No longer enemies: Industry embracing partnerships with NGOs

There was a time when many in the seafood industry openly disliked the Monterey Bay Aquarium. And not long ago, the aquarium’s Seafood Watch program didn’t think very highly of much commercially-produced seafood, such as the equivalent of the industry’s bread and butter – farmed salmon. As recently as 2013, Seafood Watch advised its millions of sustainability-conscious adherents to avoid farmed salmon altogether.

But a month ago, at the 2019 Seafood Expo North America event, Jennifer Kemmerly, Monterey Bay Aquarium’s director of global fisheries and aquaculture, stood on stage at a special assembly hosted by the Chilean Salmon Marketing Council and declared that previous era of combativeness to be over.

“There is no ‘us-versus-them’ mentality anymore,” she said. “There’s no time or room for that. The only way to get the job done is to work together.”

Just prior to Kemmerly taking the stage, SalmonChile, the trade group representing Chile’s salmon industry, representing about 80 percent of the total production of salmon in the South American country, pledged to reduce its use of antibiotics and seek a “Good Alternative” rating from the Seafood Watch program by 2025. Kemmerly said antibiotics usage wasn’t the only factor inhibiting most Chilean farmed salmon from obtaining a higher Seafood Watch rating – the program investigates feed type, stock origin, aquaculture practices, and state and federal regulations to determine its ratings – but she said it was a place that her organization and the industry could find common ground.

“The reason we chose to highlight the antibiotics issue is that it’s a big issue in our ratings system. If we can reduce antibiotics use, we can improve the sustainability of salmon coming from Chile. That will open up market access for companies that have made this very public and time-bound commitment to only buy from Seafood Watch 'Good Alternative’ sources or better,” she said.

SalmonChile President Arturo Clement told SeafoodSource at the event that the sector had been working toward the announcement made at Seafood Expo North America for the past year. He said market forces in the U.S., the top buyer of Chilean salmon, had played a large part in driving the decision.

“We would like it to be the best choice for the U.S. consumer – we want to reach their highest expectations,” he said. “They are asking for a sustainable product, and for that, we believe Monterey Bay Aquarium has enough confidence from the consumer side to satisfy those demands. We are very confident in the Monterey Bay Aquarium Seafood Watch program, and we decided they would be a great partner to work together with. Everybody in the Chilean salmon industry is convinced this is the best way to get to more sustainable salmon for the future.”

Kemmerly told SeafoodSource she sees increasing collaboration between sustainability-focused NGOs and the seafood industry as the result of NGOs looking at major problems they would like to solve through the lens of the theory of change, a methodology that works backward from an end-goal to identify necessary steps that must be taken to achieve it. By doing so, Monterey Bay Aquarium identified retailers and foodservice providers as a pressure point that could be used to push the industry to greater sustainability. The organization encouraged them to make timebound sustainable sourcing commitments through 2020, but Kemmerly said many of them were having trouble finding a sustainable supply of salmon and shrimp, which are staples of most retail and foodservice seafood programs. That, in turn, made them push their suppliers to offer sustainable sources, she said.

“If you look at the theory of change, we are exactly where need to be right now. We want to make people aware and care about the sustainability of their seafood, and I really think the public commitments that so many retailers and foodservice companies have made have really gotten attention of producers and importers,” she said. “Now we have to work with the industry to identify ways to get them out of the red [the color red is used to signify Seafood Watch’s lowest rating, 'Avoid' – which is the rating currently held by most Chilean salmon producers]. As part of that, we looked at the ways the Chilean salmon industry could improve its score. The reason we chose the antibiotic issue was because it was a big issue in our ratings system. We thought, ‘If we can improve the antibiotic issue, then we can improve the sustainability of salmon from Chile. And that will open up market access for companies make this very public and time-bound commitment.”

Besides the Chilean salmon sector, Kemmerly said Monterey Bay Aquarium had identified Southeast Asia’s farmed shrimp sector as a future focal point for the campaign.

“We think of it as our responsibility at this point to take a bigger role in getting companies to make sustainability commitments. That means we now have to work with the industry hand-in-glove to help them figure out how they get there and achieve that standard of sustainability,” she said.

Another example of a major industry player taking a more active – even enthusiastic – approach toward a partnership with an NGO that has historically been viewed with antagonism is Thai Union, which recently embraced working with Greenpeace.

In 2017, after a lengthy campaign by Greenpeace aimed at bringing attention to illegal fishing and labor issues in its supply chain, Thai Union – by many estimates the largest seafood company in the world – agreed to work with the environmental nonprofit to improve its business practices. As part of the agreement, Thai Union agreed to meet with Greenpeace representatives every six months to assess the company’s progress in its implementation of reforms. 

“This marks huge progress for our oceans and marine life, and for the rights of people working in the seafood industry,” Greenpeace International Executive Director Bunny McDiarmid said at the time. “If Thai Union implements these reforms, it will pressure other industry players to show the same level of ambition and drive much-needed change. Now is the time for other companies to step up, and show similar leadership.”

Darian McBain, Thai Union’s global director for sustainable development, was one of the key decision-makers inside the company who pushed to strike the deal with Greenpeace. She told SeafoodSource the agreement came out of a shift in thinking not just at the company, but a broader shift across the industry.

“Prior to my joining Thai Union, a lot of people in the industry saw the NGO community as the enemy, forcing them to do things they didn’t want to do. But [the companies] weren’t proactively engaging,” she said. “To his credit, Thai Union CEO Thiraphong Chansiri put sustainability at Thai Union’s core, appointed me at C-suite level, and said, ‘This is how we’re doing business from now on.’ And that centering of the company around sustainability and strategizing around it, that has made a huge amount of difference.”

McBain’s pursuit of that strategy was helped by her status an outsider coming into the seafood industry, she said.

“For me personally, I had complete commitment to the vision that we could do it. I didn’t have any preconceived notions of what Thai Union was or wasn’t,” McBain said. “I also saw where the industry could go. When I joined Thai Union, the NGOs were leading the debate, and businesses weren’t even really part of the debate. Industry wasn’t talking about what the realities were on the water."

McBain thought to “bring in collaboration as one of the key pillars of what we were going to do.” That shift in attitude was not easy to achieve on the individual company level, McBain said. And what some in the industry may not realize is that it can be just as difficult for NGOs to make that transition themselves.

“The Greenpeace agreement was definitely a bit of real negotiation. But I don’t think they had ever sat down with a company to see what the realities of fishing and producing seafood were,” she said. “Being a vocal advocate against Thai Union, and then sitting down and seeing where we could collaborate – to do that, you have to have a willingness to show leadership. It’s a hard position to put your head above the parapet and acknowledge you don’t know everything. But by doing so, that’s how we went much further faster. With each other as partners, we were collectively able to harness that power of change.”

McBain said she believes the deal between Thai Union and Greenpeace has been a groundbreaking one for the industry.

“Thai Union’s model of proactively engaging has really shown success. Making an agreement with Greenpeace … It wasn’t easy, but now it’s showing great results,” she said. “Our dialogues are leading to a change in the standard business practice across the industry, where it’s now a more accepted practice that reach out and embrace NGOs more as business partners. And that’s also seen as a way that businesses can engage with consumers.”

It’s a vision that’s shared by the Monterey Bay Aquarium and Jennifer Kemmerly.

“[Collaboration] is the perfect formula for making some progress here. Everybody wants nutritious, sustainable seafood on more peoples’ plates. Who doesn’t want that?” Kemmerly said. “I hope this is the new normal.”


Want seafood news sent to your inbox?

You may unsubscribe from our mailing list at any time. Diversified Communications | 121 Free Street, Portland, ME 04101 | +1 207-842-5500