Op-ed: 7 strategic dilemmas in sustainable seafood

Published on
January 13, 2023
Ned Daly.

Ned Daly is a sustainability strategist with Diversified Communications and a founder and leader of the Seafood2030 projectv.

Over the last two years, Seafood2030 and BounceBeyond have worked with seafood stakeholders to gain a better understanding of the “sustainable seafood system,” or the collective impact of those working on sustainable seafood. 

The work to date has been a scoping exercise looking at how efficiently and effectively the collective efforts around sustainability are driving change. Like a pre-assessment process for certification, the scoping exercise identified specific “corrective actions” necessary for the system to drive impact at scale. These 7 strategic dilemmas identified by Seafood2030 also represent inefficiencies that increase costs for the industry, foundations and NGOs.

When looking at how the system functions, we organized the system into three different spheres based on how much leverage the system has over the issues it is addressing. This is similar to how a seafood company would think about its markets – in your existing market, you have the highest leverage and the most control over how your existing business plan is executed. Beyond your core market, your seafood company may be making inroads in new geographies or adding food service to your restaurant focused customer base. This is where your company has increasing influence and leverage, but it is also still learning and adapting to the new markets and customers. Your company may have a great deal of interest in moving into online sales or grocery stores but little leverage to move into that space.

We broke the sustainable seafood system down into spheres of influence (from an evaluation approach called outcome mapping): sphere of control (where the system has high leverage over the issues it is addressing), sphere of influence (medium leverage), sphere of interest (low leverage). There are also system level dilemmas that are challenges across all three spheres.

Over the next year, Seafood2030 will dive deeper into the issues outlined here.

System Level Dilemmas

1.       Evaluation: The system tends to evaluate success at the program/project level. This makes it difficult to know if the collective impact is driving toward the intended goal on an issues like human rights. Another challenge is individual organizations can demonstrate success engaging companies or developing tools, but all of this “success” can result in multiple asks of industry that are not aligned around a common outcome or goal. This drives increased complexity which becomes a barrier for companies trying to engage in sustainable practices. Taking a collective impact or systems approach to evaluating success will help industry identify where to invest in sustainability and will help the NGO community develop strategic collaborative alignment around the most effective drivers for a more responsible and sustainable seafood industry. 

This shift in evaluation is critical as the system moves away from a “firefighting” approach – addressing the worst problems and concerns in fisheries, communities, and supply chains – to a more coherent and aligned “fire-prevention” strategy to address more systemic challenges including supply chain equity, weak governance and fisheries management, and climate change. 

2.       Innovation adoption: The marketplace for sustainable innovation (certification, FIPs, buyer commitments, etc.) in seafood lacks a compelling value proposition or rationalizing force driving increased adoption of sustainable practices and market coherence. This challenge, often couched as Crossing the Chasm, is not unique to seafood. Sustainable seafood does have a compelling value proposition for innovators and early adopters in the industry, but not a compelling value proposition for the majority of the industry, which like other sectors, tend to adopt new innovation only when their mission critical business strategy is broken. Indicators of a broken mission-critical business strategy are pain-points (loss of market share), emerging needs (regulatory compliance, risk management), or a clear ROI beyond their existing strategy. The system needs to focus more on innovation adoption and less on innovation development. This slow adoption rate results in lower returns for companies investing in sustainable practices, the need for increased resources to drive adoption, and continued exposure to risk and reduced assurance of supply for the sector.

Sphere of Control / High Leverage (types of issues: traceability, transparency and reporting, buyer commitments)

3.       Accountability: For a seafood company, the metrics for success in your existing market are clear: are you selling more fish? Tracking sales allows a company to a) verify how much product it has sold, and b) provides data/feedback on what changes to make to increase sales and reduce costs. For the sustainable seafood system, accountability tends to focus more on verification of the uptake of tools like certification or FIPs and less on learning/driving the uptake of sustainable practices. There are some newer accountability mechanisms in seafood like the Ocean Disclosure Project (transparency platform) or the World Benchmarking Alliance (benchmarking platform) that use open source, comparable data to not just verify practices, but also drive improvement.

These three dilemmas combined – lacking systems-level evaluation, ineffective innovation adoption/market rationalization, and ineffective accountability mechanisms – compound the problem of complexity in the marketplace.

a.       The system lacks appropriate evaluation to guide and focus investment in innovation development which leads to over-saturating the “market” with sustainability tools and programs

b.       The industry lacks a real pain-point or platform/mechanism to drive adoption of the appropriate innovation – so the market remains over-saturated

c.       The NGO community lacks effective accountability mechanisms to drive adoption of appropriate innovation.

Developing an “accountability strategy” for the system would have significant value for rationalizing the system and increasing efficiency.

4.       Narrative: There is not a compelling narrative articulating the ROI for the adoption of traceability, transparency, commitments, and other supply-chain control efforts. The present narrative focuses on the reporting function (up the supply-chain) of these efforts rather than the internal business value of a seafood company controlling its supply chain for assured supply and risk. This is true for artisanal fishers and industrial operations alike. The failure of the existing narrative to articulate the internal business value of this work greatly reduces the value proposition for adoption of traceability and, rightly or wrongly, reinforces an extractive model to seafood supply-chains with resources and information now being extracted. The present narrative also fails to help companies understand how traceability, transparency, reporting, and supply-chain control work together to maximize value back to the company and how this work fits with the broader ESG efforts.

Sphere of Influence / Medium Leverage (types of issues: artisanal fishers, IUU, RFMOs, social issues and supply chain equity)

5.       Strategic Coherence: There has been a “tactical” transition from industrial fisheries to small-scale, non-industrial fisheries – adapting “industrial” tactics or tools (certification, FIPs, audits, commitments) and applying them to fisheries that lack the same governance, enforcement, and management mechanisms as their industrial counterparts. Unfortunately, there is a lack of strategic coherence guiding the application of these tactics. There are a number of efforts to create strategic coherence around specific tactics – FIPs or the alignment of industry asks on social issues – but the increasing number of organizations, efforts, and approaches moving into this space, without some strategic coherence, will likely drive increasing complexity around sustainability for producers and fishing communities. This does not imply a globally coordinated strategy is necessary, reducing complexity and strategic incoherence at the regional or fishery level will reduce barriers to the engagement of non-industrial fishers and increase the value/return to fishers, producers and communities. The Global Tuna Alliance approach with RFMOs or SmartFish’s approach in Mexico are examples of the ability to manage complexity at the regional or fishery level.

6.       Governance/Deep Collaboration: There is an overall governance challenge in the sustainable seafood system and it becomes particularly evident at the nexus of artisanal and non-industrial fisheries and work related to IUU, human rights, and supply chain equity. While there are increasing examples of more equitable supply chains, the remnants of an extractive resource model – where resources, value, and now information, are pulled to the end of the supply chain – still exists in global seafood supply chains. Stability at the producer/fisher level can reduce risk and increase reliability of supply.

Sphere of Interest / Low Leverage (types of issues - climate, plastics, gender equality)

7.       Innovation Development: Tools, tactics, and strategies in sustainable seafood tend to focus on driving change in/through seafood supply chains. The system lacks innovation development models and design strategies that drive impact beyond supply-chains to address challenges like climate change, plastics and aspects of gender equality. The challenge is both developing new tools to increase the seafood industry’s influence outside their supply chains and designing new development and design strategies that reflect the increasing leadership role companies are playing in driving a more sustainable and responsible seafood industry.

Photo courtesy of Diversified Communications

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