Q&A: ‘Action before legislation’

Less than two weeks ago, ClientEarth unveiled its Sustainable Seafood Coalition (SSC), which it has tasked with taking the lead on eliminating fish discards in the United Kingdom’s seafood industry. The environmental law organization has secured the participation of many of the country’s leading brands and supermarkets, but with the market already awash in sustainability campaigns and eco-label, won’t this just add to the confusion? ClientEarth’s first marine scientist, Melissa Pritchard, disagrees and tells SeafoodSource that greater clarity could be just months away.

Holland: How did ClientEarth come to be involved in fisheries and what was the inspiration behind the SSC? 

Pritchard: ClientEarth is four years old and started as a group of lawyers, but today it also includes scientists and economists. In terms of our involvement in fisheries, it began when the CEO (James Thornton) said, “Look at the Common Fisheries Policy (CFP) — it’s the worst piece of legislation that I’ve ever seen.” As a consequence, ClientEarth teamed up with the Marine Conservation Society and together we came up with the fishing credit system as an alternative proposal for the reform of the CFP. It’s actually more like an 11-year vision whereby for it to be fully in place it would take another decade, and for that to happen certain things need to start now.

As well as working on CFP policy, ClientEarth worked very closely with Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall on his Fish Fight campaign and also produced a report on seafood labeling that was issued in January this year, where we looked at 100 products in supermarkets (including brands) and found that one-in-three made environmental claims that were misleading.

We’re very much about the integration of fisheries and environmental laws as well as data collection and usage. We came up with SSC as a means to achieve these aims without having to wait for policy. We are environmental lawyers but the way the group is focused is to take action before legislation. What quite often happens is proposed legislation doesn’t work because (1) it comes from a central office, (2) it’s not practical, (3) it’s forced upon people, or (4) it just takes too long. Whereas, voluntary codes of conduct or voluntary agreements can often turn into legislation.

A lot of problems can be tackled by seafood companies — they have enormous leverage and the power to create change by saying, “We will only take fish if it’s caught in a certain way, using certain gear.” The coalition is essentially about harnessing that leverage.

We will be calling upon participatory industry members and advisory members, which include government bodies like Seafish and DEFRA (U.K. Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs), as well as NGOs who have expertise in marketing, labeling and consumer work, to help the group develop and implement its code.

The SSC has some of the UK’s leading retail brands onboard, but what of the rest of the seafood industry? 

The initial thoughts behind the coalition were had a little under a year ago and action was taken about eight months ago. It’s taken a long time to assess what could be achieved and how we should go about it, but we’ve come up with a three-phased strategy. What we’ve launched is Stage 1 with the supermarkets and suppliers because they sell most of the species — they have the reputations and they are the most progressive. The next two phases will be the foodservice sector, followed by fishmeal producers and users. Eventually, we’ll have everyone that uses or produces seafood.

Publicly we’re only two weeks old; we haven’t even had our first meeting (scheduled for May 12). In that meeting we’ll be agreeing terms of reference, timelines and strategies. It will also be an opportunity for those companies who haven’t had the chance to come to one of our presentations to learn a bit more and sign up.

Is the SSC purely designed to give the UK seafood industry a more coordinated voice that can lobby for change or will there be an end-consumer focus? 

It’s for both. The hard work is undoubtedly in the B2B area and not all of that will be communicated to consumers because it may be confidential. Some of it won’t even be discussed between companies because of competition laws. And yet, the outcomes are absolutely for consumers and we will have consumer-facing programs that explain what’s being done. However, the key focus of SSC is that business can bring about change and can talk to government and improve things like data collection and the use of the data collected by businesses.

The consumer facing level is going to be more about looking at underutilized species and those that are discarded because they don’t have a market. We’ll have a coordinated approach whereby we’ll target something like 10 species that could be marketed in two or three months. Our celebrity chef members will push these to consumers, saying “This is a really great tasting dish, go home and cook it.” Meanwhile, the supermarkets will have it on offer and the brands will sell it in a special way like breaded or with a sauce. In addition, the restaurant members, who we’ll hopefully have in the future, will also be selling it so people have the opportunity to taste it in that environment.

It’s a bit like advertising – subconsciously you’ll be seeing it everywhere, but in a coordinated way, which is something that doesn’t happen at the moment. We’ve had Hugh’s Fish Fight, which was great, but the momentum can be quickly lost.

There’s already a profusion of seafood sustainability programs out there. Is it possible SSC will simply add to the confusion? 

We’re completely for reducing confusion and hence we will absolutely not be creating an eco-label, and we won’t be duplicating any work because so much work has already been done. We have very specific targets in the sense of wanting data on specific use of fish. SSC members will develop the codes themselves and they will agree to them. We need to raise the bar and ClientEarth is successful at achieving its targets. It will be challenging but this code of conduct will really mean something. We will have most of the supermarket chains plus the major suppliers onboard, which means we have virtually covered the entire UK seafood supply.


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