Getting good news stories broadcast is always difficult. The shock/horror story is always more valuable to the newspaper, radio or TV people and we clearly lack a journalism ethic of wanting to research to get to the truth rather than printing what is easy to do.

Here is a case in point. The editor knows he needs a "fishy" article for just before Easter and The Age in Melbourne printed this story.

The article starts correctly with the fact that customers do not put "sustainability" at the top of their buying tree and then somehow turn this into a "guilt" issue. In Australia, it is the government that controls fishing and aquaculture through licensing, quotas and other management tools, but the impression you get from this and other such articles is that it is the NGO who controls all these issues. Did the journalist approach government to get quotes about this issue? Seemingly not. They go to an NGO who has no authority and simply has "opinions" and then they promote that NGO by suggesting you go to that website to get information. How pathetic is that?

I realize this is par for the course but is that the fault of the industry, the government, or the journalist?

It seems that everyone is running scared of the NGO groups and giving their stories or their side of debates airplay and I simply do not understand why this should be so — they are a minority group and the majority of them are only trying to get their name in lights to enable them to get people to donate more funds into their franchised coffers. Of course the reason is simply that they have seen this space and, credit to them, they have filled it. Isn’t about time to take the oxygen out of their air and get these debates back on to the right keel?

I do give credit to NGO groups for being organized and working globally and pushing the industry and others through these hoops on environmental sustainable production — an area the industry had failed dismally and an area government was reluctant to "own." Clearly now on all fronts there is strong activity and ownership of the messages and it is now time for all NGO groups to start taking a backseat and allow the market to sort it out. We have to stop the proliferation of labels and get some clarity into the equation.

Additionally NGO’s masquerading as certifiers, auditors and trainers is a little like putting the "fox into the hen house." These are not positions for charitable organizations and will tend to create conflict of interest/insider trading issues as has already occurred in Vietnam on pangasius.

So many NGO’s have become so attuned to getting in the limelight we are seeing lots of strange statements — here is my current favorite one:

"A recent survey shows that an overwhelming majority of European citizens want fish products on sale within the EU to come from sources that aren’t overfished." Apparently 88 percent of the 14,635 people surveyed have answered this in an online survey and bearing in mind 495 million people live in EU is it really fair and reasonable to conclude "overwhelming majority of European citizens?" I think not. But we do look forward to the EU taking this on board and dropping all their customs duties/tariffs to enable environmentally sustainable product to get into the EU — I jest, of course! Why have responsible free trade when we can have rhetoric and barriers?

What we all need to understand is that the industry (and the ultimate consumer) cannot afford expensive schemes which do not give them benefits over costs. I look at the proliferation of NGO groups operating in this space today compared with say just 5 years ago and there are literally thousands more people just "sitting on the back of the boat" — they are not producing 1 kilogram more of product but they are absorbing an enormous amount of money. Surely we can do better at this time when the world is desperate to find solutions to famine and where food, especially protein, is going to come from to feed the world in the future.

To the supermarkets and other big global buyers: you need to get involved with the industry, assist and encourage change and really be part of the process because you need the industry to survive to have fish/seafood for your counters and customers. You need to start disenfranchising the NGO’s because they do not deliver one product to your outlet which enables your tills to turnover which in turn pays your employees and keeps your shareholders happy. On the other hand, the industry does.

Despite the fact that governments control the harvesting through the most complicated and lengthy legal arrangements, you will ever come across their lack of "action" is alarming and concerning. Sitting helplessly on the sidelines without too much idea about what they can do is a major concern. Generally there is faith and trust in the world’s food safety systems and it is beyond me why governments have not created the same arena for "sustainable harvesting" as they did for "food safety." They left the space for NGOs to walk in, and walk in they did. Very few, if any, NGOs agree with each other as they all fight to get to use their own logos and talk up their own paid for science and the poor old customer, the person who at the end of the day foots the bill to get their fish feed each week, is none the wiser for all of their involvement. In fact, they are more confused now than ever.

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Mary Fowler


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