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From the Sushi Plate to the Investment Portfolio: Three Ways to Take Action on Ocean Health

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Co-authored by Sissel Waage

The earth isn’t called the “blue marble” for nothing: All life on Earth is linked to our oceans, including the oxygen we breathe, the plants and fish that we eat, and the moderation of weather patterns all around us.

Despite their key role, oceans are taken for granted. People expect that oceans will keep providing us with life-sustaining services. But the reality is, without swift and wide-scale action, they won’t. They can’t.

The Boston Seafood Show, happening this week, is the largest seafood trade event in North America -- nearly 1,100 exhibitors from 47 countries will be part of the massive seafood trading that takes place over the course of three days, with buyers that include McDonald’s, Target, and Whole Foods. This industry event is a ripe opportunity to highlight three ways that consumers, companies, and investors can support our world’s oceans and all of us who depend on them:

For Sushi Lovers: Consumers and Food Safety.

If you’re ordering sushi in the United States, you may not be eating what you think you are: 74 percent of sushi restaurants nationally sell mislabeled products (along with 38 percent of restaurants and 18 percent of grocery stores), according to a recent study by noted policy advocacy group Oceana. In New York City, every single sushi restaurant surveyed sold mislabeled seafood, and 94 percent of tuna samples were actually tuna’s less costly substitute, escolar.

Mislabeled seafood is about more than just understanding where your food comes from -- it’s a matter of health. For example, escolar is known for causing an array of digestive issues. Other species fall on the Food and Drug Administration’s “Do Not Eat” list due to elevated levels of mercury, which is known to cause neurological defects, and can be particularly harmful to children.

What you can do:

Ask your grocery store or restaurant waiter if the fish being served has been certified by either the Marine Stewardship Council (or the abbreviation MSC) or the Aquaculture Stewardship Council (ASC) for farmed fish, or if it is produced within ‘Fisheries Improvement Programs’ (FIPs) -- there are approximately 100 around the world. These labels assure that the product you’re eating matches the menu.

The seafood industry: food companies and supply chain risk

While many major retailers have made commitments to sustainable seafood, these pledges only go so far: without ongoing oversight of practices before the product gets into their hands, the complex and fragmented supply chains involved in sea food delivery can mask bad practices -- ranging from slave labor to harmful fishing practices -- with devastating consequences.

There is more companies can do to ensure that the seafood they sell is ethically and sustainably sourced.

Continuing to source from sub-par operators in the fishing industry exposes companies to immense operational, reputational, and even political risks. Aside from increasing uncertainty about supplies of fish due to declining global fish stocks (and resulting fishery closures -- such as the recent Gulf of Maine shrimp closure), recent stories from Thailand have exposed widespread labor abuses throughout the seafood supply chain that are putting pressure on companies as big as Walmart to change their practices. As Thailand and other countries come under further pressure from the State Department and other groups concerned with labor conditions, seafood companies may find themselves in increasingly uncomfortable political and reputational territory through inaction.

What companies can do:

One solution is to sustainable practices, across the supply chain, which includes accountability and the traceability of what fish are being caught and where – and how it’s impacting overall species viability. This ability to track sourcing throughout a supply chain is becoming easier with real-time information technology systems created by Norpac Fisheries Export, which is bringing IT to the high seas. It is then essential for companies to partner to review the data captured within the context of sustainable fisheries management plans, which are based on studies of specific fish stocks and marine animal populations, in order to ensure sustainable catch levels.

On the labor side, there is a business opportunity for progressive companies to reap dividends from investing in ethical sourcing. Starbucks and FairTrade have demonstrated consumer willingness to pay a premium for ethically sourced coffee. While no standard yet exists for fisheries, the success of past certification efforts with seafood suggests an untapped opportunity. And success begets success: Blake Mycoskie of the TOMS shoe brand just announced at SXSW his intention to enter the ethical coffee business.

Investors: Assessing the Risk.

Like most commodity sectors, there are strong value drivers in the seafood industry: large and growing demand for seafood, rising prices and the underlying value of the renewable resource. Yet the full costs (and benefits) of delivering value in the seafood industry are not being fully captured, putting billions of dollars are at risk.

What investors can do:

At a minimum, investors can assess the exposure of their balance sheets to environmental (and other) risks. For example, there are a variety of tools investors can use to ask themselves if seafood companies in their portfolio are adhering to international best due diligence practices to surface potentially problematic impacts and dependencies on biodiversity and ecosystem services. This is now required by the International Finance Corporation (IFC) as well as 79 global Equator Principles financial institutions, which include all well-known banks. Increasingly, investors who take the extra step to conduct due diligence on the social and environmental practices of their investments are seeing a comparative advantage.

In addition to assessing risks, groups like Fish 2.0 are demonstrating that there are opportunities for value creation through investable businesses focused on sustainable seafood throughout the supply chain.

These are just three ways a range of stakeholders can contribute to the sustainability of our ecosystems, the safety of our food, and the strength of our economies that are linked to the role oceans play in our daily lives -- and the well-being of the planet.

 
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