Sea to Table, the industry leader in wild-caught, sustainable seafood, is defending in a July 17, 2018 statement its reputation after being the subject of a questionable Associated Press article. “My father and I started this business with the belief that we could make a real change in how people thought about and purchased seafood. Since 2010 we’ve worked exclusively with US wild-caught fisheries and a US customer base to together create the national gold standard for the seafood supply chain,” said Sean Dimin, Founder of Sea to Table.
Sea to Table has long worked to bring transparency into the highly complex world of seafood logistics. The father/son team spent years travelling all around the US, meeting with fishermen and processors, proposing a new, more direct path to market, bringing greater accountability to a historically dubious industry. Sea to Table, a certified B-Corp, now works with more than 50 coastal businesses all across America, distributing only domestically-caught seafood processed in the US. The company has been recognized by numerous news outlets including New York Times, PBS and National Geographic as adding integrity to the complex seafood supply chain, a difficult and challenging mission. “We’re working to bring a culture change to an industry where a compromised supply chain has been accepted for decades. The AP’s reporting has damaged years of effort and takes away from the US fishermen and coastal businesses that desperately need and deserve our collective support. It’s a very unfortunate case of killing the good because everything is not yet perfect,” added Dimin.
As AP’s Reporting is Questioned, It Doubles Down
In efforts of transparency and prior to publishing their first article, AP reporters were invited to speak with employees who operate our supply chain, but ignored the invitation to meet. Further, the AP reporters were introduced to key suppliers and industry experts to provide third-party context as validation of Sea to Table’s work, and again, declined the invitations. Once presented with claims, AP reporters were provided documentation and commentary that challenged their allegations, none of which were taken into account.
Since the article’s publication, Sea to Table has been in touch with the AP editorial team, requesting a meeting to discuss their misleading claims. Dimin has also requested documentation related to DNA testing, which was described as “preliminary,” but on which rested a good portion of the article’s claims. The outreach was done in the spirit of honest reporting, and to provide a balanced view of the situation. Unfortunately, the company’s requests to meet and obtain documentation were flatly denied. The AP also confirmed they will be moving forward with a second article, having apparently spoken with disgruntled former employees.
“Small businesses like Sea to Table are not equipped to defend themselves against an international news organization like the Associated Press,” said Sean Dimin. “Sea to Table is a mission-based organization dedicated to bringing integrity and transparency to the seafood supply chain while celebrating America’s fishing culture. Our team is fully dedicated to this purpose. We are proud of who we are and are proud of our work.”
Many Sea to Table customers, fearing association with something controversial and more focused on the perception than the truth, have stopped working with the company. This has significantly impacted Sea to Table as well as dozens of fishermen and coastal businesses across the US.
Support of Sea to Table Offered Up to AP
Industry experts have since weighed in responding to the initial AP story:
“While at first the article appears to offer a well-thought out investigation into a subject that is worthwhile and important, it is intellectually dishonest and misleading,” said Dave Rudie, President of Catalina Offshore Products and Chair of the Highly Migratory Species subpanel for the Pacific Fishery Management Council. “The authors became sidetracked, villainizing Sea to Table and failing to show objectivity. I received a call from one of the AP reporters before the article went to press, but my comments were not included,” added Rudie.
“The sector needs companies like Sea to Table,” said Eddie Allison, PH.D. Professor of Marine and Environmental Affairs, School of Aquatic and Fisheries Sciences, University of Washington. “Yes, we should scrutinize them carefully and evaluate their claims, but I am not sure we gain anything if we chase out the most committed change agents by making a big case out of their small failings. There are bigger fish to fry.”
“In their quest to document seafood fraud and human rights abuse one has to wonder why the AP reporters have gone after a company that is trying to be among the best,” said Ray Hilborn, Professor at the School of Aquatic and Fishery Sciences, University of Washington. “Even if the majority of the AP accusations were true, Sea to Table would still be among the most reliable suppliers of fish to American markets. Sea to Table and other companies that try to link consumers to fish of known source are not ‘preying’ on consumers’ good intentions but attempting to further fisheries sustainability and good management practice.”
Building a Solution for Scale
There exists a small community within the seafood industry dedicated to reinventing the way Americans think about and gain access to high quality seafood. Community Supported Fisheries (CSF) are one model built upon the example of Community Supported Agriculture (CSA). Farmers markets, which aggregate the harvests of multiple producers within a self-imposed geographic limit, have become commonplace to give consumers access to local food. Sea to Table builds on this idea of a more direct connection with seafood, and faces the challenge of “local” not being as easily defined when it comes to seafood. Unlike domestically grown produce and meat, the US imports over 90 percent of seafood from international sources while exporting the majority of the fish harvested in US waters. “To us, local is domestic, and a vast improvement in the directness of readily available seafood. We connect what is sustainably caught with what consumers can purchase and eat,” said Dimin.
As Sea to Table grew, tackling larger-scale issues and building reliable and consistent access to sustainable seafood, there were growing pains. The business has been funded solely by the founders’ personal savings and has taken in no outside equity investment to date, borrowing money from a social finance lender who believes in the company’s mission. Like many food businesses, seafood works on razor thin margins with little room for error. Sea to Table has experienced many of the same issues as other disruptors championing a better way to improve old industry ways. “We feel the greatest asset to our business is to be open and transparent about our practices. There are specific opportunities for us to improve our systems and communication, and we will continue to do so, knowing that our work is making real positive change,” added Dimin.
Message to Sea to Table Customers
“Our goal is comprehensive traceability of wild seafood from capture to consumption, and we are working towards that goal,” said Dimin. “Sea to Table and its processes are not yet perfect but we stand committed to driving positive change. We are improving every day, but please put the AP’s reporting in context. Our job is not to fixate on the AP’s motives, rather it is to accept scrutiny and to continue working to bring the best, most sustainable, ethically-harvested and traceable seafood to American consumers.”
Source of JUL. 17, 2018 PR: https://www.sea2table.com/blog/news/sea-to-table-reiterates-unwavering-commitment-to-sustainable-seafood/
NB: see https://www.voanews.com/a/ap-investigation-local-fish-supply-chain/4437733.html (AP, 13.06.2018)
AP Investigation: Local Fish Isn’t Always Local
MONTAUK, NEW YORK —
Caterers in Washington tweeted a photo of maroon sashimi appetizers served to 700 guests attending the governor’s inaugural ball last year. They were told the tuna was from Montauk.
But it was an illusion. It was the dead of winter and no yellowfin had been landed in the New York town.
An Associated Press investigation traced the supply chain of national distributor Sea To Table to other parts of the world, where fishermen described working under slave-like conditions with little regard for marine life.
In a global seafood industry plagued by deceit, conscientious consumers will pay top dollar for what they believe is local, sustainably caught seafood. But even in this fast-growing niche market, companies can hide behind murky dealings, making it difficult to know the story behind any given fish.
Sea To Table said by working directly with 60 docks along U.S. coasts it could guarantee the fish was wild, domestic and traceable — sometimes to the fisherman.
The New York-based company quickly rose in the sustainable seafood movement. While it told investors it had $13 million in sales last year, it expected growth to $70 million by 2020. The distributor earned endorsement from the Monterey Bay Aquarium and garnered media attention from Bon Appetit, Forbes and many more. Its clientele included celebrity chef Rick Bayless, Roy’s seafood restaurants, universities and home delivery meal kits such as HelloFresh.
As part of their investigation, reporters staked out America’s largest fish market, followed trucks and interviewed fishermen who worked on three continents. During a bone-chilling week, they set up a time-lapse camera at Montauk harbor that showed no tuna boats docking. The AP also had a chef order $500 worth of fish sent “directly from the landing dock to your kitchen,” but the boat listed on the receipt hadn’t been there in at least two years.
Preliminary DNA tests suggested the fish likely came from the Indian Ocean or the Western Central Pacific. There are limitations with the data because using genetic markers to determine the origins of species is still an emerging science, but experts say the promising new research will eventually be used to help fight illegal activity in the industry.
Some of Sea To Table’s partner docks on both coasts, it turned out, were not docks at all. They were wholesalers or markets, flooded with imports.
The distributor also offered species that were farmed, out of season or illegal to catch.
“It’s sad to me that this is what’s going on,” said chef Bayless, who hosts a PBS cooking series. He had worked with Sea To Table because he liked being tied directly to fishermen — and the “wonderful stories” about their catch. “This throws quite a wrench in all of that.”
Other customers who responded to AP said they were frustrated and confused.
Sea To Table response
Sea To Table owner Sean Dimin stressed that his suppliers are prohibited from sending imports to customers and added violators would be terminated.
“We take this extremely seriously,” he said.
Dimin also said he communicated clearly with chefs that some fish labeled as freshly landed at one port were actually caught and trucked in from other states. But customers denied this, and federal officials described it as mislabeling.
The AP focused on tuna because the distributor’s supplier in Montauk, the Bob Gosman Co., was offering chefs yellowfin tuna all year round, even when federal officials said there were no landings in the entire state.
Almost nightly, Gosman’s trucks drove three hours to reach the New Fulton Fish Market, where they picked up boxes of fish bearing shipping labels from all over the world.
Owner Bryan Gosman said some of the tuna that went to Sea To Table was caught off North Carolina and then driven 700 miles to Montauk. That practice ended in March, he said, because it wasn’t profitable. While 70 percent of his yellowfin tuna is imported, he said that fish is sold to local restaurants and sushi bars and kept separate from Sea To Table’s products.
“Can things get mixed up? It could get mixed up,” he said. “Is it an intentional thing? No, not at all.”
Some of Gosman’s foreign supply came from Land, Ice and Fish, in Trinidad and Tobago.
The AP interviewed and reviewed complaints from more than a dozen Indonesian fishermen who said they earned $1.50 a day, working 22 hours at a time, on boats that brought yellowfin to Land, Ice and Fish’s compound. They described finning sharks and occasionally cutting off whale and dolphin heads, extracting their teeth as good luck charms.
“We were treated like slaves,” said Sulistyo, an Indonesian who worked on one of those boats and gave only one name, fearing retaliation. “They treat us like robots without any conscience.”
Though it’s nearly impossible to tell where a specific fish ends up, or what percentage of a company’s seafood is fraudulent, even one bad piece taints the entire supply chain.
Dimin said the labor and environmental abuses are “abhorrent and everything we stand against.”
For caterers serving at the ball for Washington Governor Jay Inslee, who successfully pushed through a law to combat seafood mislabeling, knowing where his fish came from was crucial.
The Montauk tuna came with a Sea To Table leaflet describing the romantic, seaside town and the quality of the fish. A salesperson did send them an email saying the fish was caught off North Carolina. But the boxes came from New York and there was no indication it had landed in another state and was trucked to Montauk. A week later, the caterer ordered Montauk tuna again. This time the invoice listed a boat whose owner later told AP he didn’t catch anything for Sea To Table at that time.
“I’m kind of in shock right now,” said Brandon LaVielle of Lavish Roots Catering. “We felt like we were supporting smaller fishing villages.”
Sea to Table founder: Don’t let perfect be enemy of good
Sea to Table founder Sean Dimin has at last responded to the Associated Press expose that reported finding his New York-based seafood source certification company not doing its job, alleging that the news service cut corners in its reporting and failed to deliver a complete picture of his organization’s work.
AP described in its story, published June 13, how it staked out America’s largest fish market, in New York, used time-lapse photography, conducted DNA tests, and interviewed fishermen working on three different continents to raise questions about seafood that was guaranteed by Sea to Table as being sourced locally and/or from companies that employed upstanding practices.
As a result of the article, many of the companies previously participating in the Sea to Table program have left for fear of being associated with the controversy, as they are “more focused on the perception than the truth,” Dimin said in a statement released Wednesday.
But Dimin, who started Sea to Table with his father in 2010, said he is proud of the work accomplished by his group and suggests the AP could have done a more thorough and fair job in its reporting. It spurned offers by the organization to speak with employees, key suppliers and industry experts before publishing its article, he said. It did not take into account provided documentation and commentary that challenged the allegations.
Additionally, he said, AP’s editorial team has declined requests by Sea to Table to meet since the story’s publication and also to review the documentation related to DNA testing, which was described as “preliminary”.
A second article is coming that is expected to involve interviews with disgruntled former employees, Dimin said he has been informed.
“Small businesses like Sea to Table are not equipped to defend themselves against an international news organization like the Associated Press,” he said in his statement.
“…We’re working to bring a culture change to an industry where a compromised supply chain has been accepted for decades. The AP‘s reporting has damaged years of effort and takes away from the US fishermen and coastal businesses that desperately need and deserve our collective support. It’s a very unfortunate case of killing the good because everything is not yet perfect.”
Journalists’ investigation targets US distributor’s traceability claims
An investigative story from the Associated Press, which three years ago reported on slavery in the seafood supply chain, has questioned the traceability and local origins of a US distributor.
The story published June 13, “AP Investigation: Local fish isn’t always local”, focuses on New York-based distributor Sea to Table, which it described as a “darling of the sustainable seafood movement”. The company has been lauded by meal-kit delivery service HelloFresh and used by celebrity chef Rick Bayliss.
However, according to the AP, in at least one instance tuna supplied by the company that was supposed to have come fresh from New York, likely came instead from Asia.
“As part of its reporting, the AP staked out America’s largest fish market, followed trucks and interviewed fishermen who worked on three continents. During a bone-chilling week, they set up a camera that shot more than 36,000 time-lapse photos of a Montauk harbor, showing no tuna boats docking. At the same time, AP worked with a chef to order fish supposedly coming from the seaside town. The boat listed on the receipt hadn’t been there in at least two years,” the article states.
The article also quotes a Indonesian fisherman who worked for a Sea to Table vendor who said that he and his coworkers were “treated like slaves”.
In response to the claims that Sea to Table’s claims of traceability and locally-caught fish fell short, the company called the allegations “frankly heartbreaking”.
“Sea to Table places a high amount of trust in all our partners. If the reporter’s allegations are accurate, the third party supplier singled out, Gosman’s, would be in clear breach of the spirit and contractual agreement that we have with them,” Sea to Table said in a letter on its website. “As we further investigate, we have discontinued our working relationship with Gosman’s. The idea that we could be associated – even very loosely – with an organization that engages in poor labor practices is outright horrifying to us.”