Seafood Summit in Malta

Yavanna Puts/ February 14, 2016/ Blog/ 0 comments

In the past week some of our NDEG members travelled all the way to the beautiful island state of Malta, known for its azure waters, historical legacy and seafood. And that latter was the reason for going there: the annual Seaweb Sustainable Seafood Summit took place on 1-3 February. There were fieldtrips and a workshop, plenty of interviews, networking and social dinners, and therefore it was quite an intensive conference for the jet lagged academic.

Most of the speakers and attendees joining the conference were representatives from aquaria, NGOs, seafood retailers and buyers, restaurants, and other consultants in the seafood industry. The Summit exposed the hot-and-happening among those NGOs and businesses concerned with sustainability in the seafood section. Some of these issues were recently brought forward; others are currently on the rise in the industry. Here are the most-talked-about topics at the Seafood Summit last week:

1. The social aspect of sustainability: on the very top of our list is the social aspect of sustainability. Traditionally, sustainability is described as having three pillars: environmental, economical and social. However, in practice, most people associate sustainability with the environmental aspect, as is the focus of many NGOs.

An entire half day workshop was dedicated to the labour issues in the Thai seafood industry. Many NGOs and businesses are attempting to strategically place themselves in the issue: is now the time to address the issues, and how? During the workshop, several organisations gave five minute presentations of their plans of action. For example, a collaboration between Seafish and the US National Fisheries Institute facilitate a group of commercial companies in the US and Europe with the aim assessing the scale of the issue, steps for addressing the issue, and the creation of an action plan (UK/US Reykjavik group). MSC, the certification organisation primarily focusing on the environment, has made it clear that the environment is still their primary focus and is testing the waters for collaboration. Activists like Andy Hall and new organisations like Issara have come to the attention of businesses and consumers alike, as everyone now wants to secure their supply chain through some means. The workshop has brought up some new questions: what is the social aspect of sustainability? Who have what responsibilities in this matter? And, what are the best means to fight labour issues?

2. One of the means mentioned as a solution of labour abuses, but also a main topic of the conference, is traceability. Traceability concerns the complete transparency of the supply chain from vessel to consumer. The risks of complete transparency of the supply chain are mostly for the middle person, who could lose their business as a result of direct buying practices that usually go through them. During the conference, there was some discussion whether the ‘loss of the middle person’ would be an issue, or a much needed revolution of the way we buy and sell seafood. Some organisations are looking into creating direct buyer platforms. Moreover, there was talk about the added value of traceability to the consumer experience, which birthed the term ‘faceability’. Faceability is a term describing the marketable aspect of traceability as being the narratives behind the seafood, such as the stories of the fishermen involved, or even of the fish. The big question with traceability however, is what systems to put in place, and by whose investment, in order to trace fish from vessel to plate. Several pilot projects have successfully implemented data systems on their vessels, for example in Indonesia or the UK. But if all these projects define their own systems, does that not lead to a clash of systems, double information, or the inability to find gaps in the system? A term that came up in this discussion was interoperability: where several systems work together, like how all Apple products work with each other.

3. Seafood’s presence in our diet: a third topic that was discussed often, was the combination of factors such as population growth, an increasing need for protein, developing countries and environmental pressures, that lead to an increased interest in seafood as a global protein need. In other words: is the seafood industry going to have a bigger influence on our dinner plates? It was pointed out that often, when we talk about essential proteins, we talk about beef, poultry, pork, but not about seafood. This, even though many developing countries are dependent on seafood for a substantial part of their diet. With the immense pressures that beef production puts on the environment (mostly through climate change by the emission of gases), and with next to none of these pressures by aquaculture and fisheries, seafood could be a viable option to replace some of the protein in our diets. Aquaculture is even less environmentally damaging than most vegetarian options. Yet, farmed fish is often framed negatively in the Northern countries. Some consumers fear contamination or over-processing, whereas some cooks pointed out the increasingly bland taste of farmed fish. However, with such a low environmental impact, and many health benefits, farmed fish is a viable contender for the partial replacement of other animal proteins in our diet.

Overall, the summit showed a convergence of different perspectives: none of them being particularly wrong or right. From an environmental perspective, the prospects of our oceans are currently pretty bleak: acidification, overfishing, climate change are all causing significant declines in marine flora and fauna. But, improvement of management practices could prevent the worst case scenarios. This implies cooperation between governments, NGOs, fishermen, businesses and consumers. Many speakers at the Seafood Summit showed goodwill, but everyone knows that goodwill in itself will not be enough –businesses need to show leadership, governments need to drive actual change, and throughout the whole industry there is a need for improved communication.

Yavanna Puts is a master’s student in Applied Communication Science at Wageningen University, the Netherlands, with a special interest in environmental governance and fisheries. Applied Communication Science focuses on communication with and between citizens, civil society and governing bodies with regards to quality of life and the environment. Yavanna’s interest is in environmental governance of oceans and especially fisheries. At NDEG, she will be working on the research database. Her tasks include literature research, database management, and setting up a GIS database for the website. For further studies, Yavanna aims to research the role of civil society in environmental governance and knowledge dissemination, in order to improve the state of the world’s oceans and fisheries.

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