EXPERT OPINION: Steve Fisher, Asia Pacific General Manager, Sea Delight | WWF

EXPERT OPINION: Steve Fisher, Asia Pacific General Manager, Sea Delight

Posted on 18 February 2014    
Steve Fisher, Asia Pacific General Manager, Sea Delight
© Steve Fisher

Tell us about your role in Sea Delight and how you got started in this profession.

My title is General Manager, Asia Pacific. In this role I oversee the food safety, quality control and sustainability work with our frozen seafood suppliers in the region. I started as a truck driver for a Japanese-American seafood company in San Francisco, California in 1989. I basically worked my up through the ranks without a fisheries or science background, just lots of experience.

What role do seafood companies play in bringing about more sustainable fisheries, especially in a developing region such as Asia Pacific? How crucial is private sector engagement?

Seafood Sustainability, since its inception, has been driven by the industry. Though end-consumers are increasingly more aware of the concept of sustainability and are starting to ask questions such as where their seafood is coming from, how it’s caught, and what’s the environmental impact of the fishing practice, it’s been the industry ( mostly pressured by environmental NGOs engaged in marine conservation programs) which have started to lead this movement. As a result, what we find is that it’s become the responsibility of seafood companies to assess their supply chain and develop a response to how their seafood is being sourced; whether it’s to develop a public and company-wide sustainability commitment, start a Fisheries Improvement Project (FIP) or choose to not carry certain species which have been deemed “red” or critical by these NGO groups.

The purchasing power of the private sector is then crucial to engage the entire supply chain and encourage all stakeholders to participate not only because it makes business sense in the long-term (it secures stable supply of the seafood resource), but also because it helps minimize the impact that our business practices have on the environment thus protecting it for future generations. This is particularly important in the Asia Pacific region as it is one of the main sources of worldwide seafood supply.

What are the major hindrances or challenges faced by seafood companies in providing customers with seafood products from responsible sources? How do you think these challenges can be overcome?

Challenge A. Funding: It costs money to build programs which help improve fishing practices and fisheries. Sometimes the cost of the improvement program may far exceed the profit value of an individual fishery and it may be hard for one individual company to justify the expense involved.

Response A: Develop alternative funding models to transfer the costs from the fishermen and local agencies to the major players (suppliers, distributors, end consumer). Learn the process of securing funding through international government funding agencies and non-governmental environmental funding foundations. This critical area needs a lot of attention, especially here in the Asia Pacific region, and regional and national NGO’s need to do more to help projects secure funding and develop strong relationships with funding agencies.

Challenge B. Government: Some of the fishery issues are related to poor government management and the lack of enforcement of existing regulations which lead to increasing illegal, unregulated and unreported activities. Many governments in the region have almost no fishery management programs or programs that are based on outdated models.

Response B: Work closely with government agencies to identify their shortcomings and help develop solutions (there’s often a cultural component which needs to be overcome). Develop smaller pilot Better Practice or Fishery Improvement Projects (FIP) in each region, with the cooperation of local and national governments. Use these pilot projects as models to demonstrate to government that they can work and then expand improvement to similar fisheries in the region.

Challenge C. Lack of Data: Some fisheries and species are data deficient so we cannot assess with certainty the current status of the fishery itself.

Response C: Again, pilot projects, especially community or small scale fishery FIPs, can be used successfully to demonstrate to local and national governments and fishery managers that improvement can take place in a data deficient fishery, that good data can be collected and that these fisheries can be effectively managed. This is also where national and regional NGOs can have a marked impact by developing strong relationships with the local and national fishery ministries and managers, moving them on the road to managing fisheries and good data collection.

Challenge D. Time: All changes take time as efforts are coordinated through diverse stakeholders from government agencies to NGOs, fishermen, distributors, importers and vendors. In depleted or recovering fisheries time is needed to rebuild stocks and for disturbed environments to stabilize.

Response D: At 56 years of age, I may not have much patience left, but we do need to learn to be patient and to work diligently with all stakeholders towards set timelines and goals. Certainly timelines could be speeded up and more projects initiated if Challenge A, funding, is addressed.

Is there an added value for seafood companies to provide regional or global markets with responsibly-sourced seafood products? What are the advantages of doing so from an economic perspective or from a brand positioning angle?

In an increasingly competitive market, added value is found in the ability to enter certain markets which are ONLY open to products which have been sourced responsibly. It helps to differentiate your products/brand from the competition, but in many cases we are still far from being able to charge a premium or pay for a premium on these products (for instance, very few North American retailers are willing to pay a higher price for responsibly caught fish).

Based on your experience, how critical is the state of our fish stocks in the region? How will this affect food security and livelihoods in the near future?

I have personally witnessed the depletion of stocks of lutjanus sp. snapper in West Java and carcharhinus sp. sharks in the Southern Philippines to the point of collapse. How many other fisheries in the region are in trouble is hard to say due to lack of data. This is one reason why Sea Delight is working so hard to help facilitate improvement in the fisheries we source from.

In fisheries where catch rates are in fact decreasing, we need to work with the fishers on catch effort reduction, particularly by developing alternative sources of livelihood while the stock has time to rebuild. Food security can also be addressed through responsible aquaculture of certain species to increase protein alternatives. Seafood Sustainability cannot stop at the resource itself, it should be a comprehensive program which also secures the livelihood of the fishers and their families.

How important are regional platforms that support the sustainability of fisheries and seafood trade in bringing about better fisheries management in the region?

Regional platforms are necessary as they bring the knowledge and information needed for industry leaders in this region to face the reality that some of their markets are shrinking in North America, Europe, etc., because they are not supporting better fishing practices. I believe that if these companies are invited to join the conversation, they will realize the effect it has in their business in the long term, and will be more inclined to support better fisheries management in the region. It will be a question of necessity in order to stay in business.

By working closely with regional governments and fisheries ministries regional platforms can bring them into the conversation as well. Dialogue with and pressure from industry, through the regional platform, can help convince those ministries that sustainability and good fisheries management as no longer optional if they want their fisheries to retain market share.

What role do consumers play in all this? What can they do to help?

We need to increase consumer awareness of the issues affecting seafood sustainability today. The consumer’s purchasing power can drive the entire supply chain to become more engaged in fishery improvement and management efforts. If consumers take a stand and choose not to purchase certain items, the supply chain will follow. In other words, if there’s no market for stocks of critical concern, fishing effort will decrease. We should try to improve critical fisheries but we also have to be ready to provide fishers with alternatives (different species, education, eco-tourism, etc.) so that their livelihoods are not threatened.

Steve Fisher, Asia Pacific General Manager, Sea Delight
© Steve Fisher Enlarge

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