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Why We Need to Think of the Faces Behind the Nets

Lessons from Southeast Asia on the socio-cultural elements of sustainable seafood

Mitchell Davis

August 13, 2019

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Mangrove forest Mitchell Davis
A mangrove forest in Vietnam, home to thousands of small-hold shrimp farms (photo: Mitchell Davis).

The James Beard Foundation is guided by our mantra of “good food for goodTM.” For chief strategy officer Mitchell Davis, that means digging into the complex relationships of our current food system through global conversation, finding ways for the Beard Foundation to collaborate with others in envisioning the future, and making sure that chefs have a place at the table when we talk about feeding our planet both sustainably and deliciously. Below, Davis shares insights from his recent trip to Southeast Asia, where he represented the Foundation at the SeaWeb Seafood Summit, and visited a sustainable shrimp farm to learn more about how chefs can help drive progress towards a more equitable and environmentally conscious seafood industry.

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Canned tuna and all-you-can-eat shrimp. These are two things I rarely consume. And yet to a large extent they set the economic and policy framework within which the production and sustainability of global seafood is determined. At least, that was one of my takeaways from a recent gathering of sustainable seafood stakeholders in Bangkok, Thailand.

The annual SeaWeb Seafood Summit is a traveling forum that brings together industry, policy makers, academics, NGOs, and other players from the world of seafood. This year’s location in Southeast Asia meant workers’ voices and workers’ rights were prominent on the summit agenda. The slave conditions of laborers in the region’s seafood industry have been the subject of much investigative reporting and an arresting documentary called Ghost Fleet that drives the issue home.

Paul Rice, founder, president and CEO of Fair Trade USA, set the tone of the SeaWeb summit with his opening keynote, which underscored the importance of social factors in any sustainability effort: “Unless we look after people, they will not look after the environment.” Rice noted that you cannot separate out things like human rights, climate change, or gender issues and hope to make any real progress.

I represented the James Beard Foundation at this gathering because of the potential for chefs and restaurants worldwide to provide an inflection point for change in sustainable seafood purchasing, and because of the success of our Smart Catch program.

Designed to assess seafood purchases for participating restaurants in America, Smart Catch provides a data-driven mechanism to evaluate, educate, and improve the sustainability of seafood offerings on menus. From its inception, Smart Catch has taken socio-cultural factors of production, such as treatment of labor, into consideration in its assessments, which are based primarily on Monterey Bay Aquarium Seafood Watch evaluations. With more than 500 restaurants participating in the program, Smart Catch has assessed millions of pounds of seafood, helping to remove red-listed items and replace threatened species with delicious alternatives. Working with wholesale seafood distributors across the U.S., Smart Catch has an ambitious goal of reaching 2,000 restaurants by the end of 2020.

Smart Catch relies on the expertise of sustainable seafood expert Corey Peet and his British Columbia–based team at Postelesia to conduct the assessments and provide feedback to participating restaurants. Peet is also an organizer of the SeaWeb summit and a founder of the Asian Seafood Improvement Collaborative (ASIC), which held its annual meeting in Bangkok. ASIC is trying to find a way to encourage, recognize, and have the market reward improvements in sustainability generated by local stakeholders.

Organizations like SeaWeb, ASIC, Oxfam, Monterey Bay Aquarium, World Wildlife Fund, Humanity United, and other progressive change makers in the seafood space are scrutinizing the seafood industry. But despite general agreement about what needs to be done—echoed by speakers on the stage throughout the SeaWeb summit—there are complicated economic, cultural, policy, and logistic factors that create significant hurdles to change. For example, pressure to keep the prices of canned tuna and farmed shrimp low results in practices that infringe on both the environment and on human rights. As Paul Rice said, everything is connected.

Shrimp Mitchell Davis
Sustainably produced shrimp from a Vietnamese extensive farm (photo: Mitchell Davis)

Complicating matters are the facts that demand for seafood is up, ocean stocks are dangerously low, and aquaculture, which according to many affords the only viable alternative, can be problematic. But carefully stewarded, sustainable aquaculture seems to be an area of opportunity, even optimism—at least that was my impression from a field trip I took to view a collection of shrimp farms in southern Vietnam.

A project of ASIC, Vietnam’s mangrove forests are home to some 20,000 small-hold farmers producing quality shrimp sustainably and without questionable labor. The farms rely on natural tides and feed to grow shrimp from seed to market size—a system referred to as “extensive” farming. The shrimp farmer I met enjoys the work, which he described as less time-consuming and less back-breaking than rice farming. And the extensive system has the capacity to restore and preserve the natural ecosystem of the mangrove forests. The challenge facing these farmers is finding a distribution channel that distinguishes the shrimp grown on these farms from the global commodity shrimp of Southeast Asia, so they can reap rewards for doing things right.

This may be changing. ASIC along with partners Seafood Watch and SGS are working with local seafood producer/distributor Minh Phu—the largest seafood company in Vietnam with annual revenues of approximately $800 million U.S.— to find a way to distinguish these mangrove shrimp throughout the distribution and value chain. American restaurants and chefs who are looking for suppliers of sustainably produced, quality shrimp, and who can afford to pay a small premium for same, might provide the answer. At least that is the hope of introducing the James Beard Foundation and Smart Catch to this remote corner of the world. Coincidentally, I happened to fly back from Vietnam with Le Van Quang, founder and CEO of Minh Phu, who said he was committed to finding a way to get the mangrove shrimp to chefs in the U.S.

Sitting in the SeaWeb summit in Bangkok, at times I was struck by the complexity of the global seafood industry, which represents just one category of food we eat. I spend a lot of time thinking about food, but this was all new to me. Although it seems daunting to an outsider, I was reassured that chefs and the restaurant industry have an important role to play in making positive change, and that the individual decisions they make for their businesses can have a greater impact at the local, regional, and even global level. As our hashtag says, #chefslead.

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Mitchell Davis is chief strategy officer at the James Beard Foundation. Find him on Twitter and Instagram.