Study: In seafood sales, looks matter more than sustainability

The fish are biting, but are customers?

Alaska’s seafood marketers have spent millions over the past few years to promote the idea that Alaska seafood is sustainable: that it isn’t overharvested and that fishing for salmon doesn’t harm the environment.

A new study published last month in the journal Ocean and Coastal Management found that message may not matter — or at least, it may not matter as much as simpler things like the smell, look and taste of the seafood in the grocery store.

“We were actually kind of shocked that would come out below things like price, appearance and other factors,” said Grant Murray, the lead author of the study.

Murray, now at Duke University, worked with two other researchers at the Institute for Coastal Research at Vancouver Island University and gauged the reactions of shoppers in three rural British Columbia grocery stores.

What they found was that shoppers rated the taste, smell and appearance of their seafood as their No. 1 priority, followed by price and the health benefits of the seafood.

Whether the seafood was farmed or wild and whether it came from a sustainable source or not — that didn’t matter nearly as much.

“There hadn’t been a lot of studies that had compared all of those things at the same time,” Murray said.

It’s worth noting that this new study is fairly limited: It only looked at grocery store shoppers in non-urban British Columbia.

The Alaska Seafood Marketing Institute has conducted (and has access to) other, more detailed surveys, but those are proprietary and kept confidential, ASMI spokesman Jeremy Woodrow said on Tuesday.

That said, ASMI’s information matches what the Canadian study found — at least to a point.

“Quality is what’s going to bring the person back to your product. I think that’s true whether you’re talking about seafood or not,” Woodrow said.

He added that according to ASMI’s experience and research, international seafood buyers care a lot more than American and Canadian consumers about sustainability and whether their seafood is properly certified.

“In Europe, the retailers were doing it because their consumers were demanding it. They wouldn’t buy seafood unless it was certified,” Woodrow said.

But certification isn’t the whole thing for Alaska seafood. “The look, smell of your seafood is the No. 1 purchasing decision no matter what you’re buying,” he said.

As of Tuesday, the Alaska Department of Fish and Game reported that fishermen have caught 134.7 million salmon of all kinds. In the next few weeks, those fish will head to markets around the world and compete for space on store shelves and in the shopping baskets of consumers.

According to ASMI’s data, and the new Canadian study, actions being taken now, by individual fishermen and fishing boats, will determine in a big way what happens on those shelves.

If fishermen treat fish with care — Woodrow pointed out the trend toward refrigerated-seawater storage in most Bristol Bay fishing boats — they’ll get higher prices from processors who know that quality matters in the end result.

“You want your fish to smell like the ocean and look fresh,” Woodrow said.

ASMI is continuing its drive to convince Americans that sustainability matters — it’s one of the distinctive features of Alaska salmon against their farmed competitors — but for now, hooking consumers starts on deck.



• Contact reporter James Brooks at or call 523-2258.



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