SENA15: Defining seafood sustainability, minimizing consumer confusion


Michelle McNickle, Digital Product Manager

Published on
March 15, 2015


The seafood industry is entitled to celebrate its success regarding sustainability, but there are still areas that need improvement, said Michael Tlusty, director of Ocean Sustainabity Science at New England Aquarium. Tlusty joined a panel of four other industry exports during a talk titled “The Changing Landscape of Sustainable Seafood” during day one of Seafood Expo North America.

“Sustainability is a journey,” Tlusty added. “It’s complex. So we need to celebrate and simplify, but we’re dealing in a messy space.”
Sea Delight’s Adriana Sanchez-Lindsay, sustainability coordinator, addressed the role of businesses in the sustainability discussion. “As distributors and importers, we work closest to fishermen,” she said.

Sanchez –Lindsay and her team work with the New England Aquarium, for example, on the development of fishery improvement projects. “And then we bring it down the supply chain,” she said. “We protect business interest, simplify a complex process and drive change through suppliers. We make sure we engage them and work with the communities we source from.”

Richard Stavis, CEO of Stavis Seafood, added that it’s easy to hypothesize from a business perspective what sustainability could look like. “You end up driving dollars to a sustainable method that you think is sustainable but it’s not,” he said. “What’s the point? We need to take something that’s complicated and make it simple to the consumer. If I don’t understand it, consumers aren’t.”

Stavis added he and his team also use clout to drive home the importance of sustainability to company partners and consumers. “A lot of people buy from us, so we’re thought leaders,” he said. “We need to drive meaningful, beneficial changes, and as an industry, that’s how we make the most impact.”

Changes at the consumer level are easier said than done, said Oistein Thorsen, principal consultant, Benchmark Sustainability Science. According to Thorsen, there are a number of trade-offs the industry deals with in regard to sustainability, which are being projected through mixed messages to consumers, “which isn’t a wise thing to do,” he said.

“For example, you talk about the state of the oceans, and in the same sentence, we say, ‘you should eat more seafood,’” he said. “Wild caught seafood is better than farmed, and on and on, and on the back of that general confusion, we’ve created multiple certification bodies with multiple standard owners.”

Thorsen added the question surrounding certification bodies isn’t which one is best, but is instead which part of the “sustainability journey” is managed by what group. “[There needs to be] transparency around that to build incentive structures for producers to move up,” he said.

Sanchez-Lindsay added that beyond the certification models, the industry needs to focus on what it means to be a sustainable source and sharing that message with consumers. “Most people don’t know what that means,” she said. “We need to work toward educating our buyers and telling the story behind the seafood we’re selling to them.”

There is a growing interest in where food comes from, and a lot of food producers see this increase on the consumer end as something threatening, “which is insane,” added Thorsen. “We should celebrate that our consumers care about the products we deliver to them.”

The key to selling sustainability, he concluded, isn’t labeling something as sustainable. “It’s just talking about what you do – where does it come from, who make it…when you start telling that real story, that’s what consumers want to see. Not 500 signs saying ‘sustainable.’”


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