, at least based on estimated consumption volumes. However, the characteristics of demand are largely unknown, so we’re unsure whether this is true once product characteristics like flavor and texture are accounted for.

What affect are imported groundfish having on prices?

Despite the data indicating a fairly substantial market for seafood in California, prices in real dollars have remained flat or even declined at some California ports. If there were local market demand, we would expect to see prices at least hold steady, if not increase.

Figure 4 California price comparisons adjusted for inflation, sablefish, Dover and petrale sole, 2008-2014


Figures 5 and 6 Price comparisons at major California groundfish trawl ports, adjusted for inflation, petrale and sablefish, 2008-2014

Price graphs

When the unit values of flatfish and other groundfish imported into California are compared to groundfish exported from California, as in Figure 5, the imported unit values are higher. Perhaps the fish being exported is of too low a quality to have a local market, or maybe it isn’t a fish that Californians like to eat. It may be that the imported fish has characteristics that local groundfish don’t have. But just what these characteristics are that are deciding values are largely unknown.

Figure 7 Unit value ($/mt) comparisons of foreign imports and foreign exports of groundfish from California


Why are prices flat and why aren’t more groundfish being caught?

The data we have indicates there should be a large enough market within California to absorb all landings and that prices at the dock seem to be flat or declining in real dollars at some California ports. We also know that the quota for many species is not being used, i.e., the scientifically-informed regulations allow harvesters to catch more fish, but they are not. Altogether, this data indicates a disconnect or a mismatch between the end market and harvester level—if there is indeed market demand for groundfish, it is not extending to the harvesters in the form of better prices. If it were, we would expect to see all of the quota being used.

Questions: Why is this? Are the species they land not marketable? Is the quality not good enough? Is the catch volume not steady enough? And if catch volume isn’t steady enough, what level does it need to be and would freezing be a way to overcome this hurdle?

[1] Malden C. Nesheim, Ann L. Yaktine, and Institute of Medicine (U.S.), eds., Seafood Choices: Balancing Benefits and Risks (Washington, D.C: National Academies Press, 2007).
[2] “US Seafood Market Segmentation Study: An Assessment of Relative Purchasing Power and Risks in the U.S. Fish and Seafood Marketplace,” December 1, 2015.

Markets for Groundfish in California, Part 2 of 4

This is part 2 of a 4-part series intended to invite conversations in advance of our planned end market demand analysis for groundfish in California. The larger goal is to provide quantified end market data to inform profitable value chain investments that will positively impact harvesters, local communities and the ocean.

Export markets

How much California groundfish is exported and how much stays?


Although we have data from NMFS for exports from California ports, it’s not an apple-to-apples comparison to NMFS landings data, making it difficult to understand how much fish likely stays in California and how much fish exported from California actually was caught in California. The export data doesn’t divide export volumes and values by species, like the landings data does, but instead lumps it into broad categories for most species. For example, Dover sole and petrale sole, which are each reported in California landings, are lumped in the export category “flatfish”. This makes it hard to characterize demand for groundfish by end market preferences—we don’t know how much Dover stays in California or in the U.S., and how much is exported.

Another comparison conundrum is that the exports from California ports appear to include fish landed outside California waters. We did not include exports of pollock, haddock and cod since these are not recorded in the California landings data for the time period we compared. After filtering these out, there are relatively small volumes of groundfish (8-19%) exported as compared to landings in Figure 1.

Are there more money-makers like sablefish?

One bright point, in terms of value to the groundfish fishery, is sablefish. Sablefish seems to be driving not only value but volumes of exports from California. The average unit value (simply the landings value divided by the volume) for sablefish landings in California were usually twice as much as other groundfish from 2008 to 2014.For the same time period, the ratio of sablefish landed to sablefish exported averaged 24%, compared to 1 to 10% for most groundfish. Of course, this isn’t a wholly accurate comparison: since the sablefish exported from California may not have been landed there.

More than 90% of all exported sablefish over the time period assessed go to Japan, most of the sablefish going to Japan is frozen. Sablefish is doubly interesting because of this—not only are high value exports a rarity in this fishery, but so are high value frozen products.

Remaining questions include: Are there other species that can capitalize on the export market to Japan? Are there other species or markets that would have similar characteristics—a high value fish, exported in frozen form—where this success could be replicated?

Why does it seem that extremely low value groundfish is being exported?


Another interesting comparison is the unit values of landings and exports in California, based on the same data provided by NMFS. We expect that export unit values would be higher than landing unit values, since they are likely processed and value-added. But for groundfish other than flatfish and sablefish, this expectation isn’t met. From 2008 through 2011, groundfish other than flatfish and sablefish had a higher unit value for landings than for exports.

There are a number of potential causes for this disparity:

  • We’re comparing different species. The “other groundfish” category that’s being exported is comprised of different species than the ones in the landings data. Perhaps these are low value species landed outside California and brought to California and exported.
  • Groundfish exports are lumped into a category other than “groundfish” for these years. Perhaps they’ve been exported in a product form that does not identify the type of fish.
  • Low value groundfish can’t be sold domestically. The groundfish being exported doesn’t match the domestic market demands and so the only market is a very low paying international market. Figure 3 compares the top five destinations for California groundfish.(Note that the Netherlands (NLD) appears to accept many low value imports in 2014.) Other than Japan, potential high value markets to explore include Vietnam and Canada. However, both these countries imported small amounts, albeit at high value, in 2014.


[1] NMFS, “Commercial Landings,” page, Commercial Fishery Statistics, (2015),
[2] NMFS, “Trade by Country,” page, Commercial Fishery Statistics, accessed February 18, 2015,

Markets for Groundfish in California, Part 1 of 4

This is part 1 of a 4-part series intended to invite conversations in advance of our planned end market demand analysis for groundfish in California. The larger goal is to provide quantified end market data to inform profitable value chain investments that will positively impact harvesters, local communities and the ocean. Read more

The What’s and Why’s of Wilderness Markets


“What do you do?”

The big picture, easily digestible, non-jargon answer: We’re trying to figure out how to make it possible for impact investors to work with fishermen to continue catching fish from our oceans, make money doing so, and still have enough fish for future generations.

The buzzword, jargon answer: We’re using value chain based analysis to determine constraints preventing impact capital from flowing to triple-bottom line SMEs in fisheries.

After that question has been settled with a degree of satisfaction, the natural follow-up question is, “Yes, but WHAT do you do?”

The big picture, simple answer: We use readily available data to give us an idea of how big a fishery is in terms of volume and value and what the important markets are for the fishery. This way we can figure out the most important parts of the fishery and focus our efforts there.

The more in-depth answer: We use readily available data to characterize the value chain flows, and we use interviews, scientific papers, and previously published reports to identify opportunities and constraints within the value chain.


Not often asked directly, is the question of “Why?” Why are you doing this? Why is it important?

Millions of people rely on fish as their primary source of protein, and billions more benefit from having fish in their diet. A healthy ocean is a great asset to all of us.

We also think it’s a great challenge. How do you quantify risk for a resource you can’t see and where the capriciousness of weather dictates when you can and can’t fish? The multitude of stakeholders adds another layer of challenge: harvesters, processors, distributors, retailers, restaurants, consumers, multiple levels of government plus the local communities, NGOs, and more. Considering the nature of fisheries and the plethora of stakeholders, it’s no wonder that this sector can be overwhelming for financial institutions to explore.

Finally, and perhaps most importantly, we want to see fisheries investments done well. No one benefits from short-sighted projects that may do more harm than good. If the fishery isn’t properly managed, improving the logistics of the supply chain will just lead to overfishing. We know that ensuring appropriate management safeguards are implemented is one of the keys to sustainable fisheries.