Today is the first day of Seafood Expo North America 2019 (SENA19), and I’m headed to Boston for the show. For those of you unfamiliar with the event, it is largest seafood exposition in North America with thousands of buyers and suppliers from around the world. There is also a conference program that features more than 25 educational sessions, presented by seafood industry thought leaders and experts from many segments of the seafood industry.
As a freelance journalist, I cover this event annually, as it’s a great opportunity to meet face-to-face with some of the sources with whom I work throughout the year. It’s also a great opportunity to keep up with trends in the seafood industry.
If you’ve followed my coverage of previous shows, you know that I’m often interested in the relationship between what is being discussed on the floor of the show where all the exhibitors are and what is being discussed in the conference sessions. As a journalist who covers fisheries at the intersection of science and sustainability, I’ve found it fascinating to look at how the concept of sustainability has been presented at SENA over the years. From the days when one didn’t see the word “sustainable” on the floor at all, to more recently when it seemed like every exhibitor had sustainability claims front-and-center, it’s illustrative to observe how the conference discussion tends to lead the marketing efforts.
In more recent years, the conference discussion has focused quite a bit on how the ubiquitousness of the word “sustainable” in the seafood industry has led to it meaning less and less. When companies start claiming “100% sustainable,” for example, it’s clear that we are no longer focused on a journey toward greater sustainability–and sustainability must always be a journey, never a destination.
This year at SENA19, I’m going to be taking a closer look at fishery improvement projects (FIPs) within the context of true sustainability. FIPs emerged in recent years as a tool for incentivizing fisheries to progress along the path to greater sustainability. With the advent of third-party certification, verification and advisory schemes (e.g., MSC, Seafood Watch) it became clear that the seafood industry needed a way to identify fisheries that had not attained an ecolabel but were still on the right path. In part, this was a direct result of market forces–like when Wal-Mart announced they would offer only Marine Stewardship Council (MSC) seafood to US consumers. There was simply not enough supply, so they had to expand the definition of what sustainable meant to them.
The emergence of FIPs as a sustainability tool was also, however, about insuring that fisheries had incentive to improve rather than simply being marginalized. As I wrote in 2015 while covering SENA, sustainability must never become a club.
The leaders of the seafood industry need to avoid wearing sustainability blinders. Yes, we need to shine a light on those who are doing it well insofar as sustainability is concerned, but, more importantly, we must not allow those in our periphery vision to fall out of focus. Reward those who have worked hard to achieve certification, but also engage with those who have not. Certification is a tool; use it as such.
FIPs are a great way to engage those fisheries that have not achieved certification or been green-lighted by an advisory scheme, and the success of many FIPs is well documented. Having said that, FIPs are also vulnerable to many of the same issues as sustainability initiatives. Some point again to the example of Wal-Mart: When they were unable to meet their stated seafood sustainability goals, they shifted to also including FIPs. When sourcing remained problematic, the bar on which FIPs passed muster shifted.
Others point out that FIPs often unevenly distribute the costs and benefits of improvement. In many so-called successful FIP models, fishers end up paying the lion’s share of the cost but don’t readily see the benefits. Because sustainability is increasingly seen as including not only environmental sustainability but also socio-economic sustainability, this shortcoming in the traditional FIP model is one that needs to be addressed.
With this interest in FIPs at the forefront of my mind as I head to SENA19, I’m excited to attend a panel discussion later today titled “Triple Impact FIPs: Finding and Capturing Value to Accelerate Fisheries Improvement.” The presenters claim that “FIPs may be achieving environmental improvement but at great social cost to fishers, those who in globalized supply chains are least capable of paying for improvement.” During the presentation, they will be discussing a revision to the FIP model that can “evaluate, track and incentivize improvement of fisheries’ social and financial performance along with their environmental performance.”
If you’re interested in learning more, feel free to follow me on Twitter at @RetTalbot.