As the son of a fisherman, everything I had in my childhood, as well as my education, was paid for by fish. So, with that in mind, I will offer you my unadulterated view of the Food Marketing Institute Summit’s seafood sustainability session that I attended several weeks ago. I had been holding back on this because I did not want it to be too negative, but recently at a dinner with ten people from the sustainability sector, the question of what seafood they should and shouldn’t be eating arose. That brought me right back to the FMI Summit and the lack of understanding and education on the subject I saw reflected there on the part of the industry.
Do we know how to define sustainability or don’t we? That is the question I took away from this session. True, the Institute deserves credit for sponsoring the summit, as does the Packard Foundation for hosting a seafood session. But the latter event left me scratching my head. How can some of the largest seafood brands in the world claim they are sustainable at the same time the United Nations says that seafood levels left in the ocean are down to 10 percent and many species are on the brink of extinction?
The opening speaker, whom I have known for 15 years, said it all with his first slide: there is not a clear definition of sustainability for seafood. Well then, I guess we’d better first determine what that is, since a session based on a wobbly definition of sustainability just isn’t sustainable. Someone, at some point, has to be willing to draw a line in the sand, because there should be no ambivalence about what is or isn’t sustainable.
Needless to say, I left this session feeling more than a bit discouraged about the lack of leadership on this issue. Right now, it seems apparent to me that the good ol’ boys in top management have no intention of ‘rocking the boat’ any further until it is too late for threatened species. If such vacillation has now become the industry norm, we are in real trouble, and may have to begin rallying consumers to action.
But the good news in all of this is that meaningful change usually comes about under just such circumstances. If we were not backed up against a wall, I don’t think a viable definition of sustainability might ever be formulated. I still have faith that the Packard Foundation and other such organizations will continue to generate discussions that will ultimately result in genuine steps being taken to keep threatened marine species from being rendered extinct. And the reason I have this faith is that, last night, during our dinner-table discussion, at least three people downloaded the Monterey Bay Aquarium app to determine what fish were considered OK to eat. Now, that’s what I call progress.