Peter Handy wants Bristol Seafood to be change agent in seafood industry

Bristol Seafood CEO Peter Handy.

Recently, the Collaborative for Bioregional Action Learning and Transformation (COBALT) ran a week-long “Bioregional Learning Journey” in the U.S. state of Maine to look at local food systems that connect regional seafood production systems, with a focus on seagrass meadows the Gulf of Maine. Recent research suggests seagrass meadows support up to 20 percent of fisheries globally, including numerous fisheries of economic importance to the New England region of the U.S.

As part of the COBALT project, Bristol Seafoods joined a community-based effort known as Team Zostera dedicated to mapping, monitoring, and restoring seagrass meadows in Casco Bay. The idea behind the program is to bring together stakeholders from different disciplines and perspectives to learn about issues, learn from each other, and build a collective understanding of the different elements, issues, challenges and the broader “system” that an industry like seafood operates in, according to Bristol Seafood President Peter Handy. Participants in the program were exposed to a broad set of issues impacting the bioregion, including water treatment and wastewater management, aquaculture, seagrass mapping and restoration, the blue economy, and regenerative agriculture across the region. The program was developed based on a model COBALT has also applied in Iceland, England, Ghana, and Costa Rica.

According to Handy, systems thinking like the approach taken by COBALT is an opportunity for stakeholders to see the entire set of drivers, impacts, issues, and challenges on the horizon for companies operating in a specific region, like Bristol Seafood. In an interview with SeafoodSource, Handy spoke about the value of this type of approach to his business and the seafood industry.

SeafoodSource: This Bioregional Learning Journey does not seem like the typical endeavor for a seafood company. Why do you think this work is important?

Handy: For that reason – it is not typical. Too often we are meeting with the same people. COBALT and [COBALT Global Lead] Glenn Page have brought together an entirely new group of stakeholders. Everyone in the group was committed, experienced, and engaged, and importantly, they are from disciplines or sectors that don’t normally come together to talk. This allows for discussion about these issues in a way where we can share ideas and learnings and allows for synchronizing efforts.

SeafoodSource: How is this program relevant to your business?

Handy: When it comes to sustainability, my job is to connect the resources and capabilities and ideas we have and how we can bring them to bear to affect sustainability. In order for me to make sure that we marshal those resources in a way that's going to have the biggest impact on sustainability, I have to have visibility of what the whole system looks like and then figure out where we can move the needle the most. That's really the idea in getting people together to not only spend time together to see what they can learn from one another but then all of us get a view of the entire web of complexity so we can make sure that where we're spending time is where we think we can make the most impact.

And it's part of our responsibility – part of the reason we're doing what we do is to improve sustainability and address issues around climate change and then figure out how we can grow employment with quality jobs while delighting customers with wholesome products. In order to do that, we need to have the perspective on what are the big important things to solve, so from that perspective we can figure out what to do. Learning Journeys like COBALT is putting on don't just happen out of thin air and so we have a responsibility to support and help them to be successful and that way we can learn from their work and be a part of the community.

SeafoodSource: This helps Bristol tell a better story about its product?

Handy: Yes. I'm focused on doing the right thing and then sharing the story of that. I think anytime we can get a clearer in broader perspective about what comes out of programs like this, on what matters when it comes to sustainability you'll be able to do better work as you share that work and tell that story.

When you start to peel back some layers within other things that you think are important – social justice matters and that can be addressed just with inclusivity and with hiring, so we focus on hiring people who may be formerly incarcerated, they may be in recovery, or they may be asylum-seekers or migrants. There are all sorts of businesses where it's more challenging to incorporate those populations into its ranks and in seafood we have the privilege of being in a position where we have roles that fit for people of a number of backgrounds, so being intentional about that and growing the business to grow that employment.

And sustainability of harvest matters a lot – that's pressure we can exert on industry and labor practices at sea – we were the first Fair Trade-certified seafood company in the country and we did that because we wanted to demonstrate that, one, it matters to us and, two, it matters to the fishery and we made the bet that it's going to matter to consumers and it turns out that it does.

SeafoodSource: And it should help seafood tell its story in the broader protein market?

Handy: Absolutely right, it helps seafood tell a better story. When you think about seafood it's an incredibly powerful tool. The number one source of greenhouse gas emissions is industrial agriculture, which is a fancy way of saying growing cattle. So to the extent we can balance out consumption of seafood with what's going on with terrestrial protein, it will have profound impacts on greenhouse gas emissions, which will turn have profound impacts on climate change.

SeafoodSource: So a program like this helps you better understand the system you are working in and allows you to drive change as a company?

Handy: Our job is just to make it a little bit better every day. We only have so many resources so we can't do everything all at once, but we want to find the intersection of what we're good at and where we are in a position to affect change and the needs of sustainable seafood. Our job is to constantly find that intersection and work at it and pay attention.

One of the things we've learned is that when we do something that works, other companies tend to do it. There's really no substitute or finding and demonstrating success, and then other companies want to do that too. I think the most powerful way we can affect change in the industry is to demonstrate ways to make progress in hopes that others will follow suit.

Photo courtesy of Bristol Seafood


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