The international fishing community, one of the oldest industries in the world, has plenty to learn when it comes to labor practices and environmental stewardship, says Tobias Aguirre, CEO of FishWise, a local nongovernmental organization (NGO).
“Our world is more than 70 percent water,” he offers, “so as the oceans go, so goes our planet.”
Aguirre says there’s only one way to improve the field, which is rife with overfishing, illegal fishing, mislabeling and human rights violations like human trafficking. That path forward, Aguirre says, is through increased transparency and oversight of an industry that supplies protein to more than a billion people a day.
“There are a lot of critical gaps in this really complicated system,” he says.
FishWise has a plan, Aguirre says, to fill these gaps through a new global alliance for sustainable fisheries called the Seafood Alliance for Legality and Traceability (SALT). With FishWise guiding the way, the SALT alliance aims to do for the seafood industry what Fair Trade USA has done for coffee and chocolate. FishWise will coordinate SALT’s efforts to share information and make industry changes, while working with stakeholders that include other NGOs, countries, and major companies, all with the goal of improving fishery management.
The SALT effort focuses, in part, on making the supply chain more traceable, Aguirre says, with the aim of letting groups track a product through the supply chain back to its origin. “The global traceability system,” Aguirre explains, “is similar to what we have in banking where you can go to any ATM around the world and through this integrated network, it eventually talks to your home bank or credit union. We really need that in seafood.”
Bait and Switch
Repeated research has shown that, due to mislabeling, people often aren’t eating the fish they’ve picked out for dinner. A study last year out of the University of Washington said that up to 30 percent of the seafood in restaurants and grocery stores is getting mislabeled. A report from Oceana, a conservation nonprofit based in Washington D.C., suggested in 2015 that mislabeling is particularly common with salmon, with 43 percent of the popular fish getting labeled incorrectly. Most of those errors were from farmed fish mislabeled as wild-caught. And often times, according to a story in the Atlantic, farmed salmon has quirks of its own, as it is wild salmon’s krill-based diet that gives the species its pink color. Farmed salmon, meanwhile, eat a highly processed kibble, which includes corn, soy, and chicken parts, naturally giving their meat a gray hue—something fish farmers then mask using a pink dye. The Washington study did note, however, that many of these phony alternatives are more sustainable than the real thing when it comes to seafood. But regardless, how can foodies know for sure when they can’t even be sure what they’ve ordered?
Indeed, Aguirre says it can be difficult for restaurants and grocery stores—let alone consumers—to know the backstory of the fish they’re carrying. Fisheries, he explains, “deal in huge piles of paper, if they’re even keeping records.”
It’s common, he adds, in countries like the Philippines, for a lone fisherman to return to shore with a catch and without much information, given his limited ability to easily and efficiently record information about his yield. Crucial information about the fish is lost from the start.
“Maybe they write down their catch and how it was caught, but often they don’t, and it just gets kind of consolidated, and that person on shore moves it to the next person in the supply chain,” Aguirre explains. He says those sparse records end up getting “transferred from one entity to another 20 times.”
“By the time it finally gets to us in a grocery store or restaurant,” he says, “it’s really easy to lose information about that product.”
Tangle of Trafficking
As it prepares for the SALT discussions, FishWise has ideas for how to fix this, including equipping fishermen with apps on handheld devices to record their catches.
Aguirre says that better record-keeping systems can also help reduce human rights abuses, which have garnered attention in Southeast Asia. UCSC alumna Martha Mendoza won her second Pulitzer Prize last year for a series of investigative reports for Associated Press detailing human trafficking on fishing boats in Indonesia. Mendoza and a team of three other reporters traced the fish caught by slaves to stores like Safeway, Kroger, Albertsons and Wal-Mart. That food, the report detailed, was ending up in everything from popular pet food to fancy restaurants to the frozen section of the grocery store.
Aguirre says that the AP’s investigative stories, along with reporting from The Guardian, “pulled back the curtain in some of these really hard-to-see areas in the seafood industry.”
“You can’t talk about environmental sustainability or sustainability in the seafood industry, without looking at the human side of it,” he adds.
Aguirre hopes that by ensuring that the whole crew has passports and access to reporting grievances, SALT can hold bad players in the industry accountable. And if the fishermen have more access to data, that means they can be more informed about the best times and places to fish as well as how to avoid bycatch, the unintended species that end up in nets. Changes could save fishermen time, fuel, and energy, he explains. “It’s hugely ambitious and there’s a lot of great NGOs, seafood companies and foundations working on it, but we do need more support from tech companies,” Aguirre says.
The SALT alliance will be a five-year $5.3 million project with funding from the United States government, as well as nonprofits like the David and Lucile Packard Foundation and the Walton Family Foundation.
In a FishWise press release, Teresa Ish, oceans program officer at the Walton Foundation, called traceability “a critical component of an efficient, modern and sustainable seafood industry.” She added that she hopes the new alliance will incentivize companies to use best practices out in the water.
It isn’t clear yet exactly how incentives would work, but Aguirre is optimistic that fishery managers will see a need to modernize their operations, including record keeping and data sharing.
Aguirre grew up in the Santa Cruz Mountains, and attended Mount Madonna School. While in grad school in San Diego he returned to Santa Cruz to do an internship with FishWise in 2004. At the time there were only five employees; there are now 30.
New Leaf Community Markets was already a leader in the green grocery business, as Aguirre noticed at the time. And when he returned to grad school, he immersed himself in learning what corporations need in order to commit to environmental progress. He looked for ways that major chains might sell more fish and become more responsible at the same time.
“In the last 12 years, we’ve created a whole portfolio of examples of companies doing exactly that. It’s been really fun,” he says.
Now 80 percent of the largest grocery stores and foodservice companies have some sort of sustainable seafood program, Aguirre says, adding that it all started with New Leaf in 2001.
Chris Farotte, program and category manager for meat and seafood for New Leaf Community Markets, says that FishWise has been instrumental in helping educate customers on the quality of their fish purchases by developing a data-driven flowchart, which store employees call “the Bible.” Both purchasers and customers can see the sustainability of various fish categorized with a stop light labeling system, split into three areas—green, yellow and red.
“I give a lot of credit to the customers because they voted with their dollars,” Farotte says. New Leaf’s customers, he says, avoided red-designated fish, even as the store saw an increase in overall purchases.
FishWise and its partners aim to empower major seafood buyers like Safeway, Albertsons, Target and Hy-Vee, a grocery chain of 240 stores with sustainable practices in the Midwest. It’s also helping to build comprehensive sustainability goals into the commitments of major companies.
“Now [there] is a groundswell of work to really think about the well-being of everyone that’s catching and raising and processing our fish,” Aguirre says, “and getting this critical protein to us.”