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Top Story: Beyond the wallet

Seafood Watch to utilize suppliers’ knowledge, influence to expand sustainability message

By Ben DiPietro
August 05, 2011

To better engage the seafood supply chain, the Seafood Watch program at the Monterey Bay Aquarium in Monterey, Calif., is working to improve fisheries and farmed fish operations that produce red-listed species on its consumer guide.

Known primarily for its wallet-size guides, of which tens of millions have been distributed since the program began in 1999 — and now for its smartphone applications, of which nearly a quarter-million have been downloaded — Seafood Watch is taking the next step in its evolution by looking to better engage with a seafood industry that has not always been supportive of its mission, and in fact was downright hostile to it at its inception.

The industry at first thought the idea of a consumer-recommendation guide was too simplistic and didn’t account for the variances in various species, where they were caught, what methods were used to catch them, or how and where they were farmed and what practices each individual farm employed.

Since then, sustainability has gone beyond buzzword into mainstream. As the Seafood Watch program has grown with consumers, and as buyers felt pressure to offer species with good ratings, the seafood industry has changed its tune and has chosen to work with the program and other non-governmental organizations (NGOs) with similar agendas rather than fight them.

With that in mind, Seafood Watch — which has come to realize the seafood industry is a necessary part of improving fisheries and not the enemy — is expanding its mission to better work with large seafood buyers and have them use their purchasing power to affect changes in fisheries and aquaculture operations that don’t presently meet the program’s sustainability standards. The endeavor first was announced in May at the aquarium’s annual Cooking for Solutions conference.

“What we’re trying to encourage is not to just abandon sources of seafood if it’s got a red-listed or avoid-listed item,” says Jennifer Dianto Kemmerly, head of the Seafood Watch program. “We really want retailers to try engaging their supply chain and producers in improving those fisheries. This whole concept of fisheries improvement projects or aquaculture improvement projects is something we feel is really important to affect change on the water.”

Along with other organizations such as World Wildlife Fund (WWF) and Sustainable Fisheries Partnership (SFP), and working with its major buyer partners, the Seafood Watch program wants to encourage buyers to ease off fish purchases on the red (avoid) list and to instead focus on sourcing fish from its green (best choices) or yellow (good alternative) lists.

“If you’re sourcing something and it’s on the avoid list, let’s see if it’s already engaged in a fisheries improvement project with one of these other organizations I mentioned, WWF or SFP, and if not, is there a way for you to use your purchasing power and your leverage to try to get that fishery engaged in an improvement project,” says Kemmerly. “Instead of abandoning it, try to improve it and use your market forces to do that.”

One company working with the aquarium’s Seafood Watch program is Santa Monica Seafood, which created a new blue ranking to go along with the aquarium’s green-yellow-red system. Under its blue rating, Santa Monica ranks fisheries the program hasn’t yet assessed and individual fish farms it is not allowed to rank.

“So we can go to a farm, and using the Monterey Bay criteria, let’s say it’s a single species farmed in five different countries, the circumstances in those five different countries … location can make a difference in the various parameters that are considered in the report,” says Logan Kock, Santa Monica’s VP for strategic purchasing and responsible sourcing.

“Using their criteria, you can go through the same process, drill down to the particular farm. You can’t say it’s a green, you can’t say it’s a yellow, but in our case we can say it’s a blue. It’s a red by Monterey standards, but if they were to change the criteria and actually went to the specific farm, then if they could in their charter take that farm, they might elevate this to a yellow, possibly a green.”

On the wild side, it can depend on the source, he says. For example, if there is yellowfin tuna in the Indian Ocean, the company looks at the various countries within the region catching the fish. “Countries with licensed onboard observers that put GPS or monitoring trackers on longline fishing vessels, you could say these guys are definitely doing something about it,” says Kock.

“They may not be up to the highest level like a green, but you’ve also got to encourage people to keep going. You can’t keep discouraging, can’t keep throwing people that are trying into that same red pool. [Seafood Watch is] trying to drill down further, but they have certain constraints built into their charter.”

Aramark, the Philadelphia-based global foodservice company that operates in 22 countries and has several thousand customers, and which this spring was hired by Monterey Bay Aquarium to run its concessions, is working with the aquarium to help encourage fisheries to improve sustainability. Robert Dennill, Aramark’s associate VP of corporate responsibility, says the project is an important focus for the company.

“We’re working with the Seafood Watch program on trying to identify exactly those fisheries that are relevant to Aramark’s services,” Dennill says. “We are eager and willing and working with Seafood Watch and looking at ways in which we can integrate some of their products into our offerings and help with the fisheries improvement program.”

Seafood Watch is also trying to drive buyers to look at eco-certified sources of seafood, which Kemmerly says broadens the portfolio of options for companies. “So it’s not just ‘buy from the green and yellow list,’ it’s ‘if you’ve got stuff that you’re procuring and it’s on the red list, let’s try to figure out a way to try to get those fisheries or farms improved, but let’s also support those eco-certified sources,’” she says.

To do this, the program plans to conduct equivalency exercises that identify what credible eco-certification schemes, such as the Marine Stewardship Council (MSC), look like.

“We basically take their standards and if they work out to at least a yellow Seafood Watch rating, we would say that’s an equivalent eco-certification standard and we would recommend to our major buyer partners you could source from our green or yellow lists, but also the MSC because their standards are at least equivalent to a Seafood Watch yellow,” says Kemmerly.

This helps ensure fisheries and aquaculture operations doing the right things to promote sustainability are recognized, and increases the pool of sustainable seafood for suppliers, retailers and foodservice operators that have pledged to switch their purchasing to sustainable sources.

“There can be enough (sustainable seafood) supply if we drive this plan to correction,” says Kemmerly. “Let’s not just abandon stuff, let’s try to recognize the credible eco-certification schemes and standards, let’s try to drive fisheries and farms toward improvement and let’s recognize the stuff that’s already there that is very sustainable.”

To better work with its major buyers — along with Santa Monica and Aramark, Seafood Watch works with Compass Group (which ran the aquarium’s concessions before Aramark), Whole Foods Market and Disney — Kemmerly says the program is automating and streamlining its information so buyers can find it easier, and to better identify the information and education needs of buyers. The program isn’t looking for any more buyer partners — and won’t need to if the information is better organized and easier to find.

“We’ve got to give the different audiences the more appropriate tools. If you’ve got grenadier and there’s like 12 different recommendations based on jurisdiction and gear type, but they’re all ‘avoid,’ then you should just put grenadier avoid on the pocket guide,” says Kemmerly. “But if you’re a buyer, you’re going to want to see exactly what gear type and where it’s from is yielding that avoid [recommendation] because you might be getting it from that source, you might be getting it from a slightly different source, you’re going to want to see that level of information, whereas a consumer is like, ‘that’s too much information.’”

The program wants to engage buyers earlier in its assessment process by making use of information and expertise available only to them, says Kemmerly, as they have information not usually found in its stock assessments.

“Sometimes the relationships we develop with [a company like] Icelandic or a High Liner — it’s not that there’s a partnership, it’s that there’s a value to the information sharing and opening those lines of communication,” she says. “They might be able to hit upon an issue in a review that we might not come across, or some data that’s being collected on the water that we’re just not privy to.

“If Icelandic has access to the Ministry of Fisheries and can do an introduction for us and make sure we have a line into the utmost expert in a particular fishery, that’s the type of relationship we need to have with them,” Kemmerly says. “And vice versa, they can call us … and say, ‘Hey, major change is afoot, I see you might be obtaining this report soon, let’s make sure we’re talking and we’re getting you the information you need.’ That two-way street, those are the types of relationships — we don’t call them partnerships, they are just information-sharing relationships that will benefit all of us.”

Seafood Watch has 2,000 seafood recommendations, but those can’t all be put in a pocket guide, though the database of that information is on its website. NGO FishChoice.com is working on an assessment tool and will have a database of Seafood Watch ratings so, and as Kemmerly says, “someone can log on and query our entire database. That’s the kind of stuff we need to get out there to the corporate audience. If we can just get all of our information online, if a company wants to run its own assessment for where their procurement lies in comparison to our ratings list, they can just run it. It’s not secret information; we just need to get a platform ready for them. I’d like to have something like that up by the end of the year.”

Kock put it this way: “A lot of that information is contained on their site, but you have to know where to find it and have the perseverance to go through it. ... What they’re trying to do with their phone thing is to make it a little bit easier to access because the card is just too simplistic and in some ways … it’s a little bit irrelevant at times.”

Aramark likes working with the aquarium because it is a trusted resource for what constitutes a sustainable source “so we can better provide the right type of products our customers are looking for. That gives us assurance, and it gives our customers the assurance that they need,” says Dennill.

Aramark has used the information to change some of its stock-keeping units (SKUs), gradually phase out others or quickly remove some in favor of other SKUs that are more sustainable, either yellow- or green-listed seafood from the Seafood Watch list. Aramark has pledged to become fully sustainable in its seafood buying by 2018, and Dennill says the company is about 50 percent to its goal.

Even with a new emphasis on buyers, Kemmerly says Seafood Watch remains committed to providing consumers with the information they need to make smart seafood purchasing choices.

“We are definitely continuing our consumer work,” she says. “We’re probably going to go toward a more broad consumer audience. We’re doing some market research, looking at what type of information platforms consumers like.” 

Freelance writer Ben DiPietro lives in New York

August 2011 - SeaFood Business 

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