Walton Family Foundation picks new strategy for oceans, fishery conservation work

Heather D’Agnes is the senior program officer and oceans initiative lead for the foundation’s environment program.

The Walton Family Foundation – which was created by the family of Walmart founders Sam and Helen Walton and  annually gives away more than USD 500 million (EUR 412.3 million) to charitable causes, including more than USD 90 million (EUR 74.2 million) in 2019 to environment-centered projects – has revamped its approach toward its marine conservation and support of seafood sustainability initiatives.

Heather D’Agnes, senior program officer and oceans initiative lead for the foundation’s environment program, told SeafoodSource in an interview that WFF recently launched a new five-year plan tailored toward maximizing its impact on specific fisheries and seafood-trading nations.

The new plan for WFF’s oceans initiative calls for promoting sustainability efforts for nine of what the organization has deemed are the world’s most-significant seafood commodities. It will also focus on affecting change in three of the world’s biggest seafood marketplaces: the United States, the European Union, and Japan.

“The Walton Family Foundation has been investing in the sustainable seafood movement for more than a decade. This new five-year plan identifies both our big-picture goals for that work and moves us into a catalytic phase of our longer-term strategy,” D’Agnes said. “We’ve always had a focus on building demand for sustainable seafood in the market and driving that demand throughout the supply chain. Under our new strategy, we will promote sustainability in a focused number of fisheries instrumental to meeting that demand while also maintaining healthy oceans. Our new strategy will allow us to home in on both the demand and supply of sustainable seafood and be much more strategic about what we’re doing.”

The WFF’s previous five-year plan, announced in 2016, concentrated on efforts to improve seafood sustainability on the demand side of the global market, with a focus on the United States, Japan, and Spain, while advancing fisheries reform in the key seafood producing countries of Chile, Peru, Mexico, Indonesia and the U.S. The new plan retains the U.S. and Japan in its spotlight, and broadens its European effort from Spain to include the entire E.U. Rather than focusing on country-wide fisheries management efforts, WFF has pivoted to support the sustainable supply of a handful of seafood commodities.

“The foundation has a long history of engaging with the E.U. market, including on their import control rules. Over the next five years, we want to support E.U. leadership in preventing seafood sourced from [illegal, unreported, and unregulated] fishing and encourage U.S. and Japanese import control rules to align with these efforts,” D’Agnes said. “We also hope to support Spanish seafood companies to develop a precompetitive platform for sustainable seafood similar to SeaBOS while at the same time, driving demand for products from the fisheries we’re working on, such as Chilean hake or Peruvian octopus, which already have solid trading connections with Spain. It’s very exciting to see real potential for catalyzing change in the Spanish market.”

In the United States, where the foundation is based and where it has historically had its deepest levels of engagement, D’Agnes said WFF will shift from a market facing strategy aimed at buyers and retailers to larger, system-wide initiatives.

“We are moving from direct one-to-one relationships with market players to more of a platform model that emphasizes collaboration. For example, the Global Dialogue for Seafood Traceability or the Global Tuna Alliance,” she said. “Another focus is moving beyond industry commitments to source sustainable seafood and moving towards how we can support industry to uphold those commitments and transparently report on their progress.”

D'Agnes said WFF would continue to back efforts that incentivize fishers to adopt traceability technology onboard U.S. fishing vessels and to support small-scale fishermen in overcoming the up-front financial burdens associated with implementing sustainability requirements.

“We believe the U.S. has one of the best fisheries management frameworks in the world, the Magnuson-Stevens Act, and WFF has contributed to its successful implementation and durability,” D’Agnes said. “Now we’re looking at how we can help fishermen accommodate the rules and regulations, such as supplying data or having observers on the vessel, that come with managing fisheries sustainably. All this comes at great expense to fishermen and we’re looking at how we can help them adopt sustainable measures in ways that aren’t financially detrimental. And, we are aware that all of this will need to accommodate a changing climate that is affecting U.S. coastlines and its fish populations.”

The foundation’s work in Japan, which includes support for sustainability-focused nonprofit Seafood Legacy, is beginning to bear fruit, according to D’Agnes.

“Seafood sustainability efforts are just starting to take off in Japan and we want to support this momentum by driving demand at the retail level,” she said. “The other thing about Japan we’re very excited about is their efforts to tighten their import control rules, following the passage of their new fisheries act. We see that as a major tool to set the floor in terms of preventing illegal products from getting into the Japanese market.”

D'Agnes said WFF is initiating a shift in its policy, from a piecemeal approach in major seafood-producing, developing nations to a more holistic methodology.

“One of the challenges of our old strategy, which involved creating demand for sustainable products in consuming countries and then working in major seafood producing countries to build government will to adopt and implement sustainable fisheries policies and programs to meet that demand – there was a disconnect there,” she said. “We weren’t successfully connecting specific fisheries with markets.”

WFF’s revised strategy will now focus on nine seafood commodities selected by the organization that all have existing ties to the E.U., U.S., and Japanese markets, with the goal of “driving sustainability down through those supply chains.” The commodities selected – which include tuna, blue swimming crab, octopus, and Humboldt squid – were chosen based on strong market demand for these products and existing foundation investments in sustainable fisheries projects in partnership with government, industry and fishers in  Indonesia, Peru, Mexico, and Chile.

“We’re building on the success we had in those fisheries, with their most popular products. The goal is linking market demand to on-the-water sustainability initiatives in those fisheries,” D’Agnes said.

D’Agnes said the COVID-19 pandemic – and the resulting boom in seafood sales – reshuffled traditional supply chains and market preferences in a way that benefits sustainability.

“COVID really had a big impact on supply chains. A lot of seafood sales shifted to retail outlets like supermarkets,” D’Agnes said. “The explosion in their demand for products usually sold through food service, for example blue swimming crab, is mind-boggling, and the shift from consumers buying more seafood through retail than ever before has been a positive for sustainability initiatives. The foundation has strong existing relationships with retailers that we can leverage to increase market demand for these seafood products. And consumers shopping at places like Whole Foods are looking for sustainable products, and they can more easily review a product’s sustainable credentials in a supermarket than a restaurant.”

D'Agnes pointed out that consumer interest in seafood sustainability issues has gone up during the COVID-19 pandemic and said WFF’s interest in the seafood sustainability realm has mirrored that of the world’s population as a whole.

“The topic has just grown in interest. It went from being a nonissue to a huge issue in the past ten years,” D’Agnes said. “I think with another five years, maybe a little more, we can make sustainable seafood conservation the success story of the 21st century. With just a little more effort, it can really get to point where it’s mainstreamed. We think the fisheries and markets where we will be working can make that difference.”

Underpinning all of the Walton Family Foundation’s work on the oceans and on the seafood industry is climate change, which D’Agnes called “an overarching issue affecting all of our work.”

“Understanding and adjusting to the new climate future is integral to our strategy. We need to ensure all policy levers recognize and accommodate the profound and myriad ways a changing climate will affect oceans and fisheries.” D’Agnes said. “It’s already affecting so many things, like sourcing requirements, because some fish are no longer big enough to meet the sourcing criteria of the companies buying them, or where fish are moving to new places where management structures aren’t yet in place.”

The WFF is looking for more collaboration with the seafood industry to tackle the challenge, D’Agnes said.

“We’re starting to work with the industry to identify how climate change is a risk to their supply chains, and we’re working with fishermen on the ground to adjust to and hopefully mitigate the impacts of climate change on the fisheries they depend upon for jobs, income, and wellbeing,” she said. “We’re emphasizing climate because it’s clear it could undermine everything we’re doing. We still believe oceans are very resilient, but we need to build awareness – if climate change is an existential threat to the oceans, then industry, governments and fishers should be really worried about it, and should be contributing to the debate around what should we do in terms of protecting this industry and their business.”

Photo courtesy of The Walton Foundation


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