Alternative Seafood: An Ocean of Opportunity

Key Takeaways

  • Consumer demand for vegan seafood is on the rise

  • Spain and Singapore are the top alternative seafood markets for consumer goods and retail dining, respectively

  • Effective product messaging is essential for adoption of fish-free products

  • Species-specific seafood alternatives is an emerging segment full of opportunities for product innovation

  • Consumer brands can tap into regional markets by developing products targeting local flavors and style

Full Report

Interest in seafood alternatives is growing exponentially, among consumers, brands and investors alike. Singled out by many as the "next big thing" in alternative protein, the market for fish-friendly alternatives is projected to reach a market size of US $1.6 billion in the next decade, at a compound annual growth rate (CAGR) of 28%. (1)(2) Compared to the traditional fish and shellfish market — currently valued at US $160 billion and growing with CAGR 2.5% — the fish alternatives space is poised to expand significantly. (3) Key drivers of this growth include advancing product innovations as well as rising awareness among socially responsible consumers about overfishing, bycatch, and the environmental impact of traditional fishing supply chains. This report leverages over 800K consumer reviews on the abillion app to identify the top consumer trends in plant-based seafood and valuable product insights for organizations looking to disrupt the industry.

Demand for vegan seafood is expanding rapidly

Spurred by strong consumer interest in ethical and sustainable seafood options, we have witnessed robust consumer interest growth compared to more moderate rates of expansion in product / dish availability. Reviews for ocean-friendly alternatives grew 9.4X since the start of 2020, with exceptionally high growth in Spain, Argentina and the UK. The COVID-19 pandemic disrupted global fishing supply chains, prompting consumers to reevaluate their buying habits and opt for more sustainable choices. More than 25% of the world's seafood comes from China, Norway and Vietnam alone, highlighting global dependence on trade routes with these countries. Production of fish-free options, on the other hand, significantly reduces barriers imposed by location limitations, allowing businesses to place facilities close to where the demand is.

Dining restrictions imposed by COVID-19 stifled demand for plant-based seafood dishes, particularly in regions that experienced prolonged lockdowns. However, we are witnessing a quick rebound in review growth for fish-free dining options as restaurants worldwide reopen for business, and expect growth to accelerate as pre-pandemic dining habits return to normal.

The plant-based seafood landscape started to pivot from marine animal to plant-made seafood in about 2019 right after we debuted our plant-based crab-like cake. Plant-forward seafood department buyers knew plant-based seafoods were forecast to trend in the upcoming year just as the meat, dairy and egg, alternatives were exploding with consumer demand. When we experienced more inquiries for our plant based seafood products than our (award-winning) "real-seafood" products — from around the world as well as domestically — we knew the tide was turning.

- Shelly Van Cleve, The Plant Based Seafood Co, Co-Founder

Spain is the top market for alternative seafood products, while Singapore tops charts for dishes

In terms of consumer packaged goods (CPG), Spain is the top market for plant-based seafood products, followed by the UK. Innovative brands such as Madrid-based Vegan Nutrition are pushing the boundaries of fish alternatives, with niche and highly realistic products like vegan shrimp and langoustine, spurring product demand in the region. On the other hand, 87% of plant-based fish consumption in Singapore is via restaurant dining, making it the top market for fish-free dishes. To meet strong demand from consumers, retail dining players rely on strategic relationships with plant-focused food manufacturers. For example, Growthwell Foods, the group behind restaurants Lotus and Greendot, supplies high quality and versatile seafood alternatives to restaurants across Asia using Konnyaku and ChickP protein.

Singapore also has the highest number of plant-based seafood reviews per reviewer on abillion, indicating high interest among Singaporean consumers. Although a smaller alternative seafood market, the average German consumer also shows heightened interest in fish-free dishes and products compared to other markets, highlighting potential market opportunities.

This points towards an increasing popularity of sustainable living among Singapore consumers due to heightened awareness of environmental, social, and health issues during the global Coronavirus pandemic. (3) Indeed, a survey conducted by Accenture revealed that 60% of respondents were making more environmentally friendly, sustainable, or ethical purchases since the start of the pandemic. (4) Our analysis corroborates findings from the survey and indicates that the global Coronavirus pandemic has elevated Singapore consumers' consciousness of sustainability and health factors when making purchasing decisions.

Asia has this amazing cuisine where seafood plays a big role; in fact, Asia’s consumption of fish and seafood is expected to surpass the rest of the world's consumption within 3 years time. We at Growthwell want to help people in Asia tap into the beauty of making a delicious plant-based seafood meal — not just on "Meatless Monday" or “Fishless Friday," but as part of a lifestyle where plant-based can be a regular option for any day or occasion. We already export to several countries in Asia and this year we are accelerating this further. We are strengthening our position in Malaysia and are planning exports to Thailand, Indonesia, Taiwan and soon China. In addition, in an effort to make plant-based food accessible to everyone, we strive to bring down prices by being involved in bigger parts of the value chain; from working closely with farmers and ingredient makers to investing in our own locally-based production and economies of scale.

- Ronald Dalderup, Growthwell Foods, Chief Marketing Officer

Strong consumer sentiment for fish-free products

Using text processing techniques, we analyzed text written in reviews to derive a sentiment score representing how positively or negatively consumers feel about a given dish or product. Sentiment scores range from -75 (very negative) to 0 (neutral) to +75 (very positive). Comparison of sentiment scores with objective review ratings reveal several interesting patterns; plant-based seafood dishes are consistently rated higher than products across top markets, however sentiment scores nearly equal or exceed that of dishes in Germany, Italy and South Africa.

This suggests that although fish alternative products in these markets may show room for improvement in terms of objective product quality, consumers are generally responding to these products with enthusiasm. This underscores the importance of effective product messaging to consumers, in addition to improvement of the product quality itself. A recent survey conducted by the Good Food Institute found that 78% of consumers would try seafood alternatives based on flavor messaging alone. Furthermore, messaging focused on reducing overfishing and plastic waste associated with commercial fishing is effective in promoting adoption of plant-based fish products. (7) Brands looking to tap into the fish alternative space should therefore be focusing on effective communication of both quality and impact in their product messaging.

Species-specific seafood products in nascent stages

Nearly half of fish-free dishes specify a particular type of fish, with tuna, crab and shrimp the most common. By comparison, only 24% of products make a species-specific claim. Similar to dishes, tuna is also the most frequent fish type among products, where brands such as Good Catch are capturing consumer interest with their plant-based tuna offerings. This is consistent with trends in the traditional seafood market, where tuna is the most consumed fish in the world. Salmon, on the other hand, appears more prominently among CPG products compared to dishes, but is still underrepresented in the plant-based market compared to traditional fish consumption patterns.

Tuna is a massive category that was ripe for disruption with a delicious plant-based alternative. Tuna is the most widely-consumed fin fish on the planet, so it was the place where we felt we could make the most positive impact. We saw the opportunity with consumers looking for plant-based offerings, paired with a tasty plant-based product our team was able to create which matched the taste and texture of animal-based tuna.

- Christopher Lowrey, Good Catch, Brand Director

Drawing from the trends observed for dishes, notable consumer demand for species-specific alternatives points to opportunities in the CPG industry as well. Between 200-300 different species of traditional fish and shellfish are consumed currently — a significantly wider range compared to land animals — highlighting significant white space for new innovation. (9) On abillion, we are witnessing brands like Sophie's Kitchen bring species-specific alternatives to consumers with novel products such as vegan smoked salmon and scallops. Reviews for Sophie's Kitchen products have doubled since this time last year, highlighting sharp interest from consumers. We expect a higher proportion of fish-free products to address specific types of fish in the next 3-5 years, as product development in this space continues to advance.

Comparing review ratings for dishes and products with and without a specific type of fish, dishes with a specified fish type are rated higher by consumers across all criteria compared to dishes without any fish type designation. They are also considered slightly more expensive on average, suggesting that restaurants are able to charge a higher price point for these types of dishes. However, the opposite is true for products; products targeting a specific species of fish underperform in terms of ratings compared to non-specific fish alternatives. This suggests that there is room for improvement among species-specific products; alternative seafood brands should be investing strategically to improve on current weaknesses identified by consumers, particularly in terms of taste, presentation and value. For example, The Plant Based Seafood Cois addressing these gaps with innovative ocean-friendly products that replicate traditional seafood dishes in the gourmet segment. Their upcoming plans include a new plant-based line of bacon-wrapped shrimp and scallops, bacon-maple dusted scallops and lobster ravioli.

The plant-based seafood landscape is like the "wild west" with new companies diving in every day. Unfortunately, the rush to market has caused misses that could really turn off a new consumer from future purchases, so getting to market with a direct duplicate of the real seafood item is an absolute must. Our strength comes from being involved with real gourmet seafood creation for over 20 years, therefore we think creating products like plant-based lobster ravioli with a white wine and shallot sauce, beer battered crunchy shrimp or maple-bacon scallops is exactly what the consumer wants. For consumers to dive into a plate of Crunchy Coconut Shrimp with a sweet chili sauce to dip it in, or fried scallops with a dusting of Old Bay seasoning, a squeeze of lemon and fresh made cocktail sauce, and feel like they are having the seafood experience without sacrificing one iota, that's the goal.

- Shelly Van Cleve, The Plant Based Seafood Co, Co-Founder

Dish options reflect regional tastes, providing direction for product development

We employed text processing techniques to understand the various styles of dishes and products reviewed on our platform. Analysis of fish-free dish names shows that the most commonly occurring dishes in a given region tend to stem from popular traditional seafood dishes. This indicates that consumers are responding positively to dishes that reflect local and familiar flavors; in Asia, we see dishes such as crab noodles and fish curry featuring prominently, whereas fish and chips and calamari dominate in Europe, followed by crab cakes and fish tacos in North America.

On the other hand, analysis of product names does not reveal much geographic variation. We computed a similarity score between vectorized dish and product names of the various geographic regions, as a means of measuring variation in dish and product options. We found that seafood alternative dishes are 44% more varied than seafood alternative products, which appear to be much more uniform. This is partially expected, given how the dish format lends itself to further creativity and flexible naming compared to products. However it also highlights potential gaps in the marketplace, suggesting opportunities for CPG brands to tap into regional markets by developing products targeting local flavors and style. For example, plant-based seafood options are heavily under-represented in the frozen ready meals product segment, where many of these local dish favorites could be delivered in product form. Good Catch is capitalizing on this opportunity with their line of frozen plant-based entrées and appetizers, providing fish-free options to an array of longstanding American favorites.

We think there’s a huge opportunity with frozen plant-based seafood products. These types of offerings allow consumers the ease and flexibility of preparation and storage to use our products in a variety of different ways. We think our new breaded line of products – breaded filets, fish sticks and crab cakes - fills a major gap by providing consumers with a broadly appealing fan favorite as a plant-based, ocean-friendly option. In the future, we plan to introduce more frozen plant-based seafood products as we’ve seen a lot of appetite from consumers already for our frozen items. We are always looking to continue and disrupt the plant-based seafood space with new types of innovation that meet what people want. Our goal is to continue to reach new retail and food service partners in the US and gradually scale expansion of our great tasting seafood alternatives globally with strategic partners.

- Christopher Lowrey, Good Catch, Brand Director

It's time to sink or swim

Ocean-friendly seafood alternatives are very much on the rise. In this deep dive into plant-based fish, we saw exponential demand growth in the consumer goods as well as retail dining sectors. Regional analysis pointed to Spain and Singapore as the top markets for fish-free products and dishes, respectively, with opportunities to cultivate further product development based on learnings from the alternative meat industry. Investigation of review text showed highly positive consumer sentiment towards plant-based seafood products, underscoring the importance of effective product messaging in addition to objective product quality. Species-specific products are currently underrepresented in the market and underperform when it comes to taste, presentation and value, revealing opportunities to capitalize on this nascent segment of plant-based fish. Lastly, analysis of dish names indicated that alternative seafood dining options largely adhere to local tastes, signalled by high measures of dish name variation across geographic regions. This differs from plant-based seafood products, highlighting opportunities for further product differentiation. We expect the alternative fish market to keep expanding rapidly as product innovation advances and socially responsible consumers continue to shift their buying decisions towards sustainable and plant-based options.


Emily Dothe, @emdothe77 Ravi Gopalan, @ravi-gopalan



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