Tiny crustacean, big transformation: Part 3

The Monterey Bay Aquarium is working to make the global shrimp supply chain more environmentally sustainable, from family farms in Southeast Asia to customers’ plates in the United States. In this third installment of a four-part series, we explore how an innovative partnership is driving an ambitious vision for sustainable shrimp production. (Continued from Part 1 and Part 2.) 

“Sustainability is very important for human beings and other species sharing our common home,” says Aquarium consultant Cu Thi Le Thuy. Photo by Mark C. Anderson

Friday rush hour traffic rumbles by the Hanoi coffee shop where Cu Thi Le Thuy sips a cup of hot tea. Mopeds zip between cars, pedestrians weave through the currents and sirens amplify the tumult.

But for Thuy, this is a rare moment of stillness. She gazes past the traffic at Hoàn Kiếm Lake and its Temple of the Jade Mountain, which appears to float on the water. Thuy has a gift for focusing on what’s most important when others might be overwhelmed by the surrounding noise. 

The Aquarium hired Thuy as a regional expert who knows her native Vietnam and its neighboring nations inside out. She works as a translator in the broadest sense—helping bridge linguistic, cultural and knowledge gaps between Aquarium experts and the region’s seafood industry representatives. And she’s helping deploy a new tool that aims to share the power, and responsibility, of verification throughout the supply chain.

The Aquarium’s collaboration with Thuy, and regional experts like her, gets to the heart of a common question: Why are we working to influence seafood production an ocean away from our California headquarters?

Put simply: Market power.

Into the blue

Governments of coastal nations, including in Southeast Asia, are working to develop what’s  known as the blue economy. The World Bank defines the blue economy as “sustainable use of ocean resources for economic growth, improved livelihoods and jobs, while preserving the health of ocean ecosystems.”

Shrimp Farm in Southern Thailand_Mark Anderson
Shrimp farm in Krabi Province, southern Thailand. Photo by Mark C. Anderson

If anywhere can be a global model of a sustainable blue economy, it’s Southeast Asia, one of the world’s leading producers of wild-caught and farmed seafood. Some of that fish and shellfish are consumed within the region; some is exported to wealthier parts of the world, including the United States, at a higher selling price. 

But making the industry more sustainable is a complex task. Small-scale fisheries and aquaculture operations make up the majority of Southeast Asia’s seafood production; the environmental, social and governance challenges they face are too big for any family seafood business to tackle alone.

That’s where the Aquarium and our partner, the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, come in. Our Southeast Asia Fisheries and Aquaculture Initiative brings together seafood producers, scholars, government officials and expert advisers to map a path to long-term sustainable development in the seafood sector. The multi-year initiative focuses on Indonesia, Thailand, Myanmar, Vietnam and the Philippines.

The stakeholders in this new initiative hope to accelerate sustainable seafood development in alignment with the United Nations’ global goals. They’re experimenting with new business models and public-private partnerships that can boost the regional economy while preserving ocean resources for future generations. 

Diplomatic ties

John Kerry Our Ocean
Former U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry is an international voice for sustainable seafood production.

Standing before an audience of world leaders on the tiny Mediterranean island of Malta, former U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry busted an old myth. “Sustainable fishing is good for jobs [and] good for the environment at the same time,” he said. “It’s not a competition between the two.”

You may remember Kerry as the former U.S. Senator from Massachusetts who was the Democratic nominee in the 2004 presidential race prior to serving as Secretary of State. In his post-political life, Kerry is taking on global environmental challenges. On his list: how to farm seafood in an environmentally and socially sustainable way. 

Kerry has longstanding diplomatic ties, as well as a deep understanding of economic and environmental issues, in Southeast Asia. He also has a connection to the Aquarium’s Chief Conservation and Science Officer, Margaret Spring, who worked with him back in the early 2000s, when she was a lawyer in the U.S. Senate and he was a senator. 

Now a Distinguished Visiting Statesman for the Carnegie Endowment, Kerry helped spearhead the Southeast Asia Fisheries and Aquaculture Initiative with the Aquarium, announcing it to the world at the 2017 Our Ocean Conference in Malta.

Onstage, Kerry spoke about how human industry is threatening the ocean that sustains us. “We have to do more, faster,” he said, motioning to the massive image of an ocean horizon on the screen behind him. “We have a responsibility…to make sure that more citizens in all of our countries join us in this endeavor.”

Picking up the tablet

Shrimp _Mark Anderson
A worker pulls live shrimp out of an aquaculture pond in Southern Thailand. Photo by Mark C. Anderson

The vision for sustainable shrimp production in Southeast Asia is ambitious—but it also poses a practical question: How can we measure improvements on tens of thousands of small fish farms? The process may be relatively simple for a single operation, but what about thousands? 

The answer: by empowering people on the water to do some of the technical work themselves. So the Aquarium and our collaborators, including NGOs and major seafood business players, helped develop a scalable approach called the Partnership Assurance Model

Instead of requiring a third-party auditor to verify progress on each small farm—a process that would be prohibitively expensive and time-consuming—the model allows for a more cooperative, regional approach.

Thuy with platform
Aquarium consultant Cu Thi Le Thuy, in green, teaches inspectors and Minh Phu staff how to use verification software on digital tablets. Photo by Taylor Voorhees

Here’s how it works: An inspector answers questions about shrimp farm operations on a digital tablet, using software the Aquarium and our partners developed. This lets the inspector verify a farm in a couple of hours instead of a matter of days. Farmers can track their progress and identify which changes they still need to make.

Thuy helped develop the platform and is now teaching inspectors how to use it to assess shrimp farms on the ground. After a full day in the classroom—coaching the future inspectors on what information to gather, how to input it on the tablet, and how to apply different interviewing techniques—she practices it herself. 

A shared vision

In the early-morning light, Thuy and her team travel by boat to visit a shrimp farm. On arrival, they leave their shoes at the door and sit with the farming family, making a tight circle on the floor. The farm’s “office” is the family’s tidy living room; the aromas of fresh herbs and a soup stock waft in from the kitchen. 

Color Version Vietnamese translator2
A translator from Minh Phu Seafood Corporation discusses sustainability improvements with a Vietnamese shrimp farmer. Photo by Taylor Voorhees

Thuy chats with the farmer in Vietnamese as her team eases into the process of data collection. Her students follow along, diligently tapping on their own tablets, as Thuy simultaneously interviews the farmer and instructs her team on how to interpret the data. 

The Aquarium and our collaborators developed this model with more than Southeast Asia in mind. By bringing together farmers, processors, nonprofits, government agencies, financial institutions, technology companies and others, it has the potential to transform large segments of the aquaculture industry to better protect ocean health.

But it’ll only be successful if everyone involved makes sustainability a shared responsibility.

Continue to Part 4 

– By Kera Abraham Panni, Mark C. Anderson and Magdaline Southard

Featured photo: Aquarium consultant Cu Thi Le Thuy meets with Aquarium staff in Vietnam. Photo by Taylor Voorhees

By choosing seafood that’s recommended by Seafood Watch, you’re supporting a healthy ocean for future generations. Learn more at seafoodwatch.org

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