An Interview With Sustainable Seafood Guru Dick Jones

The sustainable seafood movement is still young, most of the successes in the US and Canada have come only in the past ten years, while on the ground success in key regions is even more nascent, coming just in the past 5 years. The issues we might face are not so much current trends as practical, real world issues. As an example, political issues such as boycotts, sanctions and trade barriers, government aversion to foreign NGOs, or even war in regions such as Ukraine can seriously impact improvement work in many key fishery regions. The implications of these issues require improvement organizations to be flexible, fluid, and adaptable to allow for these inevitable shifts in landscape.

What’s driving demand for fishery improvement work and how is that likely to change over time?

The demand for fishery improvement is largely coming from Western seafood buyers (United States, Canada, Northern European Union) that use assessments and the resulting ratings to make procurement decisions. Nearly all major seafood retailers in North America and Western Europe have made public commitments to sustainable seafood. The ratings setter organizations are historically understaffed, and have a compounding problem; not only do they need to do new assessments on fisheries that are important to the seafood supply chain, but the fisheries that have been assessed already need updating every 1-4 years depending upon the stock assessment schedule. This demand from the buyer side will continue or will increase in the short and mid term. In parallel there is also increasing interest from fisheries to be better stewards of their resource, and as the buyer demand stabilizes the fishermen interest will increase.

Additionally there is demand for rapid fishery assessments from both seafood buyers and NGOs. Typically a rapid assessment will not be used to make a procurement decision, but to judge available information on a fishery to determine costs of a more rigorous assessment, which typically drive procurement decision-making. NGOs such as Monterey Bay Aquarium’s Seafood Watch program, Sustainable Fisheries Partnership, and others who base their rating of fisheries on comprehensive data also are in need of more robust/rigorous assessments, soliciting rapid assessments as a precursor. Again, in this case it is more of a risk assessment than a formal assessment of the fishery.

What are priority regions for fishery improvement work and why?

While not an exhaustive list, current priority regions include developing countries in Southeast Asia, Africa, and South America, as well as countries such as Russia and Japan who are significant producers and consumers of seafood. These regions have issues with the sustainability of the seafood in their EEZ (Economic Exclusive Zone), and culturally are dependent upon consumption of local seafood. The demand for seafood will stay level in the coming years, but the demand for sustainable seafood will continue to increase. Conversely, there is a lack of general awareness (on all levels – consumers to government) about the status of fisheries through a sustainability lens, so the demand for fishery improvement work will increase as understanding of the resource becomes higher. Demand for assessment of fisheries in these regions is fairly high, based on the pressure from Western buyers to understand their risk of buying and selling species caught in those regions.

How can fishery improvement organizations meet these needs?

The demand for fishery improvement services is in its infancy and growing quickly. Currently there are approximately 10 organizations globally working on the implementation of structured improvement projects, while approximately more than 2500 global fisheries are in need of some level of improvement. The motivation to engage support for improvement efforts is different in every case. There are tools (templates, guidance) available to do it yourself if you’re in a fishery, but due to competitive pressures the ability to convene stakeholders on a pre-competitive basis to collectively work on improvement efforts has proven difficult. Organizations engaged in fishery improvement work need to remember that you’re dealing with for-profit business, and decisions are made based on ROI. It is imperative that those expected to pay for improvement services and support know how it will benefit their company, customers, and bottom line. If we’re able to establish clarity around the benefits of this work, fishery improvement will burgeon. The problem is that the answers, in most cases, don’t exist. So we have to try be creative, resourceful, and show some form of a value model to participants; and how much fishery engagement happens will depend on how much value we can show. Demand for fishery improvement services will increase over the coming years, and it will become a bit easier to sell the services, as there is more demonstration of the value of an improved fishery resource. It is also important we document successes, even smaller successes, to demonstrate to others that our approach works.

Additional thoughts?

If we don’t continue to evolve in our approach, and learn from our work and from the work of others, we will be challenged to maintain our position into the future. Fishery improvement work needs to celebrate small wins, and not view any effort to improve a fishery as less than substantial. Much of this work is in really difficult regions of the world where the understanding of sustainable resources is low, so patience and manage expectations are key. Success in 2-3 years will be the acknowledgement from the environmental community that the engagement model works. My best advice is move forward proactively but cautiously. We need to be smart and strategic about how we engage new clients, but unafraid to push the envelope and be aggressive if we’ve calculated the risk and returns.

Dick Jones is O2’s President and CEO and the founder and of Resiliensea Group, Inc., a seafood industry advisory firm.