The gender of sustainable seafood

In my recently published article on women’s health and seafood, there’s a short bit on how third party sustainable seafood certifiers don’t do a good job of providing information about health risks and benefits. This is based on my observations, as I have followed the movement since the 90’s. At the ripe age of 9, I began my journey into animal rights and a decade as a vegetarian. At the time, I had to accept the label of “lacto-ovo-pesctarian”. My dad convinced me that our halibut and salmon fisheries were sustainably managed, I loved eating fish, and I didn’t have the same sensitivity towards fish that I did towards animals raised in CAFOs. So, if we “gender analyze” that interaction- an older male strongly influenced a young woman’s eating habits…hmm… I think we’ll see this pattern again!

Another incident I described in the article occurred at Sustainable Seafood Week. I tried to help other attendees understand the relevance of women’s perception of risk and how they interact with the seafood market, and I suggested that it needed to be addressed by the industry. The response was surprising. It was almost as if the men were personally offended, and I swear one rolled his eyes when I spoke. If I were a more sensitive person, I would have been personally offended by their responses, but I’m really more offended on behalf of women seafood consumers. Why would a food producer go “meh” at the chance to expand their market and build loyal customers? Because it would be acknowledging that women have a legitimate concern and have the right to know exactly what toxins are in their seafood, and that goes against the entire history of modern seafood production.

I’d like to elaborate on this, because what I see in the sustainable seafood movement is grounded in a tendency towards gender-blindness in the entire environmental movement. This gender-blindness means that sustainable seafood promoters think they can advise the public about seafood without considering the gender of consumers.  This completely fails seafood consumers of every gender, who are often eating seafood because a) they like the taste and/or b) they have been told ‘seafood is healthy’.

The tricky part is– how do people weigh the risks and benefits to their health or the risks of unsustainable fishing practices? If you’re interested in the fat or toxin content  in your seafood, you might have noticed that the original sustainable seafood recommendations didn’t come with great nutritional information. I certainly noticed. And over the years, sustainable seafood recommendations have increased the nutritional information available, and on some sites you can now rank seafood by sustainability rating, omega 3 content, and mercury content. Still, there are problems with sustainable seafood.

  1. A seafood gets labelled “unsustainable” and then people get so entrenched with the old research, or one study, that when fishing practices do change, consumers still won’t accept it. Women have higher brand loyalty, and so obviously this hurts the industry.
  2. Consumers have been pushed into choosing environmental sustainability over human health, because most people don’t really understand the risks and benefits of seafood nutrition. Women are often the controller of nutrition in the household and choose food more often based on nutrition. And that’s not a bad thing, but it means to me they need better information, because perceived risk impacts brand loyalty.
  3. Women’s grocery budgets are fixed depending on how many mouths they have to feed (and we can see how women’s incomes really vary by race). So it’s not fair to women to say, “You should only be buying wild PNW fish” and then try to guilt them into it based on sustainability standards, because the cost of the local products just doesn’t compare in the grocery store.

Still not convinced that gender matters in the seafood industry? Check out this research:

Top 5 Foods more likely ordered by women for dinner take-out (2014 GrubHub study)

1. Seaweed Salad – more than 62% more commonly ordered by women than men

2. Edamame – more than 57% more commonly ordered by women than men

3. Avocado Rolls – nearly 55% more commonly ordered by women than men

4. Shrimp Tempura Roll – more than 51% more commonly ordered by women than men

5. House Salad – more than 49% more commonly ordered by women than men

Do these items sound familiar? If you run a sushi restaurant, or cook a lot of seafood, you probably already have great reflections on the gender of your consumers (See? Gender analysis doesn’t have to be that difficult!). So next time you go for sushi, do a quick head count of how many women are in the room. And next time you’re standing at a seafood counter, listen to the questions women are asking, because I would love to hear your reflections and observations.