It's all hands on deck to save seafood supply chains

Fishing nets and buoys
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Seafood companies are casting a wider net when it comes to working together.

Seafood businesses are embracing an unusual way to reduce the risks posed by unsustainable practices and capacity challenges throughout the seafood supply chain: collaborating with their competitors, and even helping them make money. 

That’s not a natural step for many businesses. But as industry leaders are proving, it’s sometimes the only way to address the complex sustainability issues embedded in the global seafood market. Building on their successful collaborations with NGOs (also once considered unthinkable by many in the seafood industry), seafood buyers, marketers and processors are using pre-competitive strategies as a way to ensure their long-term business health.

These strategies — collaborative market actions taken by competitive entities — are often the only way to address the system-level sustainability challenges in the seafood industry.

As in other industries (coffee and forest products, for example) in which pre-competitive strategies have improved social and environmental conditions, seafood businesses are responding to a market where competition for limited resources affects their business more than competition for customers does. If you don’t have the resource base to deliver products, you won’t have any consumers.

“Any time you’re dealing with pre-competitive issues, the first challenge is to get everyone to think that if they work together, they are all going to make money together, and it’s OK if you make money and your competitor makes money,” said John Connelly, president of the National Fisheries Institute, during a SeaWeb Seafood Summit interview. “That’s the most important thing: A rising tide literally will lift all boats.”

Three ways seafood competitors are collaborating on sustainability  

There are plenty of opportunities to apply pre-competitive strategies in the seafood sector. The following three established efforts illustrate the possibilities on various levels: preserving targeted resources, improving fishing and aquaculture practices, and establishing sustainability benchmarks up and down the supply chain. 

1. First, the industry-led NFI Crab Council sponsors sustainability projects in Southeast Asia designed to preserve crab as a popular, plentiful seafood item as well as an important economic resource for local communities. The council works with in-country partners and key stakeholders to address fishery needs through scientific, social and financial channels, including funding fishery improvement projects.

“The NFI Crab Council was started because we found that the size and type of crab we were getting from Southeast Asia was becoming smaller, and that’s an indication that a fishery long term will run into problems,” Connelly explains.

“So the industry got together and said, we need to look at how we can help folks in Southeast Asia run a better fishery and a more sustainable fishery. But we also have a responsibility on our end, as the importers and processors and marketing companies, to actually fund some of that work, and the only way you can do that is collaboratively.”

The NFI Crab Council is currently funding fishery improvement projects in Vietnam, Indonesia, Thailand, the Philippines and Sri Lanka, and all but one are in the process of obtaining Marine Stewardship Council certification.

2. In addition, the SeaPact collaborative works to improve global seafood sustainability by using the collective power of nine like-minded North American seafood companies to improve the fishing and fish farming systems they procure from. SeaPact coordinates grants to improve fisheries and fishing communities and promotes common practices when using tools such as fishery improvement projects.

Guy Dean, vice president of Vancouver, Canada-based Albion Fisheries, which co-founded SeaPact, said in a Summit interview that SeaPact grew out of the realization that working with the NGO community was a great practice but not sufficient on its own. 

“We look at sustainability as being based on three pillars,” he said. “Number one is economics—it’s got to make good economic and business sense. Second is environment. Third is social effects. And for us to really influence change and make a difference, we needed to come together as companies, focused on profit, focused on the economic side of the business, but still passionate about the social components and the environmental components of sustainability.”

Initial concerns about conflicts among the businesses never came into play, he noted. “The focus is on maintaining long-term profitability and longevity for everyone.”

SeaPact has funded fishery improvement projects in North, South and Central America, and has invested in research to improve aquaculture operations. Grant recipients include a Maine soft-shell clam fishery facing threats stemming from rising seawater temperatures, a Brazilian lobster fishery seeking MSC certification, and a technology project to help trawl fishers minimize bycatch.

3. Finally, the UK-based Sustainable Seafood Coalition unites retailers, food service companies and seafood suppliers to work toward making sure all seafood sold in the UK comes from sustainable sources. The coalition has developed voluntary codes of conduct for its members that address diversification of sources, responsible sourcing, information gathering, clear labeling and other issues.

SSC members topped Greenpeace’s 2015 ranking of major UK supermarkets and brands on tuna sustainability measures. 

“There’s a good financial and economic rationale for taking the approach we have, with security as a major issue,” said Ally Dingwall, a 2016 SeaWeb Seafood Champion and the aquaculture and fisheries manager at Sainsbury’s, an SSC member.

“If we want fish to sell in the future, we need to invest in that now. We need to make sure we’re working together to deliver sustainability for fish stocks and in aquaculture cultivation. It’s unlikely that you’re going to deliver this sort of fundamental change on the water by yourself, so collaboration is the key.”

I don’t mean to imply that pre-competitive collaborations are easy. As SSC Coordinator Katie Miller of the SSC acknowledges, “Working together with your competitors potentially is quite challenging. One of the key things we learned at the Sustainable Seafood Coalition is that it takes a lot of time. If you’re working with competitors, you’re going to need to build trust before you can make a difference.” 

The effort is worth it, though. Seafood’s supply chain issues are pressing, and pre-competitive strategies are often the most cost-effective and efficient way for businesses to assure that they can continue to get the seafood they need while meeting environmental and social responsibility commitments.