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Going Green: Competitors in cahoots
In a place where industry must lead, the NFI Crab Council steps up
April 05, 2011
EDITOR'S NOTE: This article is a follow-up to the Going Green feature Chesapeake Lessons, which appeared in the October 2010 issue of SFB.
Howard Johnson, director of global programs for Seattle-based Sustainable Fisheries Partnership (SFP), isn’t concerned about the legality of blue-swimming crab harvests in Southeast Asia, which by many accounts are marked by smaller and smaller crabs coming to port each year, an indication of overexploitation.
Johnson, who is widely recognized as an expert on illegal, unregulated and unreported (IUU) fishing activities worldwide, says the reason for that is actually quite simple.
“You really can’t call it illegal because there are no regulations,” the industry veteran says matter-of-factly.
However, a dozen or so U.S. crab importers are aiming to change that with a collaborative, grassroots-style campaign of education and empowerment targeted at harvesters in the remote regions of Indonesia and the Philippines.
Member companies of the National Fisheries Institute (NFI) Crab Council have spent decades trying to outdo each other for both crab supplies in Southeast Asia and for customers here in the United States. Now they’re on the same team, helping to preserve a valuable resource and levying a self-imposed tax on their imports to generate funds (1.5 cents per pound, or roughly $400,000 a year) for their budding SFP-assisted sustainability initiatives. More companies are expected to join.
Since Steve Phillips, president of Phillips Foods in Baltimore, the largest U.S. blue-swimming crab (Portunus pelagicus) importer, spearheaded the council about five years ago, the longtime rivals have made headway toward implementing meaningful measures intended to ensure the longevity of the resource and the livelihoods of those who depend on it. With no government-led fishery management framework, the survival of the species and the industry there is largely going to be up to the fishermen themselves. Providing them the tools they’ll need is a major challenge.
They say they’re up for it.
“Some people have asked me, ‘Why Indonesia?’” says Ed Rhodes, director of sustainability and aquaculture at Phillips. “And I say, kind of like the New York saying, ‘If you can do it there, you can do it anywhere.’”
Crab Council-generated funds (along with at least $100,000 in World Bank grants, through its ALLFISH program) have gone toward the formation of APRI, the Indonesia Blue Swimming Crab Processing Association, as well as hiring an executive director. Early efforts include posters (click on photo above) informing fishermen of best practices, such as throwing back juvenile crabs and berried (egg-bearing) females. While similar efforts are happening in the Philippines, the need in Indonesia is considerably more acute — and well worth it, since more than half of all imports by council members originate there.
“We’re teaching [fishermen] that they’ll benefit in the long run if they throw these [juvenile] crabs back,” says Brendan Sweeny, sustainability specialist for Handy International of Salisbury, Md. “Some areas already do this. But there are areas where fishermen will take whatever they can get. I think the problem there is the fishery is so spread out. Management strategy will have to come from the bottom up.”
Another challenge, albeit far away from the water, has been aligning all of the importers’ interests, but Rhodes and Sweeny are buoyed by the spirit of unity and sense of purpose exhibited at council meetings thus far.
“I have to admit,” Rhodes says, “the first couple of times we had all members in one room I was a little afraid we’d have some rebellion, but it’s been a lot smoother than we ever thought.”
What hasn’t been quite so smooth is the collection of reliable data. Johnson of SFP says no regular stock assessments are conducted in Indonesia, posing obvious problems for science-based initiatives, which rely on accurate numbers.
“And not just for blue-swimming crab, but other species as well,” he says. “But blue-swimming crab is a little different. They reproduce very quickly; they’re very fecund and mature quickly. It shouldn’t take 20 years to recover. Simple measures will get more growth out of the crab, like more selective gear. And especially a minimum size that processing plants will accept. But it won’t turn the fishery green overnight.”
NFI spokesman Gavin Gibbons says council members represent roughly 80 percent of all Southeast Asian crab exported to the United States, so their efforts are growing in importance. Membership should also grow; a meeting at the Boston Seafood Show last month was expected to result in the recruitment of up to three new members.
“They work together very well. They’re surprised at how well, but not just because they’re a tenacious group,” says Gibbons. Besides Phillips and Handy, other companies in the council include Twin Tails Seafood Corp., Chicken of the Sea, Lawrence Street Seafood Co., Newport International, John Keeler & Co., Heron Point Seafood, RGE Agridev Corp., Bumble Bee Foods and Supreme Lobster.
“We’re talking about spending money,” adds Gibbons. “They all get it — that it’s about the future. It has to have as much breadth as it does in order to influence as much of the market as it does and we expect it to grow.”
More important than growing the ranks of U.S. companies in the Crab Council would be growing the crabs themselves. Besides setting a minimum size for processing, another promising project that is already underway is caging berried females that have been caught, a process that allows them to release their eggs.
“We don’t know the survivability of the eggs; could be 0.5 percent or 10 percent,” says Sweeny of Handy. “We got that project going because even if 10 crabs survive it’s 10 more than before. It seems like this past year has almost been too slow for a lot of companies. We just want to get something done, even if we don’t have data to support the projects, because it’s not going to hurt.”
With domestic crab catches a fraction of what they once were and now with an even larger resource at risk of depletion, the importers are acting with a sense of urgency.
“There’s not really a lot more opportunities to walk away and go somewhere else,” says Sweeny. “There’s a blank slate now, which is good and bad. There are lots of opportunities where a small change could make a big difference.”
And while Indonesia’s crab fishery is perhaps a long way from gaining any type of eco-label or sustainability certification, Rhodes of Phillips Foods says the fishermen’s efforts and sacrifices are admirable.
“Fisheries moving toward sustainability need to be recognized as good sources of seafood,” says Rhodes.
Associate Editor James Wright can be e-mailed at email@example.com