In February, Whole Foods Market in Portland started stocking pouches of fish-free tuna from Good Catch next to cans of traditional tuna. Photo courtesy of Good Catch.

On a recent chilly evening, Amybeth Hurst made a tuna casserole at her Old Orchard Beach home. Why was this noteworthy? Because the recipe she used included no actual tuna fish. Instead, she made the casserole with the fish-free tuna from Good Catch, which Whole Foods Market in Portland began stocking in February.

“It was very tasty, and the texture was spot on,” Hurst told me.

Instead of fish, this “tuna” is made from chickpea flour, navy bean flour, lentil protein, pea protein isolate, seaweed powder and algae oil. Good Catch is among a wave of new companies offering vegan versions of fish and seafood. Other newcomers include Ocean Hugger’s plant-based sushi tuna, Prime Roots’ fish-free salmon burger and New Wave Foods’ vegan shrimp.

A slightly older company, Sophie’s Kitchen (founded in 2011), produces a suite of plant-based seafoods, such as crab cakes, fish fillets, scallops, tuna and smoked salmon. More established brands Quorn and Gardein also offer plant-based seafood as part of their wider meat-free options.

“It’s definitely a rapidly rising trend,” said Cliff White, executive editor of SeafoodSource, a trade publication and interactive website published by Diversified Communications in Portland. “I’m curious to see what happens with it.”

White said these brands “seems to have taken off in the last two to three years” as the demand for vegan foods has skyrocketed, adding that “investors are looking at it as a growth industry.”

Michele Simon heads the Plant Based Foods Association, a D.C.-based trade group for companies that make plant-based food. She said while the organization doesn’t track the size or growth of the vegan seafood industry, it does measure the sector as a whole.

“Plant-based food sales were up 20 percent last year,” Simon said. “And we expect that number to continue to grow.”

This growth rate, coupled with the vegan trend’s track record of stealing customers from animal-based foods, is stirring debate within the seafood industry.

White at SeafoodSource said vegan seafood companies exhibiting at trade shows is “one of the biggest controversies” in the industry right now. Diversified Communications organizes multiple Seafood Expo events in cities around the world each year, and in the past few years plant-based seafood brands have become regular exhibitors.

Opinions differ, White said, about “whether to embrace these vegan seafood companies and welcome them into the industry or to fight them and exclude them.”

Dominic Welling is a London-based senior reporter for trade publication IntraFish, where he recently penned an opinion piece warning that if today’s kids grow up eating vegan seafood they’ll think plant-based seafood brands “are the equivalent, or even better version, of actual seafood.”

Welling offers the cautionary tale of plant-based milks and how they’ve replaced cow’s milk in many grocery carts. “Whatever your views on people’s dietary choices,” Welling continues in his column, “this rise in vegan seafood has the potential to be quite damaging to the seafood category.”

I agree with Welling that the seafood industry should be paying attention to this trend because plant-based brands pull customers away from traditional animal-based foods, but my take-away is different. Plant-based seafood won’t damage the industry. But it could change it.

That’s because plant-based seafood has the potential to be a disruptive innovation: a product that usurps traditional market leaders and is viewed as an improvement. This same disruptive force is playing out in other animal-based parts of the food industry as customers seek alternative products with health and environmental benefits.

Some are fighting the changes, such as the dairy industry’s attempt to police the labelling of plant-based milks with the Dairy Pride Act in Congress. Others are embracing them, such as Tyson, which recently invested in Beyond Meat (bleeding plant burgers); Memphis Meats (lab-grown beef and chicken); and Elmhurst Dairy, outside New York City, which two years ago transformed into Elmhurst 1925, a processor of plant-based milks.

Good Catch makes no secret about its desire to convert customers who buy StarKist, Bumble Bee or Chicken of the Sea tuna into Good Catch fish-free tuna customers instead.

“Good Catch’s mission is to disrupt the seafood category with products consumers want without any of the negatives” such as “mercury, dioxins and other contaminants” said Scott Simons, senior vice president of Good Catch, based in New York City.

Rather than marketing to vegans and vegetarians, Simons said “the target audience is people who love seafood.”

Those are fighting words, since canned tuna sales have plunged more than 40 percent during the past 30 years, according to a Wall Street Journal report last year based on U.S. Department of Agriculture data.

Another Good Catch selling point is its smell, or rather lack of the fishy smell that fills offices and lunchrooms when someone pulls out a traditional tunafish sandwich.

Here in Maine, there hasn’t been much talk about what these new plant-based products could mean for the fishing industry.

“I’ve not heard of this before,” said Ben Martens, executive director of the Maine Coast Fishermen’s Association in Brunswick, when asked about the trend. “That’s interesting that there’s a market for them.”

Martens isn’t aware of anyone in Maine making and selling plant-based seafood, but he did say some Maine fishermen are diversifying by adding aquaculture or kelp-growing operations to supplement traditional fishing.

White at SeafoodSource said many of the vegan seafood brands include seaweed or algae as ingredients and that Maine’s algae and seaweed sector “is one of the largest in the United States, if not the largest.”

To me, this adds up to a ripe opportunity for diversifying Maine fishermen or other entrepreneurs to expand into the plant-based seafood sector.

Back in Old Orchard Beach, Hurst said she used to eat tuna fish before going vegan five years ago, so she was eager to try the plant-based version. But she’s not sure she’ll buy the Good Catch tuna again because of its high price. Whole Foods sells 3.3 ounce pouches of Good Catch fish-free tuna for $4.99, compared to $2.29 for 4 ounces of Whole Foods’ house brand of canned albacore tuna.

“There is such a small amount in the package,” Hurst said of the Good Catch tuna. “It was hardly worth it. That was the only drawback.”

Simons at Good Catch predicts that “costs will come down as manufacturing scales up.” For now, it remains a premium product.

However, Walmart announced at the end of March that their stores would begin stocking the Loma Linda Tuno, another fish-free product. Calls to the Walmarts in Greater Portland didn’t turn up any that had it yet, but on the Walmart website, the 5-ounce cans of Tuno sell for $1.37.

At that price, plant-based seafood’s disruptive potential within the industry could be much more potent.

Avery Yale Kamila is a food writer who lives in Portland. She can be reached at

[email protected]

Twitter/AveryYaleKamila

 

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