- Coastal communities in the Pacific Northwest are looking for ways to increase the diversity of their economies in order to reduce the negative impacts of cyclic economic swings. The economic base of many coastal communities is directly tied to healthy, dynamic working waterfronts through fishing, recreation, tourism, ports, and allied businesses – such as seafood processing. Seafood processing is an example of a water-dependent, value-added industry that creates local living-wage jobs and generates real income for coastal economies.
Seafood processors, especially small firms, face many business challenges. They require adequate infrastructure such as accessible and well-maintained ports, efficient transportation networks, and cold storage. Seafood processors must also find ways to compete in a global seafood market. Business issues they must contend with include:
• Unpredictable fish supplies and fishery regulations.
• Increased competition from new product forms and international suppliers.
• Increased marketing complexity. This includes justifying higher product prices by developing a specialty product niche, adapting to changing consumer preferences and market drivers, and managing food safety and environmental certification issues.
• Industry consolidation and the need to work cooperatively in order to achieve the economies of scale necessary to access short supply chains.
Micro-canners (small seafood canners and distributors) at the 2006 Micro-canners Conference in Astoria, Oregon suggested a project to study the feasibility of a cooperation-based business model that could help their industry expand and achieve greater success. The Community Seafood Initiative (CSI) of Astoria received grant funding for a study with the following goals:
1. Determine if a significant number of Pacific Northwest micro-canners believe that a cooperation-based program would help them achieve greater market share, lower business costs, increase profitability, and support business growth.
2. If a cooperative program is viewed favorably by micro-canners, assist them in developing and implementing the program.
A cross section of the 45+ micro-canners in Oregon, Washington, and northern California were interviewed in 2007. Highlights from the survey include:
• A majority of the micro-canners interviewed indicated they would join a cooperation-based business model and contribute 1-2% of sales towards its maintenance.
• The primary business challenge is product supply – getting enough fish to process – with salmon being the largest problem due to restricted fishing seasons. Marketing programs are also a business problem, especially for micro-canners who focus on wholesale distribution.
• The most desired area for market expansion is wholesale sales to health and gourmet-oriented grocery outlets.
• Marketing is the primary service a shared business model could provide to members.
• Micro-canners use diverse business strategies (processing, distribution, direct retail sales, internet sales) and multiple simultaneous strategies are the rule.
• A majority of micro-canners have a retail storefront. The retail outlet provides the major source of canning-related revenue for many of them, indicating a close tie to the level of coastal tourism.
• Most micro-canners are already cooperating with other micro-canners in some way.
• Not all micro-canners want to grow their business. They are unlikely to join a cooperation-based organization.
• Few micro-canners would support a classic cooperative due to fears of losing their company’s uniqueness and individuality. Suspicions of the motives of others in the industry were also evident during the survey.
Based on the survey feedback, two possible business models were presented to the project’s volunteer Advisory Committee: a CSI-driven association (an association but with elements of a cooperative) and a CSI-assisted association. The Advisory Committee preferred the CSI-driven association despite its cooperative-like aspects because they felt it had the best chance of achieving the goal of expansion into health/gourmet grocery outlets. The Advisory Committee felt that a trade association, which by necessity would focus on generic issues common to all micro-canners, would not achieve market growth results significant enough to sustain membership levels.
The next phase of the Micro-canners Project is for the Community Seafood Initiative’s Board of Directors to review the Advisory Committee’s recommendation and decide on future project funding and support.
Establishing a cooperation-based business model for Pacific Northwest micro-canners will not be without risk yet holds the potential for large rewards. West coast state governments recognize that many coastal, water-dependent industries are inter-related. If the micro-canning industry can work together to increase the market for their specialty seafood products, not only will they improve their own financial circumstances, they will also indirectly stabilize the business of the fishermen that supply them with product. Increasing the stability of one coastal-dependent business sector can improve the stability of related sectors. An investment in a cooperation-based business model for coastal micro-canners that allows them to increase their economies of scale, access more supply chains, diversify their product portfolio, and expand their specialty market niche could have significant positive coastal economic impacts – much broader impacts than the micro-canners themselves.