Sustainability, What we can all do to regulate our industry.

When we speak about sustainable seafood we understand that there is a vital need to protect our resources not only for future generations but in order to stay in business. As the demand for seafood products sourced from environmentally responsible suppliers increase, so does the pressure on suppliers to engage in Fishery Improvement Projects (FIP’s) and seek the technical assistance of well known NGO’s and other stakeholders. But how does our industry effectively differentiate between those who are strictly greenwashing and those who are actually investing on sustainable initiatives from the ground up? Do we allow our industry to self-regulate to a certain extent?

Industry leaders consider achieving Marine Stewardship Council (MSC) certification to be the ultimate goal and in many ways this serves to regulate sustainable programs by identifying those which are moving towards achieving the MSC standard and those that do not.  But is this enough? For fisheries which target mainly wild migratory species we know that these fisheries are far from achieving MSC certification. This creates a challenge for importers trying to show customers and consumers that their products are sourced from fisheries which are in the process of improving their practices, and also creates room for other suppliers to engage in greenwashing without any accountability. In these instances, NGO’s overseeing these projects or partnering with suppliers should provide their assistance in validating their work and their progress so that the industry is aware of not only the actual work that is being accomplished globally, but also weed out those companies that are just coasting along, without being fully committed to these initiatives.

The seafood industry is competitive in all areas, and supporting real sustainability programs adds a competitive leverage, but can also be detrimental. For example, if your company is investing financially in an improving project and a competitor who is not truly invested in these projects acquires the customer, where does that leave your company and your financial investment to sustainability? Additional pressure is mounted, as major US retailers pledge to source their products from 100% sustainable sources by unrealistic deadlines (i.e. 2013) and then realize the need to compromise their initiatives by just supporting FIP’s as an alternative to 100% “sustainable seafood.”

The road to MSC certification is lengthy and challenging. Those of us who have worked hands-on with these sustainable initiatives understand that this process is more cumbersome than simply writing a check.  Working with FIP’s requires seeking support from local government and working within their regulations and cultural differences, which could make or break the project. Furthermore, we are faced with the difficulty of data collection and management, which can range from convincing fishermen to utilize logbooks and try circle hooks as an alternative to the traditional J hook, to the need to conduct research studies for ten years so that generational data can be successfully collected on a particular stock.  There are also external factors which affect whether a fishery can achieve certification or not; for instance, requiring an International Management Plan for migratory species when the stock assessment is not specific to a country or region (i.e. Mahi Mahi in Ecuador, Yellowfin tuna in the Pacific).

As industry leaders in sustainability, we also need to address who shares the burden of helping fisheries become sustainable.  During a workshop I attended last March in regards to the Evaluation of the Mahi Mahi Fishery Improvement Project (FIP) in Manta, Ecuador; Economist Ivan Prieto, Vice Minister of the Ministry of Agriculture, Livestock, Aquaculture and Fisheries in this country addressed the need to move beyond the eco-label and transferring the costs associated with the extra effort to the industry and the consumer. In his opening statement, he discussed how stakeholders need to share the burden. But is our industry ready for this? The end consumer wants sustainable seafood, but are they willing to pay a premium for it? Phillips Foods has accomplished this by donating USD 0.03 per pound of its finfish sales to Sustainable Fisheries Partnership (SFP) to fund FIP’s[1]. Why can’t the rest of the industry follow their lead? Although NGO’s are equipped with fundraising organisms and help share these costs, suppliers are expected to fund these programs and sometimes have staff members working in the field. This brings me to the question of social responsibility. Simply deciding not to purchase items that are “red listed” does not solve the problem at its core and may affect the livelihood of fishermen targeting such species. However, working with fishermen at the local level to educate them and help them improve their fishing practices does. Providing an economic incentive to do so also facilitates this process.

At the end of the day, all of us in the seafood industry believe in sustainability whether we do it to protect the environment and maintain the resource for future generations or simply because it is good business practice. Our goal then should be to find a way to marry the two: protect the environment while sustaining the industry.  All stakeholders in the supply chain should work together in an effort to create appropriate communication and networking channels for retailers and suppliers of sustainable seafood so that we can support each other’s goals while third party NGO’s validate these efforts and the FIP’s undergo the process of achieving MSC certification.

[1] Forristall, April. Seafood Source. Phillips: Time to invest in fisheries improvement, 09 April, 2012.  Web. 17 April 2012. <>.