*Disclosure – Jack Cheney, a contributor to Sustainable Fisheries UW, is a full-time employee of Sea to Table.
On June 15th, the Associated Press released an investigation into Sea to Table, a seafood distributor based in New York, claiming that Sea to Table had misrepresented where some of their seafood had been caught. This case of seafood fraud is particularly troubling as Sea to Table’s main appeal is that they ensure traceability and a clean, sustainable supply chain.
Sea to Table works like this:
Sea to Table partners with domestic fishers, fishing boats, docks, and suppliers to connect them directly to restaurants. Once landed & processed, fish are shipped directly to the chefs who purchase, all facilitated by Sea to Table. This cuts out the traditional fish monger middleman, ensuring a higher price for the fishers and processors, and a fresh, high-quality seafood product for chefs. It also reduces the chances of a fish being mislabeled as the more often a fish changes hands, the more likely it is to be mislabeled.
Encyclopedia Brown and The Case of the Yellowfin Tuna
Sea to Table was a rapidly growing company until the Associated Press found that they sold yellowfin tuna—claimed to be caught off Montauk, NY—that may have been landed elsewhere. The problem comes from one of Sea to Table’s supply partners, Gosman’s, located in Montauk. According to Sea to Table, the tuna sold was supplied by Gosman’s, but had actually been caught in North Carolina (still a sustainable, U.S. fishery). Sea to Table says labeling that tuna as caught off Montauk instead of North Carolina was a simple failure to communicate (and they have apologized), however, the AP did preliminary DNA testing on a piece of tuna in question and claim it is actually from the Indian or Pacific Ocean. From the AP report:
The trouble with Gosman’s doesn’t end there. During their investigation, the AP noted that a box in Gosman’s supply (not intended for Sea to Table) was stamped with the logo of a company connected to illegal fishing practices and slave-like working conditions for fishermen on board. The AP reported on these issues extensively in 2016 and won a Pulitzer for their efforts.
Sea to Table has since ended their relationship with Gosman’s.
Other AP claims
The AP investigation also depicts Sea to Table dealing in unsustainable seafood, but the examples they cite are unfounded. The AP reports that Sea to Table sold “Maryland crab” in January when it was out of season, raising sustainability and/or poaching concerns, but the fishery for blue crab was still open in surrounding areas. The problem with the AP’s claim is that “Maryland crab” is a general term used to describe blue crab caught in the Chesapeake Bay. The crab sold by Sea to Table came from the Chesapeake Bay and was processed in Maryland, but it was technically caught in a neighboring state. Perhaps Sea to Table could have communicated that better, but the product was completely sustainable.
The AP report also mentions that Sea to Table sold canary rockfish “when the fish was illegal to catch.” This is untrue. Canary rockfish off the U.S. West Coast were depleted for many years, but good management helped them recover and they were declared rebuilt in 2015. Sea to Table claims they did not sell canary rockfish until well after 2015, their records don’t show any sales before 2016. Recreational anglers were not allowed to catch canary rockfish until 2017, so perhaps that is where the AP report got their information.
The report also vilifies Sea to Table for selling farmed shellfish (oysters, mussels, and abalone). This is a bizarre claim to make, as commercial, wild-caught oysters, mussels, and abalone is unheard of. It would be strange if any chef that ordered shellfish didn’t assume or know it was farmed. Additionally, farmed shellfish is probably the best food you can eat for the planet, it shouldn’t be vilified at all.
Future of Sea to Table and direct to consumer seafood
As a result of the article, a number of well-known and highly visible customers distanced themselves from Sea to Table and business has suffered. The investigation and resulting response from Sea to Table bring up several interesting questions:
- Should companies like Sea to Table use suppliers like Gosman’s who deal in sustainable seafood, but also unsustainable seafood? Jack Cheney, a manager at Sea to Table (and a contributor to this site) says that question is like asking, “is a vegan meal really vegan if it is ordered in a restaurant that also serves meat?”
- The DNA testing used by the AP that indicated that a piece of tuna sold by Sea to Table might not be from the U.S. is admittedly unreliable and just one sample was tested. How should DNA testing be used to combat seafood fraud?
- Sea to Table and companies like them offer a service to reduce uncertainty about where a food product comes from. What kinds of standards should Sea to Table and companies like them be held to? Perfect traceability is the goal, but how realistic is it?