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Networking: Jen Levin
Sustainable Seafood Program Manager, Gulf of Maine Research Institute, Portland, Maine
By James Wright
October 01, 2010
"If you can see where a product came from, where it traveled, how it was processed, whose livelihood was affected by that purchase - it makes all the difference in the world. It makes us more conscientious consumers."
Hunters and trappers in Jen Levin's home state of Wisconsin and commercial fishermen in Maine, where Levin now lives, have a lot in common, she says. Most importantly, they are passionate stewards of the resources they depend on, despite some people's contrary perceptions. Her work at the nonprofit Gulf of Maine Research Institute (GMRI) involves collaborative research with fishermen to encourage more selective and sustainable harvest methods.
GMRI, which Levin says contributes to seafood-buying-guide research yet remains neutral on consumer wallet-card recommendations, is guiding Delhaize America's retail banners - Hannaford, Bloom, Sweet Bay and Food Lion, among others - in their quest to source more sustainable seafood by engaging their suppliers to verify their products' origins. And in the coming months, GMRI will unveil the Gulf of Maine Responsibly Harvested label, which will act as a traceability tool for seafood buyers and consumers.
Wright: How did you get into sustainability research?
Levin: My first job out of college was promoting hunting and trapping. I came to realize how important sustainable use of renewable resources really is and I wanted to work more proactively on figuring out how we can live within our means. I went from pretty anti-hunting to promoting hunting and trapping as a way to connect to the natural environment, to understand where food comes from and as a mechanism to understand population dynamics.
One strong similarity [with fishermen] is the hunters and trappers I worked with were the biggest conservationists I knew. They knew more about the natural environment and ecosystem dynamics than anybody who could possibly study it as an academic. They also had a strong consciousness - they were environmentalists. I think commercial fishermen are very much the same.
Is the seafood that GMRI evaluates for Delhaize from beyond the Gulf of Maine?
Yes. We're engaging Delhaize America's suppliers to get some verification about where their products are coming from and how they're managed. We're simply acting as a reviewer of the information that's coming in.
All of our research is collaborative with fishermen. We have a multidisciplinary science team that conducts research on the marine environment, including studying and applying a concept called Environmental Management Systems. It's about how to reduce environmental impact while simultaneously improving quality and decreasing costs. Ultimately, you end up with a more profitable business. A big part of our work at GMRI is bringing together the various interests - the conservation community, the fishing community, the scientists - and figuring out what they have in common and then developing partnerships and projects around that. It's led to some great active partnerships between former adversaries because they came to realize that everyone is working toward the same goal.
How important is traceability?
It's critical for two reasons. For the supplier or buyer, they have to know where [the seafood] came from in order to back up any claims around how it was harvested. For the consumer, it's a huge part of building that connection and creating an overall awareness of the impacts we have in our consumption. I would argue about having traceability on any kind of product we consume. If you can see where a product came from, where it traveled, how it was processed, whose livelihood was affected by that purchase - it makes all the difference in the world. It makes us more conscientious consumers.