How sustainably-sourced tinned fish company Fishwife is tackling a dusty pantry staple
Fishwife is offering a sustainable take on tinned fish by breathing new life into the cans in the back of our cabinets.
By carbon footprint, seafood’s environmental impact is much less than, say, meat and dairy products. But overfishing, plastic pollution, trawling that damages the sea floor and bycatch (the snaring of unintended fish) all threaten marine ecosystems growing only more fragile due to climate change – even as demand for seafood increases worldwide, with global sales growing by 5.8% each year.
To support sustainable practices in the $167 billion seafood sector, millennials and Gen Z shoppers are increasingly turning to traceable, responsibly-sourced fish. And, more than ever, they’re fishing for brands developing seafood stand-ins from plant-based ingredients such as the algae, koji iron, and beets of Kuleana, or the cell-derived salmon from Wild Type. At one brand, called Fishwife, entrepreneurs Becca Millstein and Caroline Goldfarb are looking to contribute to the trend by breathing new life into a dusty pantry staple.
Close friends and roommates during the early months of the pandemic, Millstein and Goldfarb were hiking outside Los Angeles a couple of months into the city’s lockdown in May 2020 when they decided to work on a modern take on tinned fish. The two shared a love for conservas culture – casual, convenient dining based on preserved foods they had experienced on travels in Portugal and Spain – and saw the opportunity to bring an ethically-sourced, sustainable tinned seafood product to market in the U.S.
“I think people have been hiding in the shadows, eating tinned fish,” says Millstein of early customer feedback. “People would come to me and say, ‘this is so weird, but I’m actually eating tinned fish like three times a week.’ And I’d say, ‘People are telling us that every day, so it's categorically not weird.”
Some of the canned food market’s popularity in recent months has likely come as a result of panic-buying at grocery stores in the early months of the spread of COVID-19. But, driven by urban populations seeking out easy, protein-rich food, the market was already experiencing steady growth. Beyond convenience, Millstein says new restaurants like Saltie Girl in Boston, focused on conservas, and the natural wine movement have brought renewed attention and a cool factor to tinned food brands.
“People just come to us time and time again saying, ‘I opened my tuna can and expected the chunk light' (that their parents fed them growing up) 'but this is gorgeous,'” says Millstein.
After Fishwife debuted in December with domestically-sourced, traceable, and antibiotic-free Albacore tuna and Alaskan salmon, the company sold out of its inventory five times, even as the company tripled inventory volume. When fully stocked, Fishwife has averaged 50% month-over-month growth, mostly driven by word-of-mouth, its Instagram, and press coverage. Bootstrapped since they started working on the idea last spring, Millstein and Goldfarb recently closed a pre-seed round of funding.
"The most exciting and somewhat surprising thing is that it's sort of taken off like wildfire," says Millstein. "All of our growth has been organic, we haven't done any sort of paid advertising of any kind."
Fishwife sources its product directly from West Coast canneries that work with small-business fishermen and women, such as Kat Murphy, who use hook and line (the best way to reduce bycatch) or gillnetting, and fish in well-managed areas. The company is launching a new product, rainbow trout, on Friday from a farm in Idaho.
Fishwife has to restart its sourcing process for reach new fish it adds to its offerings, Millstein says. “It's just very, very complicated. There's really no cheat code to it, so it's just cold calling so many canneries and fisherpeople and trying to find a way to make it all work, and also to make it scalable, which is really probably one of the biggest challenges.”
The canning process, Millstein, argues, offers sustainability benefits beyond the product’s shelf life of six years. “It's been shown to decrease the frequency of our food waste because, with our product, it's made for one meal,” says Millstein. “They're in aluminum cans that are 100% recyclable packaging, and that’s much better than any sort of plastic packaging.”
With consumers growing ever more discerning about sustainability claims, slapping a label on a brand and calling it sustainable doesn’t cut it anymore, especially in the food industry. What qualifies as sustainable in seafood is especially complicated. “The way that we think about intersectionality and identity politics are the closest corollary that I can think of,” she says of how to define sustainability. “That's how we need to be thinking about sustainability [in seafood]. Because it's not just about the species, it's not just about the region that's being fished, and it's not just about who was catching it – it’s all of those things in combination.”
How does Fishwife recommend finding the most sustainable options when buying seafood? “The best choice you can make is going to your local vendors, like your farmers markets, if you have them, and buying from the fishermen that are there,” Millstein says. “The chances of those people having huge fishing operations and perpetuating any other sort of form that you see in [Seaspiracy] is extremely, extremely low.”
“The second thing would be to check out the Monterey Bay Seafood Watch list because that will really give you the real and most helpful science-based resource that we have available to us,” she says, adding that the list helps Fishwife direct its own sourcing practices. Industry certifications can be a useful guidepost, too. “Beyond that, I am definitely inclined to trust ASC and MSC-certified companies, they have incredibly high standards. It's really, really hard to get these certifications," she says. "As a consumer, I trust them.”
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