Mexico’s next sustainability challenge: The domestic market

Getting Mexico’s national seafood production certified as sustainable is the next significant step the country needs to take towards better environmental and commercial performance, according to participants in a panel focused on Mexico's seafood market during Seafood Expo North America Reconnect.

The panel, “Progress and Opportunities for an Emerging Sustainable Seafood Movement in Mexico,” took place 19 March and was hosted by Ned Daly of Seafood2030 and chaired by Citlali Gomez Lepe, president of the Mexican Council for the Promotion of Seafood Consumption and Aquaculture Products (Comepesca). Other presenters included Alvaro de Tomas, co-founder of Truchas Sustentables; Best Aquaculture Practices (BAP) Market Development Manager Bill Hoenig; Earth Ocean Farms Director General Pablo Konietzko; and Orca Seafoods Managing Director Mauricio Orellana.

Mexico’s seafood industry has made progress on addressing the sustainability of its fisheries and aquaculture operations and can now focus on supply chain issues, according to Daly.

“What we need to think about doing now is how do we link all of these individual nodes into a system, and I think Comepesca has done a nice job starting to develop a system bringing different stakeholders together and developing that collaborative system that will help us address some of the bigger challenges in seafood,” Daly said. “Mexico, like most geographies, has a unique bundle of sustainability challenges but there's still a lot to learn from how they are responding to these challenges in new and innovative ways.”

Only about 20 percent of all the seafood produced in Mexico is exported, Hoenig said, but of that total, the majority of those exports carry some sort of sustainability certificiation. With 80 percent of the seafood produced in Mexico being consumed domestically, more work needs to be done to raise the sustainability bona fides of seafood sold domestically.

"The real heavy lifting is the national market – that is really the key to continue advancement of this movement,” Hoenig said.

Hoenig praised Comepesca’s Pesca con Futuro (“Fishing for the Future”) campaign for raising awareness on responsible best practices for aquaculture and fishing.

That campaign complements work being done by other NGOs that are working on the operational and production side to meet the growing demand for sustainable seafood, Hoenig said. 

“I see a clear trend towards sustainable practices in both fisheries and aquaculture here in Mexico,” said Konietzko, whose totoaba and red snapper producing company recently became the world’s first to earn BAP certification for its totoaba processing plant. “There are a lot of certified production practices being demanded by end- consumers and buyers, and now these certified products are being differentiated in the market, and in many cases that means getting access to untapped clients or markets that you couldn't previously tap into.”

Currently, nearly 80 percent of Mexico's harvested species are shrimp and tilapia. However, Mexico’s farmed seafood sector is quickly diversifying the species it farms – today, that number surpasses 40 species. At the same time, the industry is still dominated by those two largest species, according to Hoenig.

“Mexico’s at the beginning of the journey. Shrimp and tilapia are basically the two big aquaculture businesses, and most of that is already certified. But after that, it gets small really fast,” Hoenig said. “The challenge on the aquaculture side is developing the tools [and] the products that are going to help [seafood] become more affordable and attainable for the small- and medium-[sized] producer to engage in."

Hoenig said the shellfish sector were the next logical segment of the market to target for certification.

"With shellfish hatcheries and others, we’re starting to get to that mass, the infrastructure to make it self-supporting, making it easier to lower the cost and make it more efficient," he said. "As we have progressed, that has been a big change that’s happened in the last five to seven years.”

But the cost of certification is an obstacle, de Tomas said. In a country where about 42 percent of the population is considered poor, de Tomas said there were two issues facing the national industry: how to deliver the message to the end-consumer regarding the purpose and importance of sustainability, and the question of affordability on the aquaculture production side.

“[What] is going to be [the] way to provide food for those people that have low income?” he said.

Hoenig said economics needed to play a primary role in the sustainability movements efforts in Mexico.

“It’s time we give back. We’ve been worried about what’s under the water, but not as much attention to those above the water – the animals on two feet that need to make a living. There’s a poverty issue we’re trying to solve, and aquaculture is a great economic development tool if done right,” Hoenig said. “That means putting industry with NGOs with consumers together, driving the need and paying for this product for these marginal communities to have development.”

According to Orellana, the people of Mexico are starting to pay more attention to where their proteins are coming from and how sustainable they are, and aquaculture is a great asset to delivering sustainable protein.

“In order to meet seafood demand that we see and for high-value proteins in the world, we need to find ways other than fisheries and extracting alone,” he said. “I’d say that people in Mexico are now looking at the origin of these proteins, whether it's from a farm from the west coast of Mexico doing oysters or a frog farm in the mountains or an octopus producer from the Yucatan. People are slowly getting engaged and demanding a lot more information when it comes to sustainability and the story behind the product.”

Certifiers themselves are ramping up activities in the country. Besides BAP's involvement in the country, the Marine Stewardship Council recently announced plans to increase its presence and activities in Mexico, rolling out a strategic design for the creation of a community of producers and commercial partners, while also implementing a communications campaign on the importance of sustainable fishing and the benefits of getting certified.  

Photo courtesy of oksana.perkins/Shutterstock


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