Sailors for the Sea takes new approach to seafood sustainability in Japan

Published on
December 4, 2018

Ryan Bigelow, the senior program manager for Monterey Bay Aquarium’s Seafood Watch, sees Japan as a country ripe for seafood sustainability ratings like those his program provides.

Japan’s population consumes a vast amount of seafood – collectively, the country has one of the largest seafood consumption footprints in the world (third behind China and the European Union) – and because of that, an improvement in the overall sustainability of the seafood sold and eaten in Japan can have a major impact.

Seafood Watch’s Buyers Guide, which gives seafood either a “best choice,” a “good alternative”, or “avoid” recommendation to seafood commonly found in supermarkets, is well-known in the United States. (Its ratings are color-coded green, yellow, and red, similar to the colors found in traffic signals.)

The guide is tailored to each U.S. state in order to give recommendations relevant to the seafood available there. They can be downloaded in PDF form on a single page and easily folded into a wallet or pocketbook. 

But Bigelow openly acknowledges that Japanese consumers are not familiar with Seafood Watch’s guides.

“We don't promote our program there,” he told SeafoodSource.

Still, for the fourth consecutive year, Bigelow attended the Tokyo Sustainable Seafood Symposium, which took place at Iino Hall and Conference Center on 1 November. Initiated in 2015, the annual event brings together Japanese professionals involved in the seafood industry to discuss issues surrounding smarter management of global fisheries resources. The all-day program featured a wide range of speakers and panelists.

“We attend the symposium to share our experiences advocating for more sustainable seafood in North America, both our successes and our failures,” Bigelow said. “Hopefully, that knowledge allows the sustainable seafood movement in Japan to grow more quickly and avoid some of the issues we encountered over the last 20 years.”

According to Bigelow, the closest parallel to the Seafood Watch Buyers Guide in Japan is the Sailors for the Sea Blue Seafood Guide. 

“It is still a nascent tool, but it is very well produced,” he said. 

Bigelow said the two organizations are in contact and try to help each other out.

“We support Sailors for the Sea indirectly, offering advice when we can, but the programs are separate,” he said.

Sailors for the Sea Japan refers to Seafood Watch’s Consumers Guide for sustainability information, but also includes information from other sources, according to Sailors for the Sea Japan President Minako Iue.

Iue told SeafoodSource that the Japanese guide takes a positive approach, not listing red or yellow items, but only giving favorable recommendations. Those recommendations are listed in blue, which is used as the equivalent of a green light in the United States – possibly because early traffic signals were a shade of green close in hue to blue. Blue is also representative of the ocean, so the name “Blue Seafood Guide” has a double meaning and is a play on words, according to Iue.

An illustration of how the Sailors for the Sea guide differs from its American brethren can be seen in closed-cycle bluefin tuna, which is becoming increasingly available in Japan as more companies master the process and ramp up production. Closed-cycle farmed bluefin tuna receives an “avoid” rating from Seafood Watch because its feed conversion ratio (the ratio of fish required as food input to grow each pound of the target fish), is very high. In some cases, the ratio – also known as a fish in, fish out ratio, or FIFO – approaches 15: 1.  A sustainable farm for other species can get the “fish-in" amount below 1:1, Bigelow said.

“On that criterion alone, farmed bluefin earns [an ‘avoid’] rating,” he said.

However, Iue said closed-cycle bluefin tuna farming can be seen as a more sustainable alternative in Japan, as it does not deplete wild stocks like bluefin tuna ranching does. Bluefin tuna is wildly popular in Japan and that situation is unlikely to change, and so encouraging further development of closed-cycle bluefin tuna aquaculture is a sustainable option in that it may take pressure off wild stocks of bluefin, some of which are considered severely depleted.

By avoiding negative messages, the organization can engage with businesses that might otherwise take a defensive attitude, Iue said.

Local cultural knowledge and awareness is one reason why Sailors of the Sea has an edge in the Japanese market, Iue said. She said that the situation of Japan is different from the U.S.A., since the eating of seafood is deeply embedded in Japanese culture and emotionally tied to national identity. Revealing the depth of love that Japanese consumers have for a wide variety seafood, the Blue Seafood Guide  currently features 60 different fish that are commonly found in restaurants and markets in Japan, while in comparison, the standard Monterey Bay Aquarium pocket guide in the United States features 23 best options.

The Japanese guide was launched in 2013 and the organization now has nine staff members in Japan and a dozen board members. One recent change that Iue’s organization has had to incorporate is its parent organization’s merger with global marine conservation group Oceana in February 2018. However, the Sailors for the Sea affiliate in Japan has continued its existing efforts as well as their association with the Sailors for the Sea brand, while beginning efforts to support Oceana’s global campaigns.

Its recent campaigns show that the organization continues to gain ground in Japan. Last year, Sailors for the Sea Japan partnered with Asahi TV, one of Japan’s major TV networks, to host a series of Blue Seafood festivals, which featured celebrities sharing their passion for sustainable seafood and organic products. The festivals also offered catering and retail areas to allow attendees to taste and purchase seafood recommended by the Blue Guide.

More recently, Sailors for the Sea Japan has begun to form partnerships with restaurants that offer fish featured in the Blue Seafood Guide. Sailors for the Sea Japan has had success recently in partnering with restaurant Dean & Deluca, and in getting a commitment from Maxell Holdings to feature Blue Seafood Guide recommended items in their cafeterias. 

However, Iue acknowledged that significant challenges remain in creating a widespread and lasting influence in Japanese seafood buying.

“Consumer awareness [remains] low in Japan,” she said. 

Nonetheless, Iue said she remains undeterred in her organization’s goal

“Our mission is to increase awareness and give opportunities to learn about the protection of marine resources so that we can pass this beautiful planet on to the next generation,” she said.

Photo courtesy of Sailors for the Sea Japan

Contributing Editor reporting from Osaka, Japan

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