Where do you go to foster dialogue and partnerships leading to an environmentally, socially sustainable seafood marketplace? Why, Hong Kong of course – the epicenter of demand-driven ocean destruction! A strange location for the 10th International Seafood Summit? No, actually it’s a brilliant and timely move on the part of SeaWeb, the conference organizers.
For more than a decade, conservation groups have been pushing for a healthier ocean by building market demand for sustainable seafood with good progress. Currently, the Marine Stewardship Council has certified 179 fisheries as sustainable, totaling 7 million metric tons (or 8%) of the total world catch. Retailers from Whole Foods to Walmart to Marks and Spencer have made public commitments to source certified seafood. More recently, some businesses are further incentivizing fisheries that are far from sustainable to improve by buying from them as long as they stay engaged in detailed improvement projects and show progress. Groups like Sustainable Fisheries Partnership and WWF have been leading the way in implementing these science-based plans.
Over the years, the Summit has fostered an increasingly productive and positive dialogue between environmentalists and the industry, leading to this evolution in the European and North American seafood markets. The first Seafood Summit in 2002 was held as a closed-door gathering of mostly environmental organizations to discuss HOW to work with the private sector. Last year, the Summit had nearly 700 attendees, with executives from numerous North American and Western European businesses.
And there lies the problem. While my North American and European colleagues are down at the bar in Hong Kong celebrating their progress over some dim sum and a Tsingtao, Asia remains the scariest place in the world if you’re a fish and a pretty harsh place to scrape out a living if you’re a fisherman.
Fish is a major protein source throughout Asia for both rich and poor. Even though fish stocks across Asia are in very bad shape, fishing effort keeps growing along with demand, driven by rising population and income. This means that there is little chance of things getting better any time soon. Tens of millions of sharks are killed every year due to China’s demand for shark fin soup. Similarly, the trade in live reef fish is emptying the world’s most diverse coral reefs. Bottom trawlers from Asian countries continue to fish illegally along the coast of Africa leaving next to nothing for local fishermen to catch.
So while we have made progress, this is no time for complacency. It is time to move beyond the same old dialogue in our little corner of the world. The folks at SeaWeb knew this when they brought the Summit to Hong Kong. After all, while cultures and language may challenge our efforts to communicate, it’s ultimately one ocean and we are all in this together. I’ll have the lobster and the beer but let me talk to you about that soup.