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Blue North has launched at Seafood Expo North America its Human Harvest Initiative HHI, which the Seattle-based company said was the first such program of its kind for wild-caught fish. Blue North's primary product is wild Alaska line-caught cod.
"The Humane Harvest Initiative (HHI) is built on the recognition that wild fish are sentient beings that deserve to be harvested humanely," noted Blue North President and CEO Kenny Down. "This initiative represents a major step forward for Blue North, furthering our goal to provide the purest, healthiest whole food to our customers while at the same time being conscientious about how we treat marine life."
In an interview with Progressive Grocer during the Boston-based expo, Blue North founder and Chairman Michael Burns explained that the initiative grew out of the company's decision to design a new fishing vessel, for which they went to Norway to gather ideas on a design that would be less physically demanding for the fishermen, such as enabling them to work inside the ship and not have to gaff (hook) the fish anymore. During this process, Burns had a realization: "If we’re going to be nicer to the crewmen, then we should be nicer to the fish."
Inspired by humane slaughter practices in the cattle industry, Blue North, which has a history of sustainable practices, looked at scientific research indicating that if stress is reduced in animals before slaughter, the muscle quality and nutritional value are better. As a result, the company adopted the practice of rendering fish unconscious before slaughter through percussive stunning – a blow to the head. Burns noted that Blue North was also experimenting with electrical stunning, adding that both methods were used by fish farms, but had not previously been used for wild-caught fish. And so HHI was born.
In addition to a label that will eventually appear on the humanely slaughtered fish at retail, Blue North is currently working on criteria that Burns likened to the Global Animal Partnership welfare standards used by Whole Foods Market. He observed that the period between removing the fish from the water and stunning it still had to be dealt with, although it was only a matter of seconds, with the "ideal" being able to stun the fish in the water, so as to create the least amount of stress possible.
According to Burns, the new vessel – the first of an envisioned fleet – will launch in mid-fall of 2015 and HHI would be fully up and running by the end of the year, with expected interest from supermarkets with commitments to high-quality seafood, and high-end restaurants. Asked how the price of fish slaughtered under the initiative would compare with conventionally caught product, Burns admitted that there would be a premium but didn't know yet what it would be. He was confident, however, that sustainability-minded consumers wouldn't find the fish too expensive to purchase. "We want it to be accepted," he stressed.
Although HHI is rolling out with respect to Blue North's cod offering, Burns said it could easily expand to some of the company's other fish, which include turbot. He also urged other companies to join in by adopting HHI's criteria, once completed.
According to Burns, Blue North's initiative and the new vessel "take fish a step further, from a commodity product to something consumer-ready and more valuable, more of a food business." He described this juncture as the dawn of a "new age."