A legend on leadership

Wally Stevens is one of the most respected men in seafood, a big-picture thinker who nonetheless regards the global seafood supply chain as a community with mutual interests. Over his 45-year career, he’s provided steady leadership at trusted seafood suppliers like Slade Gorton in Boston and, over the past eight years, the Global Aquaculture Alliance (GAA) as its executive director.

Stevens, 73, has long believed in the importance of aquaculture, not only as a way to keep fresh fish in display cases year-round, but as a solution to global food security. Before his time at Slade Gorton, the U.S. Army veteran helped to turn around Maine-based salmon producer Ocean Products Inc., as its president from 1986 to 1990.

Thirty years ago Stevens knew the potential market for farmed seafood had a high ceiling. Today, he often thinks of how essential a healthy aquaculture industry will be for the world 30 years from now. If his hope to “leave this crazy industry a better place” is to be realized, it’ll need more strong advocates like him. Stevens has always had an eye on the future, and as the brains behind the U.S. National Fisheries Institute’s Future Leaders program, he believes that even competitors should be colleagues.

As the president of the GAA-created Responsible Aquaculture Foundation, Stevens can flourish in a role of educator and motivator, spending most of his time in his Portsmouth, N.H., U.S., office. We connected in early September to talk about his distinguished career in seafood, the importance of leadership and the GAA’s annual Global Aquaculture Outlook on Leadership (GOAL) conference, which is set to take place next month in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam.


Why is the focus of this year’s GOAL conference on leadership?
It’s always been an element of the program in that we recognize lifetime achievement in the aquaculture industry. There are five basic challenges facing aquaculture as we seem them: disease management, determining where our feed will be coming from and what that looks like, social accountability, attracting investment capital and earning market support to be more global, instead of North American- or EU-centric.
All these challenges lead to leadership, and we want to constantly remind people of the importance of working together. Through combined activities we’ll best be able to address these five challenges. Without recognition of working together in a leadership way, no one segment is going to be able to overcome the challenges for aquaculture. It’s what holds us together.

You have been a respected leader for most of your career. Was there ever a time when you questioned your ability to lead?  
I question my ability every day. Every time I’m involved with a new learning situation I overcome that by recognizing that there are other people who can do lots of things better than I can. My job is to motivate them to do those things. I guess I’m confident that I have the ability to attract and work with other folks to get a job done. If that’s leadership, so be it. Recognizing others and encouraging them has been helpful for me and for them.

What was the toughest business challenge you faced during your long career in seafood?
For me, it was the hard decision to leave my first position with Booth Fisheries, an old line seafood enterprise. My gut told me that it just wasn’t staying current, and dealing with current situations the way it needed to. I joined Ocean Products of Maine in 1986. It was that decision, and getting Ocean Products to a point where it could survive and could be passed on to other people who had allowed it to be successful. Which is what happened — it’s now Cooke Aquaculture, with grow-out operations, hatcheries and processing facilities in Maine and eastern Canada.

At the time it was a challenge in Maine to have a salmon aquaculture operation. It was a challenge to deal with all the regulatory issues for salmon farming. It was a real challenge for us in that we started with a strain of salmon that did not lend itself to salmon farming, a landlocked salmon. It was a tough time. For me it was eye-opening in that it became much clearer for me to see the critical role that aquaculture needed to play; science-based production of food and water had to become more common so that we’d have less reliance on the capture fishery. But it was a great experience and I’m pleased to see that in spite of all that the enterprise we put a lot of hard work into exists today as a leading salmon producer.

Aquaculture will play a huge role in global food security in the future. What’s the most important advancement the industry can make now?
We need to address the major challenges — particularly disease management and feed issues although I won’t distinguish any of the five in particular — in a way that mitigates risk to get broader investor support into the aquaculture space. There’s too much dependence upon families and startup operations, although there’s some vertical integration. We need aquaculture as an industry to be attractive to Wall Street and the New York Stock Exchange. It will only happen as we address the challenges collectively, and they need to be viewed by sophisticated investors as issues that are being managed well. Today we’ve got a ways to go in all of those areas. A lot of discussion about doubling global aquaculture production in the next 30 years or so: How can that be done, and what species will become the most prominent?

Given that we address the five key issues and the marketplace will care about what we’re doing, [the question is] how do we better manage these animals to prevent disease and where does the feed come from?  
And I think it will be warmwater species in the future. Salmon will continue to do quite nicely, thank you, and will continue to grow. Major growth will likely be with tilapia, pangasius, others like cobia, sea bass and sea bream and a number of other fish. We see a lot of growth in shellfish; oysters, clams and mussels. I’m just not sure there will be one or two salmons or shrimps of today that will be the next major ones.

How has the GAA raised the acceptance of farmed seafood in the global marketplace?
From a GAA perspective, what we have focused on is getting all stakeholders in aquaculture involved in an understanding what the farming of seafood is about, and through meeting standards, in a responsible way. Other groups have done the same thing. It has been accomplished on our part by incorporating the knowledge and passion of the NGO community into our process and has led over time to some of the farmed seafood, for example, not being red-listed by Seafood Watch. We’ve made slow but steady progress from a credibility point of view to where other stakeholders, who may have had a jaundiced view of aquaculture, to come to accept it and acknowledge its acceptability. It’s another example of figuring out how to work collectively with others stakeholders with different perspectives than the industry might have to improve the lot for everyone. I’m not sure we’ve gotten to the consumer but we have gotten through to marketplace through our programs. The big challenge is getting to the consumer, which will take a collective effort.

How has the certification landscape changed since GAA, ASC and GlobalGAP agreed to collaborate last year with a memorandum of understanding (MoU) on fish feed?
I would say it’s been a slow recognition that collectively, on the issue of feed for example, that not only the aquaculture folks but the wild-capture folks as well like [the Marine Stewardship Council], that we can come up with adequate ways to increase supplies of raw materials from fisheries that are certified sustainable. No one of us can do that alone. Having those discussions is crucial, and ensuring that the lion’s share of fish feed comes from certified fisheries. There’s a dependence on capture fisheries to continue their certification plans. It’s not the only solution obviously but it’s one of the elements that’s important to address and is better to address with the MoU. In terms of consumer facing, I think each program continues to sell its product to its respective marketplace but I don’t see that taking place at the expense of any one organization. The marketplace always make the the decisions. We’d be foolhardy to suggest that one scheme satisfies the needs of all people in the marketplace. We are playing nicer in the sandbox.

What does your role entail with the Responsible Aquaculture Foundation?
We are at work and have been at work for some time. We’ve undertaken three important disease studies: [Infectious Salmon Anemia] in Chile, White Spot in Mozambique and Madagascar and [Early Mortality Syndrome] in Vietnam. We’ve also run food safety workshops in Malaysia. That really stimulated a lot of interest in the Malaysia industry and government about their opportunities in aquaculture. What is the RFA? It’s a virtual university.

And you’re the dean?
Well, I’m not that smart, but my vision is that we have a virtual university that involves teaching and research. And the research on diseases and feed issues informs our teaching. We do not have a lot of faculty members but we’re good at convening people to be adjunct faculty members and researchers, if you will. It’s really been the strength of the GAA over the years — convening people around an issue. RFA institutionalizes that and works toward solutions to educate people about the results.

What’s your timeframe as executive director of GAA, after announcing your decision to step down last fall?
There are a few strategic issues that GAA is looking at and would like me to stay involved with. By the end of this calendar year I will be able to transition most of my time to RFA. I’ll continue to be supportive in advocacy work with aquaculture.

You are an educator at heart. What one lesson would you like to leave the industry with?
Really that we’re all in this together and it’s important that we respect that everybody who cares about fisheries or aquaculture that we recognize their value and their work. In their own ways they are leaders. Silos don’t survive. Independent groups that want to keep things in tight and close don’t survive long term. It’s when we work in a collective and honest and transparent way that you truly strive through. Our industry has so much potential to make a difference in feeding the world.


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