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One on One: Heather Tausig


February 01, 2009

Aquariums are much more than big glass tanks full of fish and other exotic marine creatures. Leading U.S. aquariums are becoming increasingly influential advocates for ocean health, marine conservation and sustainable seafood. California's Monterey Bay Aquarium (MBA), for example, publishes the prominent Seafood Watch consumer seafood guide that ranks seafood species from various regions and production methods according to their sustainability profile. Numerous aquariums across the country are educating their visitors about fishery and aquaculture management and the importance of sustainability.

The New England Aquarium in Boston draws 1.3 million visitors annually, hoping to inspire and educate them about the oceans. "We've tried to balance the need to entertain with education and action to address the challenges facing our oceans," says Heather Tausig, director of conservation, who focuses on the aquarium's unique relationship with an important audience: the seafood industry.

Tausig has been with the aquarium for 12 years and has seen the relationship between the industry and the environmental community evolve from animosity to meaningful collaboration. Since 2005 the aquarium has helped seafood suppliers and buyers develop sustainable seafood sourcing policies. The aquarium partners with retailer Ahold USA; foodservice company Darden Restaurants of Orlando, Fla., the parent company of Red Lobster; suppliers Gorton's of Gloucester, Mass., and most recently Orion Seafood International of Portsmouth, N.H. Each company has committed to a long-term affiliation with the aquarium.

Tausig, 39, hails from San Francisco but spent summers of her youth in British Columbia where she and her siblings feasted on Dungeness crabs. After graduate school at Boston University, she stayed in Beantown where she lives with her husband and two children. I caught up with her in January to discuss the aquarium's vision and the sustainability movement.

WRIGHT: Do a lot of 
aquariums work together?

TAUSIG: Yes, there's an association called the Aquarium and Zoo Association, aza.org, which accredits aquariums and zoos.

 

Do you work with the MBA?

We do, on a number of fronts. We collaborate on our fisheries work and on climate change. We share a lot of information not only on animals but also on exhibits, educational pieces and ocean conservation work.

How has the relationship between the seafood industry and the 
environmental community changed?

You see a number of partnerships now, even with antagonistic groups. I never pin [the reason why] on one specific cause; there have been a number of factors over the last decade. There's always been some type of collaboration, like with fishing gear. Now there's certainly less of a focus on litigation and advocacy and more of a willingness to work together to find solutions. It's been gradual.

We started out facilitating dialogues, but we've shifted to active engagement on solutions. When we started our work, our first foray with Ahold USA, we had broad expertise in terms of our research scientists. We then had the opportunity to make a lasting impact on the oceans and directly engage with seafood purchasing solutions. We're focusing on major seafood buyers to put marine conservation into that dynamic, not just price, season and availability.

 

What is the importance of your affiliation with the biggest U.S. seafood restaurant chain?

We have seen this opportunity of working with Darden have a significant influence on them, and their purchasing power as a driver for us. Each of our partners has a slightly different focus and plays a different role in the supply chain. We have seen a commitment by these companies over time to work with us and we're capitalizing on that. There are real benefits to their companies and to our organization.

 

What questions do your 
seafood partners ask?

The companies we work with are interested in sustainability, but they come at it in different ways. Some just want to work on sourcing issues. We have expertise with both wild and farmed fish and give evaluations based on specific sources; we have tools and methodologies to evaluate fisheries and farms. Other companies are looking to train their buyers and staff and even others want guidance on policies and processes. There's no set answer for any company that comes to us; we're flexible in working with companies as they work their way down the sustainability path.

 

Do you work with 
environmental groups?

We have a number of engagements, and aquaculture is an example. Michael Tlusty, our director of research, is on the steering committee for the [World Wildlife Fund's] tilapia Aquaculture Dialogues. He's also on the standards oversight committee for the [Global Aquaculture Alliance].

We're also part of the Common Vision (the Conservation Alliance for Seafood Solutions). More than a dozen organizations got together and articulated why we're working with [seafood] businesses. We have different ways of going about it, but we have common goals. The very first step is committing to developing a comprehensive policy. But this is just a way to start the journey.

An increased focus on corporate social responsibility has played a big role. It's not just about energy, transportation and waste, it's about food procurement. It's a good step in the right direction.

 

Should there be one recognized set of aquaculture standards?

There are a couple different views on that. One thing about the diversity of options is competition makes all groups stronger. On the other front, how those standards are communicated to the public can be confusing. In our discussions we're asking, "Are the eco-labels important for consumer recognition or more for behind the scenes, for the supply chain?"

 

Are you seeking new clients?

We're entertaining a number of other inquiries. We don't have articulated reasons regarding whom we'll work with and why. We want to work with companies that can make a difference in the supply chain and also offer a commitment from senior management. It's going to take all companies working together to make a lasting impact.

 

Associate Editor James Wright can be e-mailed at jwright@divcom.com

 

 

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