Expanding Horizons- Complexity and Scale at the 2012 International Seafood Summit

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Guest post by Rob Johnson, SeaChoice Representative from Ecology Action Centre

For the first time in its ten-year history, SeaWeb’s International Seafood Summit made it’s way to Asia last month. Under the banner of “Evolving Solutions for New Horizons” leaders across the global seafood industry and conservation community gathered in Hong Kong to grapple with complicated and pressing issues surrounding seafood sustainability. Notably lacking in representation, however were actual fishermen- the small-scale operators that make their livelihood bringing sustainable quality seafood to market.

What started out ten years ago as a small meeting of NGOs has shifted into a global seafood industry-focused forum- a platform and catalyst for social change through advancing a growing sustainable seafood movement. This is both an opportunity and a challenge for leading North American conservation organizations, sixteen of which have partnered to pursue a Common Vision for Environmentally Sustainable Seafood and work together as the Conservation Alliance for Sustainable Solutions.

I traveled from Nova Scotia where I work as part of the Ecology Action Centre (EAC) Marine program. The EAC is part of The Conservation Alliance for Seafood Solutions, as well as a member organization of SeaChoice – a comprehensive national seafood program that has been involved in many past summits. SeaChoice works to help Canadian businesses and consumers make the most ocean-friendly seafood choices to support the long-term health of marine ecosystems and coastal communities.SeafoodSummitRemarks2012

The keynote address, led by WorldFish Centre’s Stephen Hall, was a marked departure from the usual western-styled focus on species-specific fisheries management. Hall instead emphasized a more holistic theory of change highlighting the need for increased contributions to food security and economic development. His perspective helped elevate the sustainable seafood dialogue to include more social, political and economic factors.  For me, working at the EAC-where our program areas encompass the gamut of sustainable fisheries and aquaculture issues, from fisheries policy, marine spatial planning, sustainable seafood, and coastal livelihoods- this was a welcome frame.

Because the panel discussions and workshops were often dominated by large seafood businesses and international conservation organizations, I couldn’t help but notice the missing voice from sustainable small-scale fisheries. On a couple of occasions I saw a comment or question by a fisherman- borne out of direct on-the-water knowledge- that silenced a room full of seafood professionals with straightforwardness and sensibility.

Eco-certification was the focus of a significant amount of the Summit discussion. As major retailers in North America have partnered with conservation organizations and committed to sustainable seafood policies, certification has become the key message many are using to convey responsibility and sustainability. All the talk of large industrial fishery certifications made me think about the truly sustainable small-scale fisheries that fly under the radar of these schemes- like Nova Scotia’s Chedabucto Bay Trap-Caught Shrimp. Lost in the complexity, perhaps, was the simple adage of knowing who your fisherman is, what they catch, where and when, as the real assurance of sustainability.

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Sustainable seafood is impossibly large and complex – from the international financial markets that fuel the bustle of Hong Kong to the quiet solitude of a lone clam digger working the sand along the Bay of Fundy.  On the long flight home I was left wondering, how can we broaden the engagement in progressive debate, discussion and meaningful collaborations across the seafood industry? How can we all work together to achieve the goal of widespread and lasting change on the water?

In the end, eco-certifications are but one tool in the toolbox, and let’s not forget, these are voluntary standards and schemes that are simply proliferating in the vacuous space left by lack of government regulation on seafood labeling the type of fish, where it’s from, and how it was caught or farmed. Then again, small-scale fishermen and aquaculturists have always been in the best position to know and convey this information…

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