KANSAS CITY — Consumer interest in seafood sustainability was on the rise before COVID. The pandemic only accelerated that growth, and with retail seafood sales soaring in the past year-plus, highlighting producers’ sustainability bona fides can yield great results on the bottom line.

With a 27% increase in fresh seafood sales in 2020, retailers have a real opportunity for maintaining growth in the category by sharing the stories behind the seafood that they sell, said Jason Heckathorn, CEO of Gainesville, Va.-based Forever Oceans.

For Forever Oceans, those stories begin with a focus on ease of preparation and the delicious flavors those preparations can provide for families, Heckathorn said. The story of the functional benefits of eating more seafood is another story. For instance, the company’s Kahala (a deep ocean-raised amberjack) has higher Omega 3 content than wild-caught salmon or tuna.

But the story that’s just as if not more important than all of those is Forever Oceans’ sustainability story, which can be encapsulated in one simple phrase: “preserving the oceans forever.”

“We are unique in the way that we employ technology to assure that we can raise a better tasting, more nutritious protein that has no impact on the environment compared to land and near ocean aquaculture,” Heckathorn said. “We monitor each of our farms constantly for water purity and protection of the environment, and we are doing this on a grand scale. With farms that are miles from the shoreline and in the deep ocean, our fish are healthier, more nutritious, and delicious.”

Anne-Kristine Øen, US director of the Norwegian Seafood Council, a global leader in sustainable seafood, said consumers continue to pay more attention to sustainability every year.

According to 2020 International Food Information Council (IFIC) research cited by Øen, 60% of consumers want to know about their food’s journey.

“Our focus is on preserving this resource for the next generation and ensuring that our fjords stay healthy. Fish is our heritage and our future, which is why we focus so much on trust – trust in quality and trust in sustainability.”

Building brand loyalty

Forever Oceans’ leadership in sustainability is an important element for building brand loyalty with today’s consumer, he added. A recent survey conducted after the pandemic found that brand loyalty is based on how you treat your employees, the environment and innovation, and Forever Oceans scores extremely well in all these categories.

“We believe that when we properly tell the Forever Oceans story through our own efforts and through great retailers who will tell our story, we will grow a brand loyal following of consumers for decades to come. This is a big opportunity.”

Digital outreach has been key, Heckathorn said. For more than year, the company has been cultivating a following of consumers who are intrigued by its story on social media.

Forever Oceans also has established one of the strongest teams of culinary advisors in the business, and it’s growing. Led by Executive Chef Mark Allison and Chef Rick Moonen, who is known as the “Godfather of Sustainable Seafood,” the company’s team of more than two dozen culinary pros are strong messengers of the company’s story, Heckathorn said.

In addition, Forever Oceans’ “Ocean-Raised Podcast” is welcoming other top chefs, such as Chicago’s Rick Bayless and David Burke, New York’s Jacques Pepin and New Orleans’ Emeril Lagasse to share their views on sustainable and delicious seafood.

The company is also investing in consumer research to solidify its message to consumers and to help retailers share the Forever Oceans story with their customers.

“We are committed to being best-in-class in how we share our story with consumers, through advertising, influencers and in-store point of sale merchandising,” Heckathorn said.

One of the things that separates Forever Oceans from its competitors, Heckathorn said, is the company’s commitment to and use of technology.

“We view technology as a solution to sustainability,” he said. “Our farms, off the coasts of Panama, Brazil, Indonesia, and Hawaii, have been carefully selected because of water purity. The enclosures are monitored constantly for the well-being of our Kahala.”

Fish are cared for and fed by robots who monitor the fish in deep ocean depths. Anchored by barges that are usually unmanned, these vessels relay data back, in real-time, to the company’s monitoring stations and house the food the fish are fed.

“The entire process reduces risk to our employees, to our beautiful Kahala, and to the environment.”

About 75% of agricultural land today is used to grow food for animals that we eat. Forever Oceans, Heckathorn said, is a solution to this problem. By growing its Kahala in the deep ocean away from land, the company is preserving the environment while raising a healthier, more nutritious protein that is delicious and contaminant-free.

“There are a ton of challenges that we must address with solutions that, first, feed the world’s growing population with a dwindling landmass for growing food. That’s why we’re here.”

Farm-raised salmon: a sustainability success story 

In its recently released 2020 Sustainability Report, the London-based Global Salmon Initiative (GSI), which represents 40% of the salmon farming sector, details the benefits of farm-raised salmon.

The report shows progress against key sustainability metrics for each of GSI’s 13 salmon farming member companies. 

Among the findings:

GSI members produced 420,000 tons of Aquaculture Stewardship Council-certified farmed salmon in 2020, up from zero in 2013. 

  • Members reduced the use of marine ingredients in fish feed, made possible through GSI’s leadership in supporting the accelerated development and incorporation of novel ingredients (such as algae oils), continued improvements in feed conversion ratios and feed formulations, and reducing lost resources through the use of industry by-products.
  • GSI identified and applied innovative and holistic approaches to promote optimal fish welfare. Since 2013, average antibiotic use among GSI members dropped by 60% and in some cases has reached zero. 
  • Farmed salmon is an environmentally conscious protein choice as it has a low carbon footprint and is a highly efficient user of raw ingredients. GSI members continue to innovate across the supply chain to further improve these measures. 

“The question we have to ask ourselves today is how we can develop a food system that provides the amount of healthy food we need while not destroying our planet,” said Sophie Ryan, CEO of the Global Salmon Initiative. “Salmon farming alone will not be the answer, but done right, it is definitely part of the solution.”