In 2010, I joined the Sea Delight team coordinating our imports and dabbling “part-time” in the world of Seafood Sustainability. Fast forward 7 years and I’m now the Sustainability Director for Sea Delight and lead our charity arm, the Sea Delight Ocean Fund. It has been an incredible journey in which I have been given the opportunity to attend a variety of international workshops to discuss seafood sustainability and present a strong case for supporting Fishery Improvement Projects (FIPs) worldwide. During these meetings I have often heard Fisher’s leaders address how the fishing practice is not always cost effective for them because what they are paid at the point of landing for their catch is not enough to cover the costs of the fishing trip, let alone support themselves, their families or their livelihoods.
We tend to address these comments by reminding the fishermen about market trends demanding sustainable/responsibly sourced products and how they have to be engaged in the FIP process in order to be able to place their products in these markets. I have spoken on how purchasers/buyers will give preference to products coming from FIPs and if they do not participate or engage in the FIP, they will not be able to source their products from this fishery. We also make the business case that we need to improve fish stocks so that we can continue to commercialize the product long into the future. I have also discussed how achieving Marine Stewardship Council (MSC) certification DOES NOT necessarily equal an increase in earnings, but that focusing on better quality and management of their products will.
As concerns about seafood sustainability grow, we hear about retailers, food service, distributors, importers, etc. developing Seafood Sustainability Commitments and partnering with NGOs to achieve these commitments. What’s more, in response to very visible cases of human rights violations and slavery overseas, large players in the seafood industry have also developed Corporate Social Responsibility Commitments, creating a new wave of third party audits to make sure seafood products not only meet their sustainability commitments but also pass an audit for Social Responsibility.
“Virtual” High Five y’all for putting these commitments on paper. Now what?
It is not the rule but the exception to pay higher prices for responsibly sourced/certified seafood. Thus, the cost associated with these improvements is often pushed down the supply chain to the importers, local producers and the fishermen. When put in practice, it all boils down to funding. Thank you for caring about the environment and the health of the stocks, and for developing comprehensive social responsibility commitments. I truly commend you for you efforts and joining the conversation.
However, after 20 years of the Sustainability movement, it’s time for Sustainability 2.0.
How can we incentivize fishermen to be engaged in sustainability and be stewards of the better management of their resources when they themselves are not able to provide for their own families and do not have access to the basic needs of human life?
I have been told in passing that the seafood industry cannot be expected to “build roads” (or address infrastructure problems that are the responsibility of the government in place). Though I agree with that individual to a certain extent, can we as an industry truly talk about social responsibility and seafood sustainability without addressing these issues? Can we sign letters of support for a FIP that also pushes the government to address some of the infrastructure problems in order to be able to engage the fishermen to work towards sustainability?
While we as an industry speak about better management of the fishery, stock assessments, IUU, enforcements of regulations, fishing seasons, and minimum size, the fishermen usually ask for access to paved roads, having their own port of landing, registration of their vessels, potable water, sewage, and access to healthcare and education.
We want to care about human rights violations, but there’s an argument to be made about how the market and consumers push costs down to the fishery level, supporting the very conditions this industry claims to fight against (i.e. producers engage in human trafficking and slavery in order to reduce labor costs and stay competitive in an increasingly competitive market).
So what’s next?
I believe the industry is finally starting to “understand” what are FIPs, that there is a need for seafood sustainability, and that FIPs can provide the building blocks to achieve this goal. However, the level of engagement and investment in this movement is disproportionate. It’s no longer enough for retailers, food service and distributors to make commitments towards seafood sustainability and not be a part of the process (and the cost) leaving importers, producers and fishermen to carry the organizational and financial burden of these projects. It is time for us to capitalize on this “new found” knowledge and find creative ways to distribute costs across the supply chain. We need to get end-consumers engaged and be better at marketing seafood products, not only because they are healthy choices, but because it’s the protein that will feed a growing global population in the future. We need a marketing team that can sell sand in the dessert, and can sell Sustainability to the masses.
Also, I don’t agree with the MSC trying to enter the social responsibility space and incorporate that into their certification scheme. Sometimes less is more and some organizations should focus on what they do best. Currently, MSC is THE standard for seafood sustainability and that’s what they should focus on. They should be more worried about how to make MSC accessible to small scale fisheries (or any fishery for that matter) which lack the resources to undergo a pre-assessment or full assessment. Actually, how about they work on relationship building and be seen as “fishery friendly” NGO and not another company trying to make a buck out of a certification (For some, “MSC” is the “He-Who-Must–Not-Be-Named”). Broadening the scope of their services just seems like a desperate attempt to stay current and to secure the longevity of their business model since not all fisheries can be certified (and some don’t even want to).
To the NGO community, I ask that you work with industry on setting viable and realistic expectations. I know you want to save the oceans (I want that too), while also solving human trafficking, slavery and IUU. BUT, all this needs to be done within the complex and diverse (and constantly changing) seafood industry. Capacity building is key. Education is Key. Making the business case is Key. And most importantly, PATIENCE is Key. We don’t want to go back to the days where industry believed all NGOs were environmental terrorists. The discourse has changed. Relationships between NGOs and industry have strengthened, But, the bottom line is the same. We are in the business of commercializing seafood. If you insist on pushing for social issues, addressing IUU, human trafficking, slavery, etc,. in addition to the health of our oceans and stocks, please do it gently. Long term success is built on cooperation and trust and using these tools to lay the proper foundation. I think we are on the right path; FIPs are widely accepted, and there’s an increase awareness about trafficking and IUU. Now we just need to continue engaging industry in these conversations and working on ways to fund some of these programs. Telling industry “we want sustainable seafood” “end human trafficking in the seafood industry” and “ensure that IUU is not committed” without providing support and the means for change, is not only unacceptable, it’s unrealistic.
And when it all fails, always remember:
“You catch more flies with honey than you do with vinegar”