By James Wright
April 26, 2001
PORTSMOUTH, N.H. (April 26) — Two years ago, Henry Lovejoy wanted out of the seafood business.
Tired of its commodity- and volume-driven ways, he sold his share of a successful lobster exporting company in Massachusetts and went back to business school. But instead of giving up on the industry altogether, he's giving it another shot, this time with an environment-friendly focus.
Hence, the birth of EcoFish, an Internet-based seafood wholesale and retail company that sells only seafood products with demonstrated track records of sustainable management. While placing a premium on conservation, this husband-and-wife operation — although still in its infancy — is starting to see its dreams turn into dollars.
"What EcoFish is all about is seeking out success stories where fish populations are healthy and sustainably managed," Lovejoy said. "We wanted to offer a value-added, branded product to address ecological issues."
Lovejoy and his wife, Lisa, "go to great lengths" and handpick the species they sell with the guidance of its advisory boards, which include some of the nation's top chefs, marine scientists and environmental groups — the National Audubon Society, the World Wildlife Fund and the Monterey Bay Aquarium, to name a few. The criteria are strict, but the approach assures EcoFish customers that the products are ecologically friendly — and of high quality.
"Our philosophy is to err on the side of conservation," he said.
EcoFish offers a home delivery service through online transactions, but its greatest success has been with upscale restaurants in New York and natural food stores, most of which have demanding standards.
"The demographics are perfect for our product line," Lovejoy said. "There are consumers out there that care about the food they eat and how it's harvested. That's our niche, because there really isn't much good seafood in the natural foods business."
It is common practice for fishmongers and seafood sellers alike to denounce environmental groups, activists and other critics of the industry — several of which serve on EcoFish's advisory boards. While many criticize their advocacy roles on seafood issues as being misleading, Lovejoy doesn't see EcoFish as embracing the enemy, but rather enlisting credible sources to help further his vision.
One of Lovejoy's customers and supporters is Nora Pouillon, an outspoken chef who promotes her two Washington, D.C. restaurants — Restaurant Nora and Asia Nora — as being the first certified organic restaurants in the United States. At least 95 percent of all ingredients used in the restaurants come from certified organic farmers, growers and suppliers, so it is important to Pouillon and her customers that everything served at the restaurants has the environment well in mind.
"(EcoFish) falls exactly in line with the companies I do business with," said Pouillon, who is a member of the EcoFish Chefs Advisory Board. "It's the only place that makes an effort to provide environmentally sound fish. You can trust them ... you don't have to ask a million questions about where the fish comes from."
The London-based Marine Stewardship Council last week awarded EcoFish its Chain of Custody Certification. MSC, which officially endorses sustainable fisheries around the world — including Alaska salmon and New Zealand hoki — seeks to ensure that retailers are actually selling MSC-certified species. According to Duncan Leadbitter, international fisheries director for MSC, there are 34 businesses with chain of custody certification, which allows them to use the MSC logo on their packages.
EcoFish currently sells just a handful of species that its advisors have deemed to be harvested or raised in a sustainable manner. For wild species, there's South African spiny lobster, Oregon Dungeness crabs, Indonesian "ahi" or yellowfin tuna, Pacific shrimp and halibut, and coho salmon from Alaska.
As for farm-raised species, EcoFish offers rope-cultured blue mussels from Prince Edward Island, rainbow trout from a hatchery in Nebraska and a hybrid striped sea bass from a western Massachusetts fish farm. Lovejoy says that all farm-raised fish that EcoFish sells are from "land-based, enclosed systems, not from offshore pens."
Lovejoy is now focusing on expanding the company's presence in retail stores. A regional distributor in the Northeast ships his seafood to about 75 natural food stores and 50 restaurants, and Lovejoy is close to expanding distribution throughout the Midwest. He says there's a "huge call" for EcoFish's retail-case freezers, which bear the EcoFish name and story. Dozens of these freezers are already in stores in 23 states from Maine to Georgia and as far west as Ohio — and the orders keep coming.
And so do the orders for its premium seafood products. Despite being a bit on the expensive side — EcoFish products are "10 to 20 percent higher than the average piece of fish out there," he said — sales have been doubling each month since November, when the company first began distributing.
He projects $2.5 million in sales for 2001, and when the company becomes profitable — sometime within the next 12 months, he says — the company will contribute 25 percent of pre-tax profits to organizations that educate the public and help preserve the world's marine resources.
The National Audubon Society is one such group, and is a member of EcoFish's Seafood Advisory Board. Carrie Brownstein, who heads its "Living Oceans Program," says that EcoFish is simply responding to people's desires for a sustainable seafood supplier.
"EcoFish is making an effort to get their information from a broad range of sources," Brownstein said. "It's not just about recognizing where profits can be made. Companies like EcoFish are making choices available."
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