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Can the Seafood Industry Catch a Break During COVID-19?

ANYA SCHULTZ, HOST: When most Americans want seafood, they go out to eat. In fact, in the U.S., about 70 percent of fish is eaten outside the home. So, now that restaurants are closed, the seafood industry has been thrown for a loop. Drew Cherry is the editor in chief of the international seafood publication, IntraFish. We spoke about how New York seafood suppliers will need to find new ways of getting fish to consumers.

DREW CHERRY: Seafood kind of passes through a lot of different hands before it gets to your plate. A lot of, for example, smoked salmon companies, let's say Acme smoked fish, which is there in Brooklyn. Acme has a big presence in retail and a big presence in food service. So a company like that has to be thinking now. All right, how do we pivot? How do we pivot to retail and find a new way to sell our products? Because interestingly enough, as people have been staying more in their homes and doing more fresh delivery and things like that there's been a huge boom in retail sales for seafood.

SCHULTZ: Is that switch to retail really going to make a dent in the sales that are lost for restaurants? And is there even infrastructure for that switch to be viable?

CHERRY: It's not going to be easy because you have to be able to retool your factory, for example, if you're talking about larger suppliers. Retail packs, as you see them on the shelves, for example, let’s take smoked salmon again. You know, that's a pretty unique way of presenting - you have to have your brand on it, you have to have particular sizes for retailers. So moving from food service business, where they might just sell whole size of smoked salmon or even whole whitefish, for example, at deli counters. It's not so simple as just slapping a retail logo on that and selling it into that different channel. There's a lot of global markets for seafood. So a lot of U.S. product ends up being exported. So I think that the challenge is going to be for smaller scale fishermen to ensure that they have buyers for their products. But things like people delivering fish that might help move people away from where they might have been traditionally selling into restaurants.

SCHULTZ: So you're saying that kind of right now it's the local smaller scale fishery operations that might be in danger, but they also might benefit when people start thinking more about consuming locally.

CHERRY: Yeah. I mean, I think that sort of the overwhelming volume of seafood that's consumed is going to be things like fish fingers or shrimp in restaurants. So it's these big like bulk products that we see in stores everywhere, those are gonna be fine. And in fact, those are selling a lot more. And canned tuna, for example, is having a golden moment right now because everybody is getting in their prepper mode. But if you live on the coast, it's a lot easier for you to get fresh fish and and get kind of local species. But, certainly that's not really something most people are going to do. Americans are pretty finicky and we're pretty lazy. So we just want to grab something and throw it on the grill.

SCHULTZ: What about consumers and the choices they make? People love to, let's say, eat oysters at restaurants, but you don't see them eating oysters at home as much. So are we going to see consumer habits changing, people missing seafood and wanting to cook it at home?

CHERRY: Well, probably not oysters unless people are more than willing to have their hands slashed open. So, I've never successfully opened one. But I do think that the consumers are going to begin to eat more seafood in their home. But it's really going to be, I think, dependent on a couple of factors. And one is the meat shock that we're seeing right now with all of these plants closing. These major meat manufacturers are having these massive COVID outbreaks. So that may give a lift to seafood. It may give an opening for, hey, there's this other protein out there. You can't get you can't get your hamburger. Well, maybe people might try filet of salmon.

SCHULTZ: Okay, Drew, well thank you so much for talking with us today.

CHERRY: Anytime.

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