Tiny crustacean, big transformation: Part 4

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 final installment of a four-part series, we begin to see the payoff of this effortas a small supply of sustainably farmed shrimp makes its way from Vietnam to Los Angeles. (Continued from Part 1Part 2 and Part 3)

Bangkok street food_Tore Bustad
A street-cart vendor serves customers in Bangkok. Photo by Tore Bustad via CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

Silver skyscrapers stretch into the clouds above Bangkok, towering over streets packed with traffic and colorful food tents. Street-cart vendors serve sticky pad Thai, lotus-root curry and pickled pig skin from sizzling woks. This city of more than eight million is alive with open-air markets, underground art and some of the world’s oldest temples.

Seafood Watch Science Director Wendy Norden looks out from the restaurant balcony. Her team of ocean policy and aquaculture experts is decompressing after a busy day of meetings. They had spent more than eight hours with dozens of stakeholders from across Southeast Asia, brainstorming solutions to the seafood industry’s biggest challenges, from habitat degradation and chemical overuse to labor abuses.

Josh Madeira examines farmed shrimp in Thailand - Photo by Mark Anderson
Aquarium policy expert Josh Madeira, center, checks out a farmer’s shrimp in Thailand. Photo by Mark C. Anderson

The group included Vietnamese caviar producers, Indonesian fish professionals, Burmese seafood producers, American seafood buyers, and environmental auditors from Ireland, Thailand and Vietnam—all face-to-face in a Bangkok conference room.

“The people in that room pull a lot of levers,” says Tyler Isaac, a Seafood Watch aquaculture scientist. “There’s a chance to make a really big impact, from both the top and from the ground level.”

His boss agrees. “We’re filling a need that’s not being met,” Wendy says. “We’re trying to dig in and solve difficult issues that nobody’s been able to solve yet.”

Thinking big

John Kerry at Our Ocean 2019
Former U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, right, announces two new sustainable seafood commitments at the 2019 Our Ocean Conference in Oslo, Norway.

Former U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry started the Our Ocean Conference in 2014 as a place for world leaders to make public pledges for ocean health. In the two years since Kerry announced the Southeast Asia Fisheries & Aquaculture Initiative on the Our Ocean stage, the conference has been the main forum for  stakeholders to unveil their big sustainability commitments.

In 2018, those commitments included an effort to bring 20,000 small-scale shrimp farms in Vietnam’s Mekong Delta to a level equivalent to a Seafood Watch green rating by 2025. The project is a collaboration among Minh Phu Seafood Corporation, inspection company SGS and the Asian Seafood Improvement Collaborative, along with the Carnegie Endowment and the Aquarium. 

That same year brought a second major commitment: Thai Union Group PCL and Chicken of the Sea brand, with the Aquarium and Carnegie Endowment, pledged to advance new sustainability initiatives throughout the seafood supply chain. Through a new program called SeaChange IGNITE, they’re dedicating $73 million through 2025 to improve seafood production in Southeast Asia and other key seafood-producing regions.

credit to Tambuyog Development Center
In the Philippines, partners are working to make the blue swimming crab fishery more sustainable. Photo courtesy Tambuyog Development Center

This year, at the 2019 Our Ocean conference in Oslo, Norway, the initiative ramped up with two even bigger commitments facilitated by the Aquarium and Carnegie Endowment

The first is the result of a public-private partnership involving the government of the Philippines, USAID, Chicken of the Sea, a national association of seafood processors known as PACPI and other partners. Together, they pledged to bring the blue swimming crab fishery in a region of the Philippines up to a Seafood Watch yellow rating within three years. 

The second came from the Vietnam Sustainable Shrimp Alliance, which is now committing to achieve a Seafood Watch yellow or green rating for shrimp production throughout the entire Cà Mau Province, on the scale of 150,000 farms, by 2030.

“This regional approach is novel, innovative and desperately needed,” Kerry said. “I believe it will serve as a model for the rest of the world to accelerate improvements toward a sustainable blue economy.”

A powerful incentive for change

Surabaya Shrimp
More than three billion people depend on seafood for food and/or income. Photo by Taylor Voorhees

Seafood provides essential nutrition and livelihoods to more than three billion people worldwide. Since 1961, fish consumption around the globe has risen twice as fast as the human population. But if we produce it in unsustainable ways, it can cause entire ocean ecosystems to collapse and threaten the economic survival and food security of billions of people. 

Over the past 20 years, Seafood Watch has been a leader in the global movement for sustainable seafood. About two-thirds of consumers around the world say they’re willing to pay more for sustainable products, according to a Nielsen study. Among millennials, that number is closer to three-fourths. Businesses are paying attention to this market demand—and that’s a powerful incentive for producers to make changes.

Today, more than 75 percent of the North American and European grocery retailers have made sustainable seafood commitments. Their demand for sustainable, ethically raised shrimp is a driver for better practices at shrimp farms around the world, including in Southeast Asia.

Jennifer Dianto Kemmerly, the Aquarium’s vice president of global ocean initiatives

Jennifer Dianto Kemmerly, the Aquarium’s vice president of global ocean initiatives, explained it this way to The New York Times: “When the U.S. market talks, the supply chain listens. So we rely on the market to send a clear signal that we will buy the seafood that is the most sustainable.” 

As the United Nations pursues global targets for ocean health, interest is also growing in other parts of the world, including Latin America and Japan. Global fishing and aquaculture practices have started to shift, and 25 percent of global production is now considered environmentally responsible.

But the Aquarium and our collaborators are aiming higher. We aspire to transform fisheries and aquaculture production into a sustainable industry at a global scale, with a goal of getting 75 percent of the world’s seafood production to a Seafood Watch green or yellow level. And one of our first target industries is farmed shrimp.

It takes collaboration across sectors to move aquaculture in a more sustainable direction. Photo by Mark C. Anderson

Given America’s massive hunger for this little crustacean, it’s a formidable task. To be successful, we need transparency, attention and awareness across sectors.

We need to listen to the people on the water—like Sakulta Kirdsook and her dad, who have seen firsthand how damaged ecosystems can rebound under careful management. 

In other words, sustainable food systems depend on sustainable communities. 

Exporting an ethic

Back in Los Angeles, chef Sammy Monsour (of Preux & Proper and South City Fried Chicken) finally found a shrimp source that meets his sustainability standards. 

black tiger shrimp_vietnam5
Blue Ribbon Task Force chefs, convening in Monterey, enjoyed black tiger prawns from Vietnamese farms.

On advice from Seafood Watch, Sammy now sources from a network of 3,000 small-scale Vietnamese farms that actively conserve and restore the coastal mangrove forests where black tiger prawns grow naturally. These giant tiger prawns are rated Seafood Watch green.

“Bright pink, plump, snappy—it’s just the best shrimp I’ve ever had,” Sammy says. “And on top of that, the farmers are doing something to bring back the mangroves. It’s great to support their growth.”

The Aquarium’s work in Southeast Asia has also helped provide a yellow-rated shrimp supply for Blue Apron, the meal-kit company. Blue Apron now sources some of its shrimp from farms making sustainability improvements in Thailand.

Working with our collaborators, we’re working to scale these solutions across Southeast Asia and, eventually, around the world. These early impacts are an encouraging sign that sustainable seafood production can make life better for both people and wildlife across the global ocean.

That’s exactly the vision Secretary John Kerry had articulated on the world stage when he announced this initiative. “The tide is turning,” he said. “I believe that.”

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

Featured image: Aquarium Executive Director Julie Packard and former U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry at the 2018 Our Ocean Conference in Bali, Indonesia. Photo by Radhika Rao

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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