Like so many sustainability professionals, Angelina Skowronski’s career trajectory hasn’t been linear.
After several years working in the seafood industry, building sustainability programs from the ground up and leading Fishpeople Seafood to maintain B Corp status, Skowronski took a sidestep into the adventure sports industry before returning to the sector in her current role as commercial manager at the Marine Stewardship Council (MSC).
In this interview, she discusses how she came to that decision, the massive challenge we all face in creating more sustainable seafood systems and her realization that she didn’t need to be the smartest person in the room to make a difference.
Shannon Houde: So, Angelina, you made a return to working in seafood in 2020 after a little time out of the sector. Tell us about that journey to your current role with the MSC.
Angelina Skowronski: My start in seafood began unintentionally in Alaska. I moved up there in my mid-20s for adventure, driving from Colorado through the ALCAN highway to a small town called Homer. Within the first week, I ended up in the fish hold of a halibut boat and it kind of took off from there. After a couple of years of working in the seafood industry on both the private sector and nonprofit side, I completely switched to the adventure sports industry. About two years into adventure sports, I sat there and realized that selling surfboards was not what I wanted to be doing. However, I wasn’t sure exactly what I wanted. Do I want to go back into seafood? And if so, what kind of role do I want? During the job search, it was about figuring out what skill sets I had and where those skill sets would fit best. When you're considering making a career move, it's hard to look back at yourself and say, "This is what I excel in." The journey in changing careers is all about figuring out who you are, what value you bring and finding the good fit that brings out that positivity in you.
Houde: And you landed such a fantastic role at the MSC. Obviously, you brought this background in seafood, but what other skills do you think really helped you land this current role?
Skowronski: Of course, the seafood background helped me get this position. However, much of my work is outreach and relationship building, therefore being an extrovert helped, too. I always knew I was a outgoing and social, but I had not quite figured out how that actually helped me in my work. In addition, in college I studied journalism. Studying that field, you get a lot of practice at asking the right questions from difficult people who may be resistant to answering. That experience allowed me to become confident in talking to strangers, to approach someone and say, "Hi, how's it going? Can I ask you some questions?"
Houde: So, tell us just a little bit about MSC, the sustainable seafood sector and how you see it evolving?
Skowronski: In a nutshell, the MSC sets the standard for sustainable fishing. The MSC is a voluntary program, so fisheries that want to achieve MSC certification are audited against the MSC standards by third-party auditors. In addition to the fishery standard, there is the chain of custody standard which ensures that your MSC-certified product is accurately labeled and can be traced back to another certified business, enabling consumers to make informed choices and protecting themselves from seafood fraud. Supply chain businesses who sell MSC certified products must also be audited by a third-party auditor against the chain of custody standard.
A great way to push the conversation on sustainability is to ask questions wherever you are: at the fresh fish counter, the restaurant, your local fish monger, wherever you buy or eat seafood. Don't look at something and just take it at face value.
The majority of my work relies on relationships with those supply chain actors. Once the seafood hits the dock and is sold, everyone that exchanges the seafood along the supply chain is where the bulk of my work lies. The MSC is a nonprofit, but I interact heavily in the for-profit world because that is where change is implemented. It's a nice mélange of understanding what's going on in the nonprofit sector, on science, new strategies in conservation and implementing it in the private sector.
When it comes to looking at the big picture moving forward on ocean conservation and sustainable seafood, at the end of the day, a central theme in our conversations is climate change. How is climate change affecting the fish stocks? And how do we need to adapt the way we benchmark sustainable fisheries against climate change? It's such a big topic and can be a scary topic to address, because it’s not just one policy change. It's policy changes along the entire supply chain. Everything needs to be adapted, and it will take multilateral cooperation for it to be successful.
Houde: Those of us that eat fish, what should we be doing when we go to the grocery store apart from looking for the MSC label? What else can we do to be more responsible consumers?
Skowronski: A great way to push the conversation on sustainability is to ask questions wherever you are: at the fresh fish counter, the restaurant, your local fish monger, wherever you buy or eat seafood. Don't look at something and just take it at face value. Ask, where is this from? How was it harvested? When was it caught? The more that retailers and restaurants get these questions, the more these customer concerns will run up the flagpole to the decision makers. I'm the worst at the grocery and even sushi restaurants. I will sit there at the fresh fish counter or with my server and fire them with questions.
In addition to MSC, there are a couple of other seafood sustainability labels that are out there, too. There’s ASC, which is Aquaculture Stewardship Council. ASC and MSC are sister organizations, and we use the same chain of custody program for supply chain assurance. ASC is another certification label to look out for in the grocery store for any farmed products such as Atlantic salmon, shrimp and seaweed. You can also find Fair Trade’s label on seafood products. And then there are rating systems such as the Monterey Bay Aquarium Seafood Watch, which rates fisheries based on a color-coded system, red for avoid, yellow for good alternative, and green for best choice.
It's a big industry, and there's a lot going on. Sometimes it can be hard to make sense of it all, and even as someone who has been in it for a while, I sometimes struggle. What I would say, too, is to not fault yourself for not fully understanding it. There’s a lot going on, but there are resources out there to help and to make it easier for you to make informed purchasing decisions.
Houde: And so, working at this intersection between the auditors, the MSC and the corporates, what does your day-to-day look like?
Skowronski: It's a lot of building trust and partnerships. Trying to find those supply chain actors that want to commit to sustainability and fostering relationships with them, so that they're on-board long term. Every day is different. When I worked on the fish dock, I would call it dodging bullets and catching frisbees. Some days I wake up to a bunch of emails, and it is an entire day dodging bullets and putting out fires. Other days are like catching frisbees where I'm working on these bigger, goal-oriented multidisciplinary projects. But for the most part, the bulk of my work is external outreach trying to get as many stakeholders as possible to think about sustainability in their business practices. It can be a hard sell, so every day is a challenge.
You want to be the type of person that people want to work with. If they want to work with you, they'll be more willing to align with your concept or your idea.
I'm not selling a monetary or physical item that partners receive. I'm selling the idea of environmental sustainability, and I'm trying to get partners to agree that this is what they need to do for the betterment of the industry and their brand. It's not tangible, and it's sometimes difficult for people to buy in on something that isn't tangible, to buy into this concept of “the greater good.”
Houde: And so, what skill are you using? What skill set do you think is the most crucial in terms of being able to sell this idea?
Skowronski: I would say the two main skills are humility and personality. It's understanding that you're probably not going to be the smartest person in the room, and that's OK. It’s not about being the smartest person in the room, it's about being the most personable. You want to be the type of person that people want to work with. If they want to work with you, they'll be more willing to align with your concept or your idea. It's all about trying to build long-term and trusting relationships with people, rather than looking at it as solely transactional.
Houde: Finally, if someone wanted to get into this space, or work in sustainable seafood or sustainable sourcing and food in general, what are you seeing as the job opportunities emerging in this space?
Skowronski: I think independent third-party certifications are really where the market push is going when it comes to consumer product goods. We [consumers] have all figured out that there's greenwashing out there. Companies need these credible certification schemes to validate and message to the consumer that they are, in fact, doing what they claim to be doing. That means these companies need someone to implement these certifications standards in their operations. Whether it is MSC, ASC, B Corp, [Forest Stewardship Council], etc, having knowledge of how to implement the standards in a company’s operations is going to be very valuable moving forward. Whether companies hire internally or a consultant, this type of work is in demand.
Shannon Houde is an ICF-certified career and leadership coach who founded Walk of Life Coaching in 2009. Her life’s purpose is to enable change leaders to turn their passion into action and to live into their potential - creating scalable social and environmental impact globally. To follow more stories like these, join Shannon for Coffee & Connect where she interviews sustainability practitioners every month to learn more about what their ‘day in the life’ involves.