Wednesday, March 19, 2014

SENA14: The Seven Keys of Sustainability

"Health to the ocean means health for us."
--Sylvia Earle

As I have already mentionedSustainability was prevalent at the 2014 Seafood Expo North America (SENA). Each year, the prominence of sustainability has seemingly increased. As you meander down the many aisles of the Expo, you find exhibitor after exhibitor promoting the sustainability of their products. You will still get disappointed at times, seeing items like Shark Fin still being sold, but the overall picture is one of hope. If you knew little about seafood sustainability, you can garner quite an education at the Expo, from attending seminars to speaking with various exhibitors. And you can explore a myriad of viewpoints on a wide range of sustainability issues, from aquaculture to traceability.

In the Sustainability Conference Track alone, there were seven seminars (and I attended a few of them), including:
--Gulf Seafood Today: Marketing, Traceability, and Sustainability
--Is Aquaculture Sustainable?
--Lessons Learned: How the Shrimp Industry Can Recover and be More Sustainable in a Post-EMS World
--Putting the "Food" Back in Seafood: Lessons Learned from Sustainable Food Systems
--SeaFood Business Summit: Food Waste Solutions
--Global Aquaculture Alliance presents: Mini GOAL
--Pathways to Sustainability - A discussion of the practical solutions to accelerate the aquaculture industry towards greater sustainability.

In the main exhibit hall, there were numerous organizations devoted to sustainable issues, such as Monterey Bay AquariumTrace RegisterMarine Stewardship CouncilFish Choice, and Seaweb, and each of them possesses valuable intelligence. As usual, I stopped at several of the booths to get updates on their progress.

From all of the information I gathered, as well as from using knowledge I have previously acquired, I think we can break the current status of seafood sustainability down into seven key points. Some of these points are more obvious, while a few others go much deeper into the area of sustainability. In some respects, these are the themes of sustainability that were presented at the Expo, common threads presented by various speakers and exhibitors. The issue of sustainability has been evolving over the years at the Expo, and it has been fascinating to see that progress as well as to try to speculate what will occur in the future.

1. Seafood sustainability is vital.
No one is going to dispute this simple fact. Sustainability is essential the the continued existence of the human race. We cannot continue to destroy our environment and deplete our essential resources. The fact that so many fisheries are now seeking to be sustainable is indicative of its importance. A common thread at many conference sessions was that we are facing a serious crisis in the near future, a growing population which is going to need much more food. Studies estimate that we will need 60% more food by 2050, as well as 60% more animal protein by 2030. How will we feed all of these people unless sustainability becomes one of our most important objectives? There is little need to go into further detail on this point as it is simply accepted as a valid truth.

2. Seafood sustainability is complex.
I believe that everyone will also agree that sustainability is a complex issue. It is difficult to even get people to agree on a definition of sustainability. What aspects should sustainability include? There are plenty of different standards and certifications for sustainability so it is easy to understand why consumers might be confused. An attendee at one of the aquaculture sessions made an important point, that sustainability is not a black or white issue, that you cannot say a fishery is sustainable or not. Instead, sustainability is a spectrum, and you are either more or less sustainable to some base point. And that is so very true when you examine the various exhibitors at the Expo.

For example, I have watched Verlasso Salmon progress over the last couple years, getting more sustainable each year. Though they have received a Good Alternative rating from Seafood Watch, which many would say makes Verlasso sustainable, that is insufficient for Verlasso. They are continuing to improve their operations, to make it better and more sustainable. I also wrote earlier about the return of Toothfish, that much is now sustainable, but you have to look closely at your sourcing, and the Toothfish industry continues to work at getting better and more sustainable.

3. Seafood sustainability is in the details.
So how do you know what is sustainable or not? Or should I say, how do we know the extent of sustainability of a specific seafood? The answer must be discovered in a myriad of details, in the multitude of questions that analyze the question. For consumers, it can be a bit easier if they rely on third party certifications, such as that of the Marine Stewardship Council, which currently certifies about 10.5% of all wild seafood, covering about 15,000 consumer facing products. The consumer just has to look for a certification label or logo on their seafood. They don't have to ask lots of questions to know what they want to know. But for those who do want to know more, there are plenty of questions that must be addressed.

4. Sustainability Isn't A Major Consumer Concern
Unfortunately, though those connected to the seafood industry understand the importance of seafood sustainability, the average consumer still doesn't understand the issue and it is not high on their priority list when purchasing seafood. Price and taste are far more important to their purchasing decisions. In an informal survey of local restaurants, the owners indicated to me that nearly none of their customers ever asked about sustainability. At the Expo, Bob Hartman, the Seafood Director of Demoulas Market Basket; stated only a small portion of their customers ask about sustainability. Several key articles in the seafood media have also supported this matter. Trying to educate consumers about sustainability, when many of them don't care, can be an exercise in futility.

However, there is a small, though vocal and powerful, minority of consumers who are pushing restaurants, supermarkets and shop vendors about seafood sustainability. I know that I am one of that minority, often questioning others about the sustainability of their seafood selection. Fortunately, the vocal minority is being listened to, and more and more establishments are selling sustainable seafood, whether most of their customers ask for it or not. So restaurant and markets cannot ignore the issue of sustainability.

5. Sustainability Is Now a Given
The basic question for fishermen, aquaculture farmers, vendors, restaurants and others is no longer whether they should be sustainable or not. That question has already been largely settled, and the vast majority know and desire sustainable seafood. According to the Seafood Watch: "Of the 242 U.S. fishery species assessed by the Monterey Bay Aquarium Seafood Watch program, 95% of commercial landings have earned a “Best Choice” or “Good Alternative” recommendation as environmentally responsible seafood options." The Seafood Watch also is now certifying some individual fisheries, such as Verlasso Salmon.

All of this is indicative that efforts devoted to sustainability have worked to a large degree, that it has become strongly entrenched in the seafood industry. The new question for the seafood industry, and especially the aquaculture arena, is how they can become more sustainable. Improvements are continual and ongoing, and there is much study and research in ways to improve, from trying to reduce FIFO ratios to decreasing chances of disease. As I spoke to exhibitors, the talks were almost always how their operations are getting better and better.

6. Aquaculture May Be The Future
In a span of only about forty years, aquaculture has made huge strides in technology and progress. Aquaculture currently supplies about 50% of our food supply and might be the path to averting the crisis of a growing population which will need much more food. As about 80% of wild fish stocks have been fully exploited or in decline, we need aquaculture to step in and provide the necessary food to meet these future needs. At multiple conference sessions, the importance of expanding aquaculture was stressed and it is something that probably cannot be denied. The main obstacle are perceptions that aquaculture may not be sustainable.

However, those fears were largely dispelled at multiple conference sessions. Such complaints were valid against aquaculture a number of years ago, but positive changes have come and are continuing. There is certainly much more that needs to be done, but the industry understands that and is working to resolve the problems. New collaborations like the Global Salmon Initiative offer a path to the future where the industry works together, rather than be competitors, to solve their united issues. The growing influence of the Aquaculture Stewardship Council has also contributed to positive change.

7. What Comes Next?
During a conversation with Martin Excel to COLTO, he raised an intriguing question: "What is the next step beyond sustainability?" As more and more fisheries become sustainable, as it becomes commonplace, then being sustainable no longer really gives a company a significant competitive edge. They will still seek such an edge, so what will be the driving force of the future? What will help differentiate companies from each other? The more I have pondered these questions, the more I have been drawn to a potential answer, one inspired by the Aquaculture Stewardship Council (ASC).

In current discussions of sustainability in the seafood industry, the discussion usually centers on environmental issues, such as pollution and waste, such as depleted stocks and bycatch. However, in the sustainability standards of the ASC, they also address social issues, an important aspect in other sustainability discussions. This touches on the welfare of workers, a fair wage, safety, and much more. With the recent headlines of the abuse of Thai seafood workers, this is an issue that is finally receiving some of the press it deserves. Social sustainability could thus be the next big step for the seafood industry. It is an issue that you hopefully will hear about much more at next year's Expo and in the years to come.  

"Fishing is much more than fish. It is the great occasion when we may return to the fine simplicity of our forefathers."
--Herbert Hoover

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