Through many NGO voices, Packard Foundation pushing sustainability agenda in Japan

Published on
August 21, 2017

Until recently, sustainability was rarely a part of any discussion of seafood in Japan.

However, due to the advocacy of several non-governmental organizations (NGOs), that's beginning to change. NGOs have seen an opportunity with the upcoming Tokyo Olympics in 2020, pushing the organizing committee to strengthen the requirements for certifying sustainable seafood that will be served at the event.

Upon closer inspection, though, what appears to be a multifaceted, grassroots-level effort actually resembles a concerted campaign by one deep-pocketed organization – the David and Lucile Packard Foundation – to singlehandedly steer the seafood scene in Japan toward greater sustainability.

In the case of the Olympics campaign, most of the ocean conservation groups that had offered supporting comments had received funding from the Packard Foundation.

In fact, Packard dominates the NGO scene in Japan., a website for locating grants for ocean conservation (and itself funded by Packard and Oak, among others) lists 26 grants of USD 100,000 or more (EUR 84,458) for activities in Japan from 2009 to present. Of those, 70 percent were made by the David and Lucile Packard Foundation, with most of the donations concentrated on advocacy NGOs, mainly promoting markets for sustainable seafood. The major grants include:

  • In 2016, USD 1,150,000 (EUR 971,802) to support Seafood Legacy, a Tokyo-based NGO promoting partnerships between businesses and sustainability NGOs; 
  • In 2016, USD 975,000 (EUR 823,919) to Portland, Oregon-based Ocean Outcomes to implement fishery improvement projects in Asia; 
  • In 2016, USD 400,000 (EUR 338,018) in 2013 and USD 456,000 in 2016 to Greenpeace Japan; 
  • In 2015, USD 700,000 (EUR 591,486) to the Marine Stewardship Council (MSC) for building capacity and leadership development in Japan; 
  • In 2015, USD 438,150 (EUR 370,228) to the World Wildlife Fund;
  • In 2015, USD 400,838 (EUR 338,700) to Newport, Rhode Island-based Sailors for the Sea, which helped create the “Blue Seafood Guide”, highlighting sustainable seafood options in Japan, and held an promotional event in Tokyo.

A 2014 report by notes an additional USD 225,000 (EUR 190,998) grant to Monterey Bay Aquarium Foundation for creating sustainable seafood initiatives in Japan.

This effort to fund many organizations with similar goals is not bad in itself, but it does give an impression of consensus among a wide array of organizations, when in fact, the reality is closer to one organization speaking with many voices.

Packard is, of course, not the only source of funding for marine conservation in Japan. The Pew Charitable Trusts – with USD 5 billion (EUR 4.2 billion) in assets – and the Oak Foundation are other huge funders, both with sizeable presences globally and inside Japan. Their websites list the U.S.A., Mexico, Chile, Indonesia, China, and Japan as the countries of focus for both organizations.

However, it is Packard that dominates in Japan.

According to the organization’s website, its aims for its spending in Japan are threefold: 

  • Creating a market for sustainable seafood by focusing on major buyers and seafood traders, and supporting NGOs in establishing the tools and resources for a sustainable seafood movement; 
  • Using that movement to incentivize and reward sustainable practices and fisheries management policies in Japan; 
  • Engaging on key international policy issues, including import controls to keep illegally-caught seafood out of Japanese markets and stronger trade controls for key species, such as eel and tuna.

Sarah Hogan, the Packard Foundation’s program officer responsible for Japan, said the foundation encourages collaboration among the groups that it funds, especially regarding issues of seafood sustainability. The major reason, Hogan said, is that the organization believes it is more effective to have the message coming from many different groups. But the foundation’s grantees exercise a lot of independence in designing their own programs and do not follow talking points from the foundation, Hogan said.

The foundation's giving is part of a 15-year plan that started with studies to understand the way that Japanese think about marine sustainability issues. Actual grant-making began around 2015. Through events, guides, awareness programs, business-NGO partnerships, campaigns and press releases, Japan is hearing more about marine conservation and sustainability. This is significant, since Japanese have in the past not given market preference to certified seafood, instead drawing a line between domestic (trusted) and imported (suspect).

Hogan notes as a recent success that (in addition to AEON supermarkets’ longstanding MSC program) Seiyu GK, a subsidiary of Walmart Stores, is now supporting a fisheries improvement project with Ocean Outcomes for Tokyo Bay sea perch.

The amount of money going into the effort is impressive. If all of this spending actually does result in a Japanese consumer preference for certified seafood over non-certified or the domestic industry-run alternative Marine Eco-Label (MEL), it would create a huge market for MSC and have a significant impact on marine management worldwide.

Nevertheless, it's good to know where the money for the effort is coming from.

Contributing Editor reporting from Osaka, Japan

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