Q&A: Dawn Martin, SeaWeb president

The 10th Seafood Summit begins in just a few days, and for the first time the event will take place in Asia. It’s quite fitting that the premier gathering for industry and environmental NGOs is taking place in Hong Kong, as so much of the world’s seafood supply is produced or processed in China and Southeast Asia.

Dawn Martin, president of event organizer SeaWeb, says the Summit has transformed over the years as the industry and the environmental NGO community have learned to collaborate and work toward shared goals. Martin talked with SeafoodSource recently about the Summit’s achievements over the past decade and its outlook for the future. (Editor’s note: Look for Wright’s complete interview with Martin in the upcoming October issue of SeaFood Business.)

Wright: Talk about the origins of the Summit and how it came to be. 

Martin: SeaWeb was founded in 1995, originally a project of the Pew Charitable Trusts and broke away to become its own NGO in 1996. At that time, the only real ocean [campaign] going on was Save the Whales and Dolphin Safe Tuna, which was the first industry-initiated labeling system for certifying, in a sense, seafood. Then the FAO came out with a code of conduct for sustainable fisheries in 1995 and there was a growing awareness around sustainability, but the NGO community was really treating fish as wildlife. It wasn’t resonating and they weren’t getting any traction. SeaWeb did some market research to figure out how to address these issues from a communications perspective. What we found was really quite exciting because this was the first point in which we had actual data to say, “If you want to connect with people on the oceans, and not just around fisheries, generally it’s through the food on their plates.” We dubbed that the ocean-plate connection.

How did you get your efforts off the ground? 

In 1998 SeaWeb was working with [the National Resources Defense Council] and Chef Nora Pouillon on the Give Swordfish a Break campaign. Hugely controversial at the time — it was the first time a campaign was done on a single species. All kinds of flak about it, but it totally worked. We got great management measures in place so it was a real success story. This was really the beginning of the Seafood Summit. We started out with Nora, then we got 27 chefs pretty quickly to start taking action and by the end of the campaign there were over 700. But we couldn’t just drop these guys like a hot potato now that the campaign was done and we achieved our goals. What are we going to do to keep this segment of the seafood industry engaged? So that led to the creation of the Seafood Choices program, which operated like a trade association for these guys, sending them information and keeping them engaged.

Is there a moment, from a discussion or a presentation at a previous Summit, that stands out to you?

It was in Seattle [in 2006], when Walmart and [World Wildlife Fund] decided to host a press conference at the Summit on Walmart’s commitments to sustainability. That struck me, as it’s my interest in ensuring that these issues get more attention in the media, and knowing what it took for us to build trust with the media. It was the first year that we were allowing media on the record, and people were using it as a place to make positive announcements about change, and the industry wanted to get that credit for stepping out and doing this. For me it was a tipping point. We were not just forcing people in a room and making them talk nice to each other. There are partnerships that have suddenly been enabled and they’re fruitful and they’re making commitments on the record. 

Why is it important for the Summit to be held in variousplaces around the world, and why is the time right for Hong Kong now?

It needs to be in different places in order to really engage the local community where we are; and by that I mean residents of that country or that region to take ownership and take hold of the issue. We only have the resources to do this thing right now on an annual basis and we realize that there are a lot of people working in the trenches on this issue that can’t afford to fly and travel all around the world and that if we held it only in North America or Europe or Asia we would be limiting ourselves and not enabling ourselves to learn from the great work that’s being done in different parts around the world. Why Asia? We are also very sensitive to the timing in which we bring the Summit to these different regions. We work with government and industry to let them know our intent and to get them to help bring their businesses and their community together to participate and fully embrace it. In the last few years, we’ve all learned that all eyes have to be on Asia. We could turn every single consumer and company in North America and Europe onto sustainability and it would only be a drop in the bucket if we were not able to address these issues in the context of the tremendous market share that Asia has.


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