Silicon Valley dives in to support sustainable seafood

GreenBiz | November 18, 2013

Blue Sea Labs fish distribution company screenshot

Blue Sea Labs, a San Francisco-based fish distribution company, is working to shorten the traditionally long supply chain between U.S. fishermen and the end consumer.

Traditionally, the seafood industry has not benefited either end of its supply chain. While overfishing has depleted fish stocks, fishermen have given up profit margins to large processors and distributors. And thanks to mislabeling, consumers haven’t always been too sure where their fish came from.

Now, though, access to sustainable seafood has become mainstream. Large grocery chains Safeway and Whole Foods are taking cues from the Monterey Bay Aquarium’s Seafood Watch recommendations, and conscientious consumers try to buy directly from fishermen as much as possible.

But through new developments in technology and emerging opportunities for impact investors in sustainable seafood ventures, the movement has evolved and expanded beyond its original scope. Nonprofits such as the Future of Fish, for instance, are driving sustainability in seafood by supporting entrepreneurs.

And in the true style of startups, what better way to help entrepreneurs than by matching them up with investors during a two-day pitch session in Silicon Valley?

Scaling up

Enter Fish 2.0. Although described as a competition by founder Monica Jain, it’s also a year-long development process complete with advice and mentoring from business advisors and impact investors. Eligible entrepreneurs (those focused on wild capture-based fisheries, closed-loop aquaculture or in-ocean aquaculture systems) get the chance to refine their business models through a series of four elimination rounds with advisors experienced in finance, marketing and investing.

“These entrepreneurs offer investors the opportunity to help build viable businesses that contribute to food security, ocean sustainability and thriving local communities,” said Jain, who herself possesses a hybrid marine biologist-Stanford MBA background.

The first Fish 2.0 competition took place this year. Jain started the event as a way to bridge the gap between the entrepreneurs and interested investors who just weren’t finding viable business models. Organizers aimed to create opportunities and build momentum for impact investors in the sustainable seafood industry — a sector that has yet to seal as many deals as those in sustainable agriculture.

Through offering advice and judging during the first three rounds held online (PDF), and from sitting in the audience during the finals, impact investors got a front-row opportunity to familiarize themselves with the competitors. They were also ready to invest — some up to $10 million, according to Fish 2.0.

More than 80 hopefuls entered. Judges used a scoring system that evaluated factors such as the competitors’ business models, market conditions, financial status/projections and social and environmental impact.

By April, 53 competitors made it to the second round; in June, 39 continued to the third round. In September, 10 finalists and 11 semifinalists were chosen for the final round that culminated in the two-day event Nov. 12-13 at Stanford University in Palo Alto, Calif. Finalists gave a 10-minute pitch to a judging panel made up of investors and investment experts.

And the winners

First place and a prize of $40,000 went to Blue Sea Labs, a San Francisco-based distribution business shortening the supply chain via an online system connecting U.S. fishermen to consumers. As with similar online marketplace Good Eggs, producers (the fishermen in this case) know exactly what they need to fulfill their orders and can save time and money when securing their supply.

We are really excited about the chance to grow our business and help fishermen reach more consumers,” said Blue Sea Labs founder Martin Reed. “It was great to have a room full of investors there who wanted to know more about seafood.”

Second place went to Cryoocyte, a Harvard Innovation Lab startup that is developing fish egg-freezing technology in order to preserve endangered species for aquatic biodiversity. Founder Dmitry Kozachenok believes that freezing fish eggs also would give entrepreneurs in the developing world greater access to start their own fish-hatching operations, by providing them with a year-round supply of eggs and a way to bypass the costs of breeding and transporting juvenile fish.

“We want people to have better access to healthy foods, and we want generations down the road to have the same biodiversity in the oceans that we see today,” said Kozachenok, adding that he hoped to use his company’s technology to help restore wild fisheries. Cryoocyte received a $25,000 prize.

Ho’oulu Pacific, a community-based aquaponic and distributed agriculture business, won third place. Based in Waimanalo, a Native Hawaiian community east of Honolulu, Ho’oulu Pacific hopes to give residents the tools to establish healthy food security by growing fish and vegetables in their backyards. The integrated closed-loop system directs water flow from the fish tank to the plants. Plants extract nutrients from the fish waste, and the water is purified by the plants.

The company will buy the surplus and sell it to surrounding communities. Co-founders Keith Sakuda, Ilima Ho-Lastimosa and David Walfish aim to expand the network across the Hawaiian Islands. They received $10,000 in prize money.

In the fast-pitch competition, semifinalists had just 90 seconds to make a winning impression and $2,500. SmartFish, which aims to improve fishermen’s livelihoods in developing countries through the development of local and regional markets for sustainable seafood, tied with Inland Shrimp Company for the honors. Based in the Midwest, the Inland Shrimp Company is focused on raising shrimp indoors using sustainable methods.

View the original story here.

Screenshot of Blue Sea Labs courtesy Blue Sea Labs; image of fishermen setting their nets courtesy Loki Fish Co./Blue Sea Labs

Half Moon Bay Fish Go Hi-Tech

story and photos by Kristine A. Wong (Note: This story originally appeared on Half Moon Bay Patch on June 10, 2011).

With the debut of a new Community Supported Fishery (CSF) in Half Moon Bay, a group of Pillar Point fishermen are collaborating with local community members, businesses and Internet giant Google as a way to support sustainability of fish stocks, the ocean, and local livelihoods.

They’re also providing employees of the Silicon Valley company with access to fish much fresher than what’s in their local supermarket, according to Google chef and Half Moon Bay resident Olivia Wu. The CSF is the first of its kind in Northern California, and one of a small handful in the state.

For those who can’t drop by Pillar Point Harbor to buy fish off the boat on their way home from work, a little more than 48 hours from ocean to table doesn’t seem to be too bad—a plausible scenario for Google employees who picked up a 1-pound fillet of chinook salmon on a recent Friday caught two days before by Half Moon Bay fisherman Jim Anderson.

How did this all begin?

From her five years of writing about sustainable seafood for the San Francisco Chronicle — as well as her self-described passion for fresh seafood and support of sustainable fisheries — Wu got to know the Half Moon Bay fishing community well from regular forays down to Pillar Point Harbor.

Though her role changed a few years ago after taking a position at Google as one of six executive chefs, seafood was still on her mind.

“It was really obvious to me that there should be a partnership between local [seafood] producers and Googlers,” she said, referring to employees of the famed company which has 10,000 employees working at its Mountain View campus. “Googlers care a lot about the quality of our food and its impact on the environment,” she said.

Wu found a natural collaborator in fellow Google Executive Chef Quentin Topping, who grew up on the East Coast and had been on a personal quest to find fresh seafood at markets since his move West. Like Wu, Topping was aware of the precarious positions of the oceans with their declining fish stocks, and the tough times small fishermen had weathered in recent years.

“Seafood these days is moving in the direction of long hauls, which are destroying habitats,” he said. “When you have a great seafood resource you have to protect it and treat it in a responsible manner from the boat to the end product.”

Both Wu and Topping knew fishermen at Pillar Point Harbor who fished using sustainable methods in day boats, described by Topping as using “artisan” ways.

“We both realized that we could bring this amazing product to Googlers,” Topping said.

The idea also fit with Google’s policy of supplying their 27 workplace cafes with fish caught within 200 miles of its Mountain View campus.

So a few years ago, Wu brought Pillar Point fishermen and Half Moon Bay resident and San Mateo County Harbor District Commissioner Pietro Parravano to Google. Then, she approached Parravano with the idea of bringing freshly-caught Half Moon Bay seafood to employees.

“It was a slow process, it took two years,” Parravano said. He already had a hand in starting the Cape Ann Fresh Catch CSF in Gloucester, Mass., which is part of a larger network of CSFs on the East Coast.

The hangup? Parravano said it was “consistency”: finding a time that worked each week for all the fishermen to have their catches ready.

But at the end of March something clicked, and Jim Anderson, who fishes solo on the Allaine boat, got the call for help. He previously co-championed the first off-the-boat crab and fish sales at Pillar Point Harbor, held positions on the California Salmon Council and the state Dungeness Crab Task Force, and is involved in a salmon DNA identification project along the West Coast.

“Forty-eight hours later, we had our first meeting,” Anderson said. The exploratory gathering included a select group of peers like Duncan MacLean, head of the Half Moon Bay Fishermen’s Marketing Association, and Ben Parsons, an El Granada resident who fishes on the Mr. Morgan Boat docked at Pillar Point with Captain Steve Fitz.

The meeting indicated an interest in a Half Moon Bay CSF, so Anderson and Parsons’ wife Shannon acted quickly to form a Half Moon Bay Fishermen’s Association. The association was a necessary configuration if the fishermen were to get paid and engage in other business transactions as a CSF.

What motivated Parsons’ involvement? “I want to be able to support the fishermen and help them do what they love to do, what they’re good at, which is fishing,” she said.

Seven fishermen are currently on board to fish for the CSF. Parsons says participating boats represent those who provide quality fish using sustainable methods. The Mr. Morgan boat, for example, fishes for flatfish using Scottish seines, a type of equipment that lacks steel trawl doors or cables associated with degradation of ocean floor habitat.

The CSF was modeled after Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) programs where farmers are supported by locals who purchase shares of the farm’s production in advance of a season. The up-front investment supports small operators who might not have the capital to continue operating otherwise.

“They don’t have to worry about selling the fish when they get back,” Parsons said, adding that with the CSF, the fishermen know how much fish they have to catch before they head to sea — which not only saves time, but also gas, money, and wasted fish the boats cannot sell upon their return.

And since what’s delivered each week to members are what the fishermen are able to catch, it’s discourages overfishing and focuses on seasonal fish instead, according to Anderson.

“It also allows people to eat food that is incredibly fresh and local, not a product that’s been trucked up and down the coast just to get here,” he said.

With the basic structure in place, the group had a flurry of meetings over just eight weeks to prepare for the May 27 debut. Other key players involved CSA software specialist Farmigo and Eriko Fujino, owner of Princeton fish processor Blue Ocean Smoke House.

Fujino receives deliveries from the fishermen, cuts and package the fish for CSA shareholders (in biodegradable trays and plastic bags purchased especially for the CSF by Wu), and sends it south with fish wholesaler Monterey Fish to Google for a Friday morning delivery.

Using Farmigo’s software, which is built on a Google platform and designed for ventures like CSAs, Google employees can sign up for up to receive fish every week or every other week for three months. They can even put their account on a vacation hold. Parson and Anderson plan to open an online store in July, where subscribers can purchase additional fish or order other items such as squid or smoked salmon.

One $26 share will get an subscriber one pound of a more expensive fish (like chinook salmon), to two pounds of a less expensive one such as petrale sole. The catch being distributed today for week three is chilipepper, a type of Rockcod.

Subscribers make a short trek to a warehouse on the Google campus each Friday to pick up their weekly allotment packaged in the biodegradable materials, which they can pack home in a reusable bright green fabric container insulated by a gel pack to prevent spoilage.

And just like at the farmer’s market, when buyers can meet the people who produce the food on their table, Parsons sends each subscriber a virtual introduction to the fisherman that caught each week’s offering along with a link to an online recipe.

The CSF has been growing steadily, doubling subscribers from week one to two with more than 100 subscribers to date, Parsons said. She and Anderson have been getting requests to start additional CSFs.

“We’ll be focusing on this pilot program at Google until the first-season subscription ends in mid-August,” Parsons said. A CSF for Half Moon Bay and Coastside residents is in the works for August, and a pickup location already has been secured.

They’ll also look to expand with a CSF for Google employees working out of the company’s San Francisco office, as she said they’ve received a good amount of interest from workers there.

Half Moon Bay fishermen with the CSF don’t get paid as much as they would if they sold their catch off their boat in Pillar Point Harbor, Anderson said. But there’s still a big advantage to taking part.

“This provides a fresher product to the people, and builds a direct relationship between the fishermen and the consumer,” he said.