Tuesday, March 17, 2015

SENA15: The Changing Landscape Of Sustainable Seafood

"We don't celebrate the successes and achievements."
--Chef Rick Moonen

During the last five years of the Seafood Expo North America (SENA), I have noted the evolution of sustainability, how the discussion has altered and changed, and that has been a very positive sign. The first conference session I attended at this year's SENA was The Changing Landscape of Sustainable Seafood, which was intended to consider the future of sustainability, how to address existing and new challenges, and discuss prior successes. It was a fascinating discussion which raised many important issues and questions, and the panelists could have spent hours talking about all of these matters.

The session was moderated by Tania Taranovski, the Director of Sustainable Seafood Program at the New England Aquarium. The panelists included: Richard Stavis (CEO/President of Stavis Seafood), Rick Moonen (Executive Chef of RM Seafood), Michael Tlusty (Director of Ocean Sustainability Science at the New England Aquarium), Adriana Sanchez-Lindsay (Sustainability Coordinator at Sea Delight, LLC) and Oistein Thorsen (Principal Consultant at Benchmark Sustainability Science). There wasn't any formal presentation at this session, just more of an informal Q&A from the moderator to the various panelists. That worked well though to raise many important issues.

Taranovski set the stage for the discussion, noting that seafood sustainability has come a long way but the big question is what comes next. Seafood sustainability is a journey and there have been inspiring stories of fisheries which have rebounded, and aquaculture has advanced by leaps and bounds. Traceability and transparency remain important matters. Challenges still exist though, from varied definitions of what constitutes sustainability to consumer confusion. Consumers don't know who to trust, or what seafood tale is correct. We also are unsure of how to meet a growing demand as the oceans don't possess an endless supply of seafood. What is the next step, those actions which will drive further progress?

Chef Moonen was then asked to discuss some of the most important items of progress concerning seafood sustainability in the last ten years. Initially, he noted that regulatory changes have been significant, and they have often been necessary. He also mentioned the great importance, and improvements, of aquaculture, stating how 50% of all seafood is now derived from aquaculture. Next, he provided a specific example of progress, discussing the West Coast ground fishery which had once been declared a federal disaster zone. This fishery contains about 90 different species, including rockfish, dogfish and hake.

With collaboration, shutting down specific regions, catch shares, and other measures, the fishery was able to rebound, and continues to improve. It has gotten so much better than 13 of the fishery species are now MSC certified. The measures were costly and time consuming, but necessary, and ultimately successful. That led Chef Moonen to declare that "we don't celebrate the successes and achievements" of the seafood industry, and need to do so. That sentiment would be echoed by others at SENA.    

He then noted that it will take large scale changes to ensure our food security in the future, and that it is vital that we take proper care of our environment. To do so, he noted that we can take lessons from how nature addresses some of the challenges we face in aquaculture. For example, planting kelp and mussels can help to keep water clean, and create less stress for fish. It seems a simple solution, and much better than giving the fish antibiotics. At the end of the day, Chef Moonen just wants good food that is nutritious and delicious.

Sanchez-Lindsay was asked the role of business in these changes and she made some brief comments, noting how distributors and importers are the closest to fishermen and can help set up sustainability guidelines for them, though the creation of guidelines need help from NGOs. Those guidelines need to be simple and easy enough for everyone to follow.

Stavis was also asked to comment on the role of business and he said that "we are in a place where we can make a difference and we know where we want to be." The role of business role is to understand what is a meaningful change, and we cannot miss the nuances concerning the matter of sustainability. Business can also use its clout, to become thought leaders. He was also concerned about ensuring that matters are made simple for consumers, as they generally don't have the inclination to learn all the complexities of sustainability.

Next, Taranovski raised the issue of the seeming dichotomy of good/bad concerning seafood sustainability. In reality, there are often trade-offs involved and it is far from a clear black and white issue. She then posed the question to the panel of how do you reconcile those trade-offs.

Tlusty responded first, stating that still sustainability is not an end point and that is anyone claims to be 100% sustainable, it is only ego. It is more realistic to consider that you are maybe 50-75%  and need to improve your effort. As an example, he pointed to MSC certified lobster, yet that fishery has one of the highest energy uses in the industry, so it is not completely sustainable. And you need to work to improve your sustainability, because if it is too easy, then you probably just set your bar too low. Try to be better every day, always moving forward. As Chef Moonen emphasized, Tlusty also said we should celebrate the successes.

Thorsen then added that consumer communication is in a state of confusion, as they receive so many mixed messages. They hear of the the dire state of oceans but then they are urged to eat more seafood. They are told farmed seafood is bad and only wild caught is good, despite all the excellent aquaculture operations out there. There are multiple sustainability certification bodies and the public does not understand who to trust. Proper education and communication is necessary.

In agreement, Sanchez-Lindsay noted that the education piece is missing and she asked who is responsible for that consumer education. The media vilifies seafood far too often. In her case, she helps to tell the stories of seafood down to the retailers,hoping they will share it with their customers.

Next, Taranovski added that, with "sustainability," we are trying to do too much with one word;, over simplifying a very complex issue. She added her support to the sentiment that we need to relate the success stories; inspiring people to want to learn more. She also echoed that we need better consumer education.

Chef Moonen also agreed on the great importance of education, noting that culinary schools are starting to address sustainability issues with their students. He also feels that aquariums can have a big impact on education, and chefs too can do their part. He then got a bit philosophical, stating that our bodies are made of about 70% water and that we are tied to the oceans. That is also a sentiment to which I agree.

Thorsen added that there is an increased interest of consumers of the origin of their food and telling stories about those origin can help.

Then, Stavis added that he uses the term sustainability rarely, preferring to refer to it as responsibly sourced. He also wanted to mention there are plenty of people who have no inclination to learn more about seafood. To handle that, there needs to be two steps, one a simple and easy one and another which is much more detailed. We can't shove education down consumer's throats.

The final topic raised by Taranovski centered on how sustainability is about more than environmental effects and must include a social component. We must support the fishermen, and also be able to address different cultural issues.

Stavis responded that it is those human rights issues which keep them up all night. It is the responsibility of governments and societies to protect their citizens. Stavis states that they work to the best of their ability to source responsbiliy and advocate for change. They try to visit suppliers, to verify conditions, but they need law and authority to best monitor foreign locations. The public can help these situations by providing impetus to politicians, to get them to create change.

And Tlusty added that some aquaculture certification groups have added social standards to their criteria. However, there is a trade-off as that also increases the cost of the certification. A better certification costs more, though he noted that certifications currently cover only about 5-8% of the industry. However, we cannot just cherry pick seafood suppliers. It is best to engage with all, to lead them to change.

As can be seen, this conference session raised so many different, and important, issues, many which could have served as a topic all by themselves. The term sustainability, which can be defined in so many ways, may be losing its usefulness and could be replaced by something else, such as responsible sourcing. We also have to stop looking at sustainability as a black and white issue, and realize it is but a journey. Consumers need better education about seafood issues, and that needs to come from a variety of sources. Definitions of sustainability need to include a social component, and that is a trend I noted last year as being the next step for sustainability.

And finally, we need to highlight and celebrate the success stories, to show people all the progress that has taken place, and that the seafood industry is working hard and successfully in many areas. Some of the seafood articles I write do that, and I'll continue to do so in the future.

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