Bumble Bee’s Leslie Hushka answering tough social, environmental questions

Published on
July 23, 2021
Leslie Hushka, Bumble Bee Seafood Company’s senior vice president of global corporate and social responsibility.

Leslie Hushka was hired as Bumble Bee Seafood Company’s senior vice president of global corporate and social responsibility in February 2021. Hushka, who formerly worked as senior sustainability advisor at ExxonMobil for 23 years in research, government affairs, and sustainability positions. Hushka has been given responsibility for overseeing Bumble Bee’s commitment over the next five years to sustainability efforts focused on protecting and preserving the marine environment.

SeafoodSource: How have your first months on the job gone?

Hushka: From my perspective, there was a solid foundation laid over the last two years by Mike Kraft, former chief sustainability officer, as well as CEO Jan Tharp and others on the team to really lay out what our sustainability platform should look like and what our specific goals should be across the three pillars we’ve identified, which are fish, oceans, and people. I’m lucky enough to come in [and] take over in the first year of the program and not only implement it, but really push us to expand across all of those areas.

The first thing I did when I started was catalog where we stand after one year of implementation, and then work to get a basic plan in place for making progress. We have tried to accelerate a number of our goals, so a new plan was needed, and we also wanted to round out our program in a number of other areas.

SeafoodSource: Why did you want this job?

Hushka: Looking at the opportunity, it was clear to me that Bumble Bee was a leader in the area of sustainability and has been all the way back to 2009. It was one of the founding members of [the International Seafood Sustainability Foundation], and I thought it was very appealing to work with such a progressive company. What I found really interesting was there is a lot of cross-over in sustainability issues across companies. Everyone is dealing with the environmental footprint of their own operations and across their supply chain. There’s a number of common challenges in terms of how do you work with your supply chain to make significant advancements that you can’t do just within your own organization. What was new to me was the world of tuna and the other products we sell. As an outsider, I did not really understand the complexity of all the different fisheries across the globe and all the different complexities in the supply chain. That’s just been fascinating, trying to understand that as we work through implementing our programs.

SeafoodSource: What have been some of the biggest challenges you’ve faced in your initial efforts to implement Bumble Bee’s sustainability plan?

Hushka: One of the biggest ones is we do not, as Bumble Bee, own all of the thousands of fishing vessels that we potentially source from, and even our owner FCF, they do not own the vessels, so it’s multiple parts of the chain we have to work with to influence the practices on these vessels in terms of types of gear they’re using, how they fish to ensure they’re as responsible as possible, and how they treat their workers in terms of basic health and safety conditions on the vessels. We have put in place a lot of policies in terms of code of conduct that we expect our suppliers to implement, and we have rigorous audit program to ensure parts of our supply chains are meeting those standards, but it’s just very complex when you’re talking about hundreds and hundreds of vessels. There are some real challenges in this industry just in terms of complexity, but we’ve tried to put in place a number of systems where we can consistently work with our fleets and seek improvements in all of their practices.

SeafoodSource: How has progress been initially on your three pillars?

Hushka: This is our initial year in a five-year commitment laid out for each of the pillars. We just released our 2021 Seafood Future report, where we reported on the major progress we’ve achieved over the past year. In our “fish pillar” – and this is one we’re really excited about – we’ve been able to accelerate progress toward our goal, which was originally to have everything in our supply chain 100 percent certified as sustainable or in an active fishery improvement project (FIP) by 2025. I should point out that everything we source today is from sustainable, healthy, and properly managed fisheries, but we’re just trying to take that to the next step. With the announcement that we made a few weeks ago with FCF, we’ve significantly advanced our Marine Stewardship Council certification efforts and we’re advancing our efforts to put everything in a FIP. That’s actively happening right now and will be complete over next couple of months, so that by the end of 2021, we will have achieved the goal of having all of our fish either MSC-certified, in an MSC assessment program, or in a credible FIP by the end of the year. That’s a significant doubling-down on our activities here over the last year, and it’s something our customers are strongly asking for, so we really focused a lot of our activities over the last year to deliver that.

In our ocean platform, we had a focus in reducing bycatch and unintended species caught by our vessels. We also had a focus on plastic leaking into the ocean, specifically on lost and abandoned fishing gear. Over the last year, we’ve consistently made progress in implementing best practices on bycatch, working closely with ISSF on that. We’ve been involved with a couple of projects with the Global Ghost Gear Initiative, and we’re now looking at how do we track and actually tag our gear so that if’s lost, we can potentially retrieve it. We’re testing a number of approaches that, if successful, we can scale up across all of our fleet. This year, we added a new area this pillar, which is regenerative ocean practices. We’ve looked at a lot of research from the United Nations and a lot of other groups, and we’ve found there are practices we could help support that would regenerate the ocean. As part of that, we’re looking into restoring kelp, mangroves, and sea grass, starting with two partnerships, one with SeaTrees off the coast of Los Angeles to help restore the giant kelp forest in an area that’s really important to us because it’s just south of our Santa Fe Springs canning facility. So far, we’ve restored the equivalent of three Olympic-sized swimming pools worth of kelp, and this project just started. The second involves replanting mangrove trees off the coast of Biak Island in Indonesia. There’s a small artisanal fishery there we source from for our Nova brand, and we’ve had the opportunity to restore the environment and help small fishermen in the area. This year, we’ll be looking at other regenerative practices across all of our operational areas in the Asia-Pacific region that we can hopefully add to our portfolio of  projects.

In our “people pillar,” we’ve focused on safe and ethical treatment for all people that touch Bumble Bee Seafood. We have been working with our parent company FCF since 2019 on establishing a best-in-class social audit program implementing training across our fleets using a risk-based screening approach. We’re also engaging in second- and third-party audits to ensure we’re protecting our crewmembers. This year, we’ve able to add a couple of components to that around worker voice. We’ve established a program with a local NGO giving fishermen on tuna boats a second opportunity to go directly to the NGO for help using a simple QR code, so if there are any potential issues reported on the vessel, the NGO will lead and do follow-up on investigating that. We have our own program, but we wanted to give fishermen a second opportunity to bring suggestions forward. We’re pretty pleased with this; We think it’s the first of its kind across the industry. We’re going to be working to refine the system with our NGO partner over next six months to ensure it’s an effective mechanism anything related to working environment on the vessels.

SeafoodSource: FCF has been criticized by Greenpeace and the Environmental Justice Foundation, which have alleged worker abuses have taken place onboard its fishing vessels. How are you addressing those concerns?

Hushka: This is an industry-wide challenge. FCF and Bumble Bee have been working with the rest of the industry through the Seafood Task Force and with other fish retailers, producers, our customers, and the rest of industry to address this challenge. We have been working through the Task Force to put in place auditable standards across the fleets. We have more work to do, but we feel confident we have the right building blocks in place to address this issue. Want to keep working with task force to look seriously at our audits. We have a roadmap to address them but still a bit of work to do.

SeafoodSource: How has the integration between FCF and Bumble Bee gone from a sustainability perspective since FCF took over the company in 2019?

Hushka: It's actually been very exciting. Before, it was a little bit more of a transactional relationship between the two companies, but now it’s much more of an integrated partnership. For example, both have integrated sustainability teams, but I’ve watched over my tenure in the last three months as we’ve really broken down all the walls between our teams. We now have shared goals and objectives and we’re working on common work plans. We’re leading in working with customers and retailers, and they’re leading the work on sourcing and individual vessels. With the improved integration, we’ve able to take our activity to the next level, which I don’t think we would have been able to do in our previous relationship. I spent the last couple of months on that. I’m looking forward to a bit of post-COVID travel to really map out in much more detail some significant steps in we’re going to take in the future to progress our goals in a little bit faster manner. But so far, the cooperation has been tremendous. I can’t speak highly enough about the FCF team and how open they are about working with us in a collaborative fashion.

SeafoodSource: What is your opinion of eco-labels? Are they effective means of pushing the industry toward sustainable practices? And is your drive to certify more of your seafood driven by internal goals or from consumer demand?

Hushka: We do believe the eco-labels system is supportive of our efforts. We’ve always had a very scientific-based approach to our sustainable sourcing practices. We only source from fisheries that are healthy and properly managed based on independent scientific data, and we know where all our fish are caught, harvested, and processed. It’s all done legally and we report all that data to the regional fishery management organizations. We’re audited by the International Seafood Sustainability Federation to ensure we comply with those standards and measures. We’ve embraced that. We’ve looked at the Global Sustainable Seafood Initiative and the number of standards they have recognized and will pick most appropriate standard for the different species of seafood that we work with. For tuna, that’s MSC. For other species, it could be another certification. We’re working through that process to make sure we’re taking our efforts to the next level.

Regarding whether it’s driven by the company or consumers, it’s both. Our customers really are seeking that additional measure of a third-party certification, that has progressed over the last couple of years with the ISSF audit and third-party certifications. Certainly consumers want to go to the store and buy products that are tasty, healthy for them, and that don’t have any significant environmental challenges or social challenges. We’ve seen recognition of certain certifications growing, particularly among some segments of consumers who want to know where their food comes from and whether it’s responsibly sourced as much as they want information about how it can make them healthier. We see retailers responding to that and feeling they have almost a first-line obligation to do a lot of that work for their customers. We are happy to provide those products and do a little bit of that homework for them and make it easier for the consumer when they’re standing at that shelf to be able to make decisions based on their values. So I think it’s twofold: consumers are getting more interested and educated in what they want to see in their food, and retailers are trying to deliver and answer those customers’ needs.

SeafoodSource: Many eco-labels are moving to include social and labor requirements in their standards. Will that complicate Bumble Bee’s efforts to certify more of its seafood?

Hushka: Now we’re starting to see these standards go just beyond environmental requirements, with social requirements added to them, we are ready for that transition. We have a lot of work to do. All the FIPs we have been in the process of establishing, by the end of the year, will have social requirements in place. Bumble Bee already has social standards and policies in place, but FCF just started down this path. So we’re able to transfer some of the tools we have in place to FCF operations. In our supply chain, of course there’s a lot of variety where folks are. We try to meet the fleets where they’re at and give them the tools, procedures, and requirements to help them improve across the board. They’ve been receptive to that. We have a requirement that, to sell us fish, they need to adhere to our policies. Our auditing process shows areas we need to improve upon, but we create a joint plan on how to get there. We try to continually improve our performance, and we want to do that in a manner where they continue to thrive as well. We’re not going to dump them in a month and put them in a position where they can’t operate their business. But we are going to have constant engagement across the fleet, through FCF as well as through our independent auditing process. Where we see common issues, whether it’s covering the health and safety of our crewmembers, to recruiting, or any other issue, we’ll institute training and best-practice workshops.

We’ve worked independently on these issues and we are open to bringing all of that to the Seafood Task Force and try and share those best practices. In regard to these issues, we don’t have proprietary ownership of our solutions – everyone should be safe in their workplace, and we are eager to share our efforts across the supply chain as well. We will continue our efforts with MSC and the Seafood Task Force to really ensure across the industry we’re developing the right tools and measures so that everyone can continue to improve their performance, because we won’t fix these concerns until we do it as an industry. We strongly believe we have a role in bringing the rest of the industry along to ensure everybody has right tools and resources to tackle these issues in a proper way. In this regard, my observation is that this feeling is reciprocated across the industry – there’s a lot of sharing on how to collectively work together.

SeafoodSource: How does Bumble Bee’s move into plant-based seafood alternatives play into its sustainability initiatives?

Hushka: When we established our Seafood Future program, we did have an emphasis on sustainable sourcing, and looking at ocean-inspired alternatives is something we really believe needs to be assessed. According to the United Nations, the planet needs to produce 70 percent more food to meet the world’s growing hunger needs. How do we do that? We should be looking at all options, both wild-caught options and plant-based options. That’s where it was natural to partner with Good Catch, which has been operating in this area. We signed an agreement with them to distribute their products, and that’s been a great experience. They look at some of these challenges differently than we do and it has been an opportunity to get in and learn about that part of the food supply chain. We’re now looking at a number of other [plant-based alternative companies] as well. It’s incumbent on us to feed people through food from the ocean and we should be looking at all parts of that, ocean-inspired products included.

SeafoodSource: How does climate change factor into your thinking about Bumble Bee’s environmental impact, and where does your carbon footprint fit into your three-pillar system?

Hushka: As part of establishing the Seafood Future platform, we did an informal material assessment to figure out the most-important items for us to focus on as a company. Through an internal process and also through input from external stakeholders, where we landed was on a platform of fish, oceans, and people. That doesn’t mean we’re not looking at our own operations and our carbon footprint, and how we can improve on that. Five years ago, we did establish some environmental goals across all of our sites focused on carbon reduction, water reduction, and waste reduction. We reached the end of that time-period and we’re now reassessing what next steps we want to take in those areas. In particular, we are looking really closely at a zero-waste approach across all our facilities when looking at our biggest opportunity for change. It doesn’t mean we can’t continue to decrease our carbon footprint, but we’re seeing biggest prize for us is looking at a zero-waste approach. We’ve had good conversations with customers who have implemented a zero-waste approach, and we’re using that that to set in place plans for the future. There’s more work for us to do there, but we want to take advantage of where we and how we get to a zero-waste mindset. We’ll be answering questions like what’s our timeframe, and then based on that, what other programs we’re going to put in place. We’ve already had conversations with our plants and we’ve got a whole host of possible ideas and opportunities for us to chase. We’ll turn to that later this year.

At same time we’re doing that, we’re looking at other things like our partnership with SeaTrees, and how the kelp forests they’re preserving are involved in the capturing of carbon. We’re going to continue to look at our packaging that we put into the marketplace to ensure it’s all readily recyclable, and that goes to our environmental footprint and improving that. We do think we have opportunity now to really refresh everything and set some new goals in that area.

With all that said, it's just year one. We know we have a lot of work to do, and our focus over the next year or two will be expanding in all of those areas through additional partnerships with NGOs, academia, international organizations, and anyone else who can help us in our mission. We’re involved in numerous very active conversations right now so that over the next year we can further build out each of those pillars and activities we have underway.

Photo courtesy of Leslie Hushka/Bumble Bee Foods

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