Watch Seafish

Recently the UK seafood industry and seafood NGOs agreed on a new shared approach for sustainable seafood.  The approach helps people interested in sourcing seafood sustainably to see the priorities that mean the most to them.   Rather than judging seafood by large questions like, is overfishing occurring?, how is fishing is impacting the ecosystem?, or even, how far or how close is a fishery to the Marine Stewardship Council standard? the new approach, led by Seafish, focuses on identifying risks that are manageable and fixable with corrective actions.  Most importantly it puts the focus on priorities right now and what is achievable.

The Seafish Risk Assessment for Sourcing Seafood (RASS) takes advantage of years of practice in Australia where economic and ecological risk assessment have been part of fisheries planning for some time.  Including both is key.   In Australia fishers and processsors costs and profits are factored into the economics and influence catch levels.  Some extra buffer may be added to the biomass targets for the fishery for better economic sustainability as well, for example with biomass targets set to 1.4 x the Maximum Sustained Yield estimates based on biological parameters alone.

Here at the Sustainability Incubator we do our best to use “FIPs” to set realistic priorities for fishery improvements.  We help companies try to achieve them in the most straight and simple and cost-effective way possible.  Another big benefit of the new Seafish RASS is that the people closest to the fishery, including its stakeholders in the industry, can participate in the assessment.  This is absolutely critical to the ‘fishery improvements’ approach to sustainable seafood because, without it, the outputs of assessment have little constituency in the real world.   Previous efforts, including our own at Sustainability Incubator, built FIPs around assessment results obtained by judging a fishery at a point in time against the MSC standard or against NGO’s unique criteria.  This has been great for building alignment between NGOs and retailers in North America, but it can miss the most important constituents, being the people closest to the fishery.  These same people are often expected to invest in fishery improvement work without having been included in the ‘why’, ‘what’ or ‘how’ parts of the assessment.  We know from experience how difficult it is to encourage participation in improvements by key fishery stakeholders (fishers, processors, fishery scientists and managers) when they were not invited to be part of the assessment process.  There is nothing more alienating or effective at killing a FIP than delivering a harsh judgement and set of ultimatums for change to a group of people around a fishery who weren’t even aware their life work was being evaluated.   It will be much easier in future if NGOs and seafood companies in North America can agree to respect the results  of an assessment approach that is more people-centered.  We are pioneering this in Hawaii and the Yucatan in Mexico using a very similar approach to Seafish.  We stay true to the Marine Stewardship Council standard because it is the best target for sustainable seafood worldwide.  However we are adding to it with social and ecological risk assessment involving fishers and processors, quite like Seafish.

Ultimately, what I want to see is a small set of powerful metrics for sustainable seafood retailers and major seafood companies can use for themselves to track their return on investment in fishery improvements and other environmental and social initiatives.

Currently the RASS is based on ecological risk assessment and does not yet include socio-economics.  Seafish hosts an ethical working group to look into how it can develop the social side of its risk assessment approach.  They are looking at tough issues like forced labour and trafficking in fishing, and at how vessels can join their scheme to demonstrate labour on-board is safe.  We are part of the conversation because the Labour Safe Screen is a risk assessment built precisely for this purpose.  Our goal is to add technical capacity to platforms like the Seafish RASS to provide open access to the tools needed to show due diligence.  We are looking now into metrics both screens could share.  Lately we have been approached by several organizations looking to partner.  My priority is to simplify and unify the metrics.   It won’t be long before the seafood sustainability agenda fits the realities of seafood business with flexible and modular approaches.  We are invested in this and will do our best to make sustainable seafood simpler and more cost-effective — and sooner than later.

Congratulations to the Seafish UK team and UK seafood companies for laying down this track.  It is a good approach.  I encourage you to take a look.