Fish Stories

Fish Stories

It may seem a long way from Santiago, Chile, in 1992 to Copenhagen in 2009, but in these days of globalization it’s a distance that’s all too easy to travel.

The meetings that began in Denmark have provoked all kinds of consternation in the transportation world, but over here the meetings provoked the recollection of shipping history that began in a dim boardroom in the shadow of the Andes Mountains, runs through the Smithsonian Institution in Washington and ends up, well, on the dinner plate.

Santiago was where a group of Chilean shippers and airline executives diagramed for us the ambitious plans for the country’s relatively small but rapidly growing aquaculture industry. They were right about salmon farming: The industry grew eightfold in 15 years and, according to the World Wildlife Fund, shipped some 378,000 tons of salmon in 2006 worth nearly $2.2 billion, making it Chile’s third-largest export.

In fact, the fishing industry was one of the world’s transportation success stories noted in a beautiful exhibit at the Smithsonian five years ago that included an interactive map allowing you to track how food moved around the world at different points during the last century.

Once a delicacy for only fine restaurants, salmon has become ubiquitous thanks to the combination of fish farming, tight supply chain management and the availability of ready and relatively cheap — in expedited shipping terms, in any case —air freight.

And that’s the problem. There may be countless ways to reduce the environmental impact of those salmon shipments, to package them more efficiently and lower their carbon profile on a unit basis, and so on. But as Peter Tirschwell notes in his commentary on page 70, the day is coming when it no longer will be good enough for transportation carriers and shippers to talk about reducing emissions on a per-unit basis. The transportation world already is under pressure to reduce pollutants not in abstract terms but in an absolute sense.

That’s the message in California, where even amid the war of words being waged over the clean-trucks plans at the ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach, the measures of pollutants from both ports show a real reduction in emissions over the last year.

And there are more gains to be found in better management of supply chains and work by shippers in concert with transportation providers.

As a column in The New York Times noted last week, there would be enormous emissions savings if those fresh salmon shipments jetting around the world were frozen and moved instead by container ship. Ocean carriers haul plenty of frozen fish, of course, but there is a premium on the fresh variety that could be conquered. There is a ready model for the expansion of seaborne transport of refrigerated perishables in New Zealand, which has exported frozen lamb since the 19th century.

Finding new shipping strategies is one way transportation carriers and their customers can stave off the impact of environmental regulation, and maybe even turn it into new business.

Paul Page is editorial director of The Journal of Commerce. He can be contacted at 202-355-1170, or at Follow Paul Page on Twitter,