Human Stories

The Problem with Seafood Supply Chains

What are the biggest problems in our seafood supply chains? What are the driving forces behind these issues, and what can and should be done? I sat down to have a conversation with Margaux and Yves-Marie from Fish Klub Berlin to discuss these questions and learn more about their approach to making their seafood supply chains traceable and sustainable.

*Fish Klub Berlin works with artisanal fishers and specialises in importing and distributing sustainable seafood to Berlin and the rest of Germany.

How has our fishing supply changed from the past to present?

If we look back to 1609, a Dutch jurist and philosopher, Hugo Grotius, formulated the International Rights of Fishing based on natural law. This recognised that the sea and its resources were free to use for all nations. Fish were considered an ‘open access’ resource that could never be depleted. 

But they didn’t know at the time that we would industrialise fishing centuries later. Back then, 90% of the fish caught was pelagic - meaning, fish that live near sea level where we can see and fish them easily. In the 1980s, fishers started to fish deeper, more than 400 metres beneath sea level. In the 1950s, there were 1.7 million boats in the seas globally - in 2015, it's 3.7 million, and they expect 1 million more boats by 2050. To give some comparisons, 20 million tonnes of fish were caught in 1950. In 2016, it was 91 million tonnes - within 70 years, we had four times more fish and many more boats as well. However, there came a big change with the installation of quotas. From the 1990s to the early 2000s, we saw how quotas helped increase red tuna to a healthy level in the Mediterranean Sea.

Quotas work. From the 1990s to the early 2000s, quotas increased the Mediterranean stock of red tuna to healthy levels. 

What does a seafood supply chain look like from start to finish? 

The seafood supply chain will vary depending on the product (e.g., frozen vs. fresh, farmed vs. wild caught) and who or where it is traded to. On average, seafood supply chains typically have 10 to 15 intermediaries between the fishers and farmers before reaching the end consumer. 

Take, for example, frozen fish - a French company will buy something like 3000 tonnes of fish a day from, say, Iceland. Frozen fish is usually sold to the consumer by weight. So what can end up happening? This fish from Iceland will then be sent to China (where the process is more cost-efficient), where they will be injected with more water so the fish gets heavier. The fish would then get sent back to France. So, the quality of fish is very poor, the environmental footprint is unbearable, and you will have frozen fish that are more expensive because they are three times heavier due to the frozen water.

Aquaculture is another story. Because fish is created from nothing, there also comes a lot of waste along the supply chain. For example, you need feed to farm salmon, but where does that feed come from? You’ll have fish like anchovies, for example, that are caught somewhere in Peru or along the coast of Africa, which will be sent to China to be transformed into dry feed and then sent back to countries like Scotland, where there are big salmon production centres that use those products, only to be sent to France or Germany to be sold. If it's frozen, it could be sent back to China again for injection and to be brought back. By the time the fish is on our plates, it’s already travelled thousands of kilometres, multiple times around the world - so these logistic chains make no sense.

Often priced by weight, frozen fish are sometimes injected with water to increase their value. Photo: Cuts of fish being processed in a factory in Qingdao, China. (Wain Haibin/VCG Getty)

Why do businesses continue operating their supply chains like this?

At the end of the day, people in the chain are just trying to think as cheaply as possible to reach as many parts of the world as possible. Unfortunately, the price point is always what will ruin an industry because people want to consume seafood, and due to a lot of reasons, they’re going to buy cheaper seafood. 

For example, a lobster from Maine or Canada will sell in Europe for 23 EUR – frozen. But if you buy fresh lobster from Brittany in France, it'll sell for roughly 51 EUR – more than double the price. Here in Berlin, there are a lot of chefs who cook lobster rolls. At the end of the day, the price will make a difference in Berlin, especially where people are looking for a very low price for good food. Then you have to make a choice as a chef: what do you do with your food cost? Will you take the lobster from Brittany, which will cost you 51 EUR per kilo? Or do you take the one from Maine, which has a worse impact but is cheaper? 

How does volume and scale of supply affect the sustainability of seafood?

When big industrial trawlers go to sea, they can catch maybe 3 million tonnes of fish in one day. Even if they need to travel 5000 kilometres away, the large catch volume would make transport costs incomparable. Just for a reference point, we work with artisanal fishers, who own small boats with three people on board. Per day, they catch between 80 and 200 kilograms of fish. 

Industrial trawlers can catch ~3 million tonnes of fish in one day.

You also see this with farmed seafood like salmon and shrimp. Businesses know they can reach a certain volume of sales, so they will produce as much as they can. Producing seafood massively ensures the price is very competitive, so businesses can earn the most market shares. The bigger the volume, the cheaper the product—and the cheaper the seafood, the more likely people are going to purchase and consume it.

A Michelin-starred chef in Berlin once told us, “Why should I buy the sea bream fish from you if there is also very good sea bream selling at a wholesaler for a lower price?” He realises that the product might be cheaper from a large wholesaler. But what’s the impact of buying cheaper? Where’s that product coming from? That sea bream fish may be part of a long supply chain. And at the end of the day, that cheap product would likely have a higher environmental, social and human impact.

Why is the lack of traceability a problem for seafood supply chains?

When you have so many intermediaries, it’s more difficult to trace the origins of your seafood. You might ask, “Where’s the fish coming from?” and receive the response, “The sea.” It might be funny the first time, but then you ask it again and again – and nobody knows. Without traceability, it’s difficult to track problems like illegal fishing and labour, fish fraud, and bycatch.

You mentioned you work with artisanal fishers - how would this supply chain differ?

The supply chain is much more transparent because we’re not working with a long line of intermediaries. You need at least one intermediary between the fishers themselves because you can’t buy seafood directly from the boats - at least not on a big scale. We try not to have more than 3 intermediaries because we want to work as directly as possible with the resource itself. 

The closer you are, the more you can ensure its sustainability. You end up working with only passionate people who have the same goals and the same standards – people who respect fishing stocks and the way people are working.

But you see a difference in quantities - for example, when you arrive at fishing markets, you have catch from industrial fishing on one side and artisanal fishing on the other. The industrial section is much larger than the small amounts of fish from coastal fishing boats. Just to give you some numbers for reference: in France, artisanal fishing makes up 70% of the fleet and 52% of jobs in the fishing industry but only accounts for 14% of the catch. 

By sourcing seafood closer to the beginning of the supply chain, greater sustainability can be ensured.

But in the last few years, more and more artisanal fishers are having difficulties with their catch. A lot of the fishers we work with have come back to us on our morning supply runs, telling us, “We just don’t have this fish today, we don’t have the quantity you want.” There are more boats, and less catch. 

What alternatives help you ensure a sustainable, but also consistent, supply?

We work with different suppliers to ensure we increase the chances of getting the right fish at the right time. We also buy on pre-orders, so we know what we need to buy - instead of the common practice by bigger industries, which is to buy big stocks and then trade and sell big volumes for the biggest margin. 

Part of our work is to also talk to our customers about fish so that we can change at least some minds. We typically work with high end gastronomy, so we bring them fish alternatives to take them out of their comfort zones. Now we have some kitchen chefs telling us, “We need 5 kilos of white fish for ceviché, with a maximum price of this. Depending on what's fished that morning and available at the market, we decide what will be brought back and imported to Berlin. We're now trying to push this way of consuming, which means you want a white fish for your dish? Then we have this whitefish because that’s what's available today because that's what the sea gave us - instead of fishing certain species according to demand.

How does demand impact seafood supply chains?

The biggest problem in seafood supply chains comes from high demand - when a species is so well asked for, the supply chain will adapt itself to bring the products from point A to point B, where the customers want them. When demand is so strong, and the profit is high, then there’s money involved - and as long as there’s money involved, there will be problems with illegal fishing, traceability and fish fraud, and the bycatch that goes with it. If you can fish 100 tonnes of tuna, sold at maybe 500,000 EUR per fish at a market, then who cares if you catch other fish along the way? But this is the problem. 

By implementing changes and giving customers alternatives, consumer demand changes. 

To give you a counter-example, we stopped selling salmon in our shops in 2021. To minimise problems caused by high demand in the supply chain, we need to offer our customers alternatives. So, we replaced our salmon supply with trout from eco-friendly aquaculture. Or instead of Hake, we supply Pollock. We saw that it changed the way our customers consumed - in the beginning, when we opened our first shop in 2019, people only consumed salmon and cod - and now they don’t ask for it anymore. 

If you start implementing changes, giving consumers alternatives, then you can see a change in demand. It’s not easy to change, but the industry can also create these trends - there's always money for marketing, but maybe that money is not used to create the right trends. 

Is there anything consumers can do themselves?

They can just ask questions. When they buy, ask how the seafood was caught (with what fishing techniques), where it comes from, and when was the catch? If the seller can already answer these questions, you have a higher likelihood of consuming sustainable seafood.


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