Jul 24 2014

Some Inconvenient Truths about California Squid Marketing

Background:
On July 11 the Los Angeles Times carried an opinion editorial “The long journey of local seafood to your plate”, by author Paul Greenberg, who made a pitch for local seafood while lamenting the volume exported overseas.  Seafood News picked up the story, but with a twist.

Indeed, Greenberg could have dodged some critical misstatements, particularly about marketing California’s largest catch, market squid, if he had checked local sources, including the California Wetfish Producers Association, which represents the majority of squid processors and fishermen in the Golden State.  CWPA submitted the following op ed to the LA Times, to set the record straight.

First, here’s the story as it appeared in Seafood News:

Seafood News
Paul Greenberg makes case for locally caught fish while trashing global seafood supply chain

SEAFOODNEWS.COM [Los Angeles Times] by Paul Greenberg [Opinion]- July 11, 2014
Copyright 2014 The Los Angeles Times

Another glorious Golden State summer is upon us. San Joaquin Valley peaches are at their height and rolling in to farmers markets from Silver Lake to Mar Vista. Alice Waters’ foragers are plucking Napa zucchini blossoms for the chefs at Berkeley’s Chez Panisse. Barbecues in Sonoma are primed for grilling Niman Ranch grass-fed steaks.
 
And California squid are being caught, frozen, sent to China, unfrozen, processed, refrozen and sent back to the United States in giant 50,000-pound shipping containers.
 
That’s right: Every year, 90% of the 230 million pounds of California squid (by far the state’s largest seafood harvest) are sent on a 12,000-mile round-trip journey to processing plants in Asia and then sent back across the Pacific, sometimes to seaside restaurants situated alongside the very vessels that caught the squid in the first place.
 
Even as the locavore movement finds ever more inventive ways to reduce the distance between farm and table, the seafood industry is adding more and more food miles to your fish. And it’s not just squid. Overall a third of what is caught in American waters — about 3 billion pounds of seafood a year — is sold to foreigners. Some of those exports, such as California squid, wild Alaska salmon and tons and tons of Bering Sea pollock, make the round trip to Asia and back into our ports, twice frozen.
 
Why? To begin with, Americans want their seafood recipe-ready, and seafood distributors here don’t want to clean it. It’s messy, it takes time and, of course, it costs money. For many processors, the much lower labor costs in Asia make it less costly to pay for transporting squid to China and back than to clean it here.
 
Moreover, seafood processing plants are typically located close to the shore, which is exactly where well-heeled people like to build homes. Across the country, processing plants, oyster farms and canneries have been pushed out of their valuable shorefront locations by residents who didn’t want them next door. As a fisherman in Gloucester, Mass., told me recently: “Fish houses are getting turned into hotels all the time. But you never hear about a hotel getting turned into a fish house.”
 
So are we to let our seafood production infrastructure vanish entirely and watch dumbly as American fish and shellfish slip down the maw of the vast churning seafood machine of Asia? Moreover, do we really want to intermingle our food supply with the apparatus of China, a nation that is cruelly stingy with its labor force and that had such severe problems with food safety in 2007 that it executed the director of its food and drug administration for accepting bribes?
 
I would argue no.
 
And there are finally starting to be opportunities for keeping our seafood here — from net to table. In the last five years, dozens of community-supported fisheries, or CSFs, have been formed along U.S. coasts. Like community-supported agriculture co-ops, CSFs allow consumers to buy a share in the catch at the beginning of the season and receive regular allotments of guaranteed local seafood. CSFs help fishermen enormously by giving them start-up capital before they get out on the water. They also lock in a good price for fish that helps fishermen exit the ruthless price-crunching commodity market.
 
A few CSFs are even taking on squid. Alan Lovewell of Local Catch Monterey Bay CSF is collaborating with Del Mar Seafood of Watsonville to micro-process 1,000 pounds of squid for the Local Catch buying coop. This summer, for the first time, Local Catch members will get fully fresh (instead of double frozen) squid tubes and tentacles that make for fabulous grilling, stir-fries and Italian zuppa di pesce.
 
Yes, they’ll pay more for it. But if all Californians were to do it this way, economies of scale would prevail. It costs processors about $1.50 extra per pound to process squid here in America. Wouldn’t you be willing to pay that kind of premium to keep your squid fresh and out of China?
 
And even if you don’t have access to a CSF, there’s always the option of cleaning the squid yourself. Currently, the 10% of unprocessed squid that doesn’t go to China often gets used as bait. If you ask your fishmonger, you might be able to get some of that whole squid yourself. It’s really not that hard to clean it. And if you mess up the first time around, it’s not a big deal. Squid are actually incredibly cheap compared with most seafood, and it is high in omega-3s and minerals to boot.
 
The next time you fire up the backyard barbecue, consider buying a pound or two of California’s tentacled native seafood, getting out your knife and cutting board and experiencing squid as it’s meant to be eaten: fresh from the ocean and bursting with flavor.

***

And CWPA’s response:

Some Inconvenient Truths about California Squid Marketing
By D.B. Pleschner

In his op-ed to the Los Angeles Times last week, author Paul Greenberg could have dodged some critical misstatements and inaccuracies about the marketing of California squid – the state’s largest catch.

All he had to do was check with local sources, including the California Wetfish Producers Association, which represents the majority of squid processors and fishermen in the Golden State and promotes California squid.

Instead, Greenberg missed the boat on a number of issues, including the overall carbon footprint of seafood, but equally important, the reasons why most of the squid that California exports is consumed overseas!

To set the record straight, here are some inconvenient truths you wouldn’t know about squid by reading last week’s op-ed:

First, size matters and price rules when it comes to California market squid, which are one of the smallest of more than 300 squid species found worldwide. The U.S. “local” market really prefers larger, “meatier” squid, notwithstanding Greenberg’s ‘locavore’ movement.

Greenberg acknowledged the labor cost to produce cleaned squid in California adds at least $1.50 per pound to the end product. In fact, local production costs double the price of cleaned squid, due to both labor  (at least  $15 per hour with benefits) and super-sized overhead costs, including workers’ comp, electricity, water and myriad other costs of doing business in the Golden State.

Del Mar Seafood is one processor in California that micro-processes cleaned squid at the request of markets like the CSA that Greenberg mentioned. In fact, virtually all California squid processors do the same thing at the request of their customers. But at 1,000 pounds per order, we would need 236,000 CSAs, restaurants or retail markets paying $1.50 more per pound to account for the total harvest.  If the demand were there, we’d be filling it!

Greenberg also misconstrued the issue of food miles. Respected researchers like Dr. Peter Tyedmers, , from Dalhousie University in Canada, found that transport makes a minor contribution to overall greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions, when considering the carbon footprint of seafood (or land-based foods). Mode of production is far more important.

Here’s another surprise:  California squid is one of the most efficient fisheries in the world – because a limited fleet harvests a lot of squid within a short distance of processing plants.

Studies show that the California wetfish fleet, including squid, can produce 2,000 pounds of protein for only 6 gallons of diesel. Squid are then flash frozen to preserve freshness and quality. Keep in mind that even with immaculate handling, fresh squid spoil in a few days.

As counterintuitive as it may seem, even with product block-frozen and ocean-shipped to Asia for processing, California’s squid fishery is one of the ‘greenest’ in the world. One recent survey estimated that about 30 percent of California squid is now either processed here or transshipped to Asia for processing (other Asian countries besides China now do the work) and re-imported.

China, although important, is only one export market that craves California squid.  With a growing middle class billions strong, Chinese consumers can now afford California squid themselves. Many countries that import California squid prefer the smaller size, and California squid goes to Mediterranean countries as well.  In short, most of the squid that California’s fishery exports is consumed overseas.  Why? The U.S. palate for squid pales in comparison to Asian and European demand.

Also important to understand: California squid is the economic driver of California’s wetfish industry – which produces more than 80 percent of the total seafood volume landed in the Golden State. California squid exports also represent close to 70 percent by weight and 44 percent of value of all California seafood exports. Our squid fishery contributes heavily to the Golden State’s fishing economy and also helps to offset a growing seafood trade imbalance.

The sad reality is that price really does matter and most California restaurants and retail markets are not willing to pay double for the same – or similar – small squid that they can purchase for half the price.

Nonetheless, we do appreciate Greenberg’s pitch for local seafood. Our local industry would be delighted if, as he suggested, all Californians would be willing to pay $1.50 a pound more for California squid.  We may be biased, but in our opinion California squid really is the best!


D.B. Pleschner is executive director of the California Wetfish Producers Association, a nonprofit dedicated to research and to promote sustainable wetfish resources.

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