Scientists, policy influencers, advocates, manufacturers, journalists, chefs and restaurateurs recently gathered at the Monterey Bay Aquarium’s Sustainable Foods Institute to dive deep under the surface of the seafood industry. Here are six major points that we took away from the event.
Technology will be the key to traceability in our seafood. If the end vision is boat to plate, how can we get there, when the seafood supplier may be thousands of miles away, shipping a product through a complex supply chain that’s riddled with randomness, fragmentation and fraud?
The problem, as summed up by Tejas Bhatt, director of the Global Food Traceability Center at the Institute of Food Technologists, is this: “Right now we’re nowhere near boat to plate. Supply chain traceability is lacking. When the consumer looks at a label, they have no idea what it means.”
Just as “trust marks” like “dolphin free” caught on, the next generation of labels will need to tell us a whole lot more, and that requires tracking the supply chain with bar codes, time stamps, data in an online cloud and more. But the systems to trace seafood in place now at both large-scale and small-scale fisheries are limited and low tech (on paper).
“If you’re at sea, connectivity is an issue,” said Timothy Moore, senior partnerships advisor for the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) Oceans and Fisheries Partnership. “Vessels in Southeast Asia see it as a burden. [However], satellite companies have been bringing costs down, addressing the initial barrier that tech is expensive.”
“The window of opportunity for seafood fraud…you could drive a semi truck through it,” said Eric Enno Tamm, general manager for traceability initiatives at Ecotrust Canada. Ecotrust created a system called ThisFish, an online tool that combines seafood tracking and social media.
More mobile technology (and getting fishing boats to use it) will be essential for change, as will buy-in from big suppliers who can set the standard and offer incentives so fisheries big and small will see the value in tracking their catches.
“Trust can be built with the supplier relationship, and to have that ability to verify trust…having that push from large seafood suppliers will be the driver behind traceability,” Tejas said.
Scale means a lot when it comes to sustainability. Change happens when big companies see the value in sustainable practices like working to get responsibly raised/fished products, simply because of scale. “If big companies make it a pre-competitive issue, it’s not a niche differentiation then — it’s a standard,” said M. Sanjayan, a global conservation scientist, writer and Emmy-nominated news contributor.
Seafood is a human-rights issue. Did you know that you’ve probably eaten seafood that was brought to you by slave labor? For 18 months, four journalists from the Associated Press stalked ships in Southeast Asia to investigate horrifically abusive practices.
“We basically confirmed things we’d been hearing about conditions on the boats from runaway slaves: 24-hour workdays, murder, beatings, men in cages, not docking for months and even years,” recounted Robin McDowell, who was part of that award-winning AP team. “These men had been kidnapped or tricked onto these boats and lured into this industry, and the Thai government went and said, ‘There’s nothing wrong here.’”
As a result of this investigation, many of the men were able to escape. But there are still 20 to 40 million people affected by forced labor. Organizations like The Issara Institute, which works with communities and businesses to tackle human trafficking and forced labor, are making a difference.
The seafood supply chain is notoriously hard to track, and fishing boats in Southeast Asia often aren’t equipped with advanced software—or any incentive—to diligently track the shrimp they are moving. “It’s hard for people to know who’s upholding the law,” said Lisa Rende Taylor, founder and executive director of The Issara Institute. The work continues, and there’s no one-size-fits-all easy answer.
Kosher shrimp, consumer value and marine plastics
Kosher shrimp made from algae is close to being a thing. A Shabbat dinner featuring shrimp cocktail? It could happen. The way it could happen is through algae. New Wave Foods, a company with a mission to change how we eat seafood, has been hard at work in laboratories, tinkering with the fisherman’s platter in ways that will blow your mind.
“Shrimp is the most-consumed seafood, but where does it come from?” said Dominique Barnes, CEO and cofounder of New Wave Foods. “It embodies some of the worst practices, but we enjoy eating it.”
New Wave has been developing a shrimp alternative that’s made from algae and will be so similar to shrimp, you’ll get that same “pop” when you bite into it.
“The top benchmarks are texture and sensation,” Barnes said, describing prototypes being studied for their elasticity, fibrous breakdown and sensation.
Kasja Alger, executive chef at Mud Hen Tavern in Los Angeles, will likely be an early adopter of the new kosher algae shrimp. Much of her menu is unapologetically plant based.
“When we heard that story about shrimp and slavery, we decided to just take it off the menu,” Alger said.
She and the kitchen staff at Mud Hen have already been experimenting with algae oil and other algae-based alternatives, which even Bay Area diners may need some help adjusting to.
“If you bring in the word algae, people get scared…the same with tofu,” Alger said. “But chefs are in a unique position; we affect what people eat and what people think is cool.”
Consumers are starting to see the value in sustainable seafood. Think how much Starbucks changed the way we value coffee. Before Pumpkin Spice Latte became a household name, coffee was just seen as a generic product you scooped out of a can, put in the percolator and went about your day. The same thing is true of wine and cheese.
Those can serve as business models for a new appreciation of sustainable seafood, and getting consumers to pay a premium for it. It means something to today’s consumer to be able to connect with the fisherman in some way.
“More business are saying, ‘We’re not selling a commodity, we’re selling stories,’” said Eric Enno Tamm, general manager for traceability initiatives at Ecotrust Canada.
Marine plastics are affecting the fish we eat. More than 8 trillion pieces of plastic debris enter our watersheds each year from the U.S. alone, from broken-down bits of plastic utensils, plastic drink containers, medicine bottles, toothbrushes and plastic grocery bags (scientists have found rafts of them covering sections of the ocean).
“There’s been many people who have tried to estimate how many pieces of plastic floating on the surface of the ocean and it’s about 200,000 metric tons. What does that mean? It’s about 1,000 blue wales. And wales are very dense and plastic is very light, so that gives you an idea. That’s a lot of plastic floating on the ocean,” said Chelsea Rochman, assistant professor at the University of Toronto and UC Davis.
What does this mean for people?
“We subject ourselves with our lifestyle and choices to a lot of chemicals,” said Rolf Halden, professor of sustainable engineering and the built environment at Arizona State University. “It’s impossible not to notice plastic on the beach and floating on the ocean. We are doing the same thing to ourselves.”
Halden described plastics made — in the past and present — with hormones and carcinogens, referring to those as “chemical mistakes.”
Letise LaFeir, California Ocean Policy Manager at the Monterey Bay Aquarium, said that preventing all this plastic in the first place is a better course of action than trying to clean up what’s already there. Policies like California’s controversial ban on plastic bags can be a way to make that happen.
“What we’re doing here at the Monterey Bay Aquarium as a trusted voice, we are saying we can’t take a step backwards,” LaFeir said. “To ban this one source of plastic going into the ocean will set quite the precedent for other states in the country. It’s tangible and something you can engage people over. It’s an everyday choice you can make.”