For several weeks, I have been receiving calls from friends and colleagues regarding their reactions to the Netflix documentary, “Seaspiracy”. I am being called as they know that I spent from 2004-2018 in founding, promoting, and seeking market changes that would drive for greater sustainability in the seafood sector with my co-founding the company, CleanFish, fish you can trust®.
I had been asked by a dear friend to consult for a sizeable national seafood importer and distributor that was considering making a change in its market approach. The owner of the company assembled his senior team to meet with me in January 2004. The owner’s orientation to any sustainable practices was, essentially, no existent. He had heard there was a newly emerging ‘green’ trend in some food markets that was gaining a premium. There was interest in the color green if it brought the premium, not in the practices which would require him to make changes.
My look into the seafood sector through Q1 of 2004 proved to me how utterly disastrous the seafood sector was in its toll on our ocean ecosystems, habitats, and species. I was well aware of the decades of science warning, and warning, and warning us of the dark horizon of Climate Change. I thought of my children and their emerging families, and I decided to drop my consulting practices and start a seafood company. The senior salesman in that commodity company heard something in my presentation that sounded to him as a spark for the kind of changes he was beginning to see as essential for the future of our seas, and he joined with me in starting the company. His name is Dale Sims, and his experience, his patience with me, and his strategic insights into the seafood sector were valuable beyond measure in the launching of CleanFish, fish you can trust®.
What I was most struck within my delving into the seafood trade was the unspeakable level of waste in the wild fisheries on a global level. We looked into some of the more profit-offering species and found that the worldwide practices just assumed that you would be willing to work in markets with Slave Ships…yep, slaves entrapped in horrific conditions. And the low consideration to human life onboard these ships was a mere suggestion of the levels of throw away life ethics toward the animals living in the ocean.
By-catch, the term for fish caught in nets and long-line trawling systems of catchment would bring on deck shocking levels of sea life that were not the target species for maximum profits to the ship’s owners. So, that level of life force taken from the sea would be separated out and thrown back.
Sports fishers know well the ethics and wisdom of enjoying wild stream fishing that will catch fish, unhook a caught fish, and release it quickly back into the river or sea. It’s called catch-and-release. You may catch and keep one or two fish to bring home. You will release others as you know well the days of open limits to wild fish are limited if you want to go fishing tomorrow; or feel your children will have this adventure available to them.
Industrial slave ships and other illegal (oh, and, yes, even legal) floating fish factory ships can capture unspeakable tons of by-catch and toss it back, dead, or soon-to-be-dead from the harm and trauma of these ships harmful gear which scoops up whole ecosystems and draws out grotesque levels of lifeforce often dragged in nets for hours to maximize volume catches, only to throwback as much as 20X or more of the fish not of the targeted high-value catch that ship will bring to port for sale. Read this again. For a single pound of wild shrimp, a commodity commercial trawling vessel may haul out of the water as much as 10-20 pounds of other fish, most of which will be discarded and left to rot in the sea. Those catching the fish may be similarly left to rot for years and years on board ships unpaid and facing a fate that may as likely find them being tossed as inconsequential life overboard in their futures.
Horrible, terrifying…what are we to do? No one approaching a fish counter looking at a filet on ice of clean-looking white fish would pay for products of such practices…Yet, how are we to truly know if we are doing just that?
We live in an age of information, of amazing levels of data, of big data connecting us with information and a scale of data flow that was unimaginable to any former society, or marketplace. Yet, we look at this white fish on the counter, and ask only, “Is this fresh?”. When was the last time you walked into a wine store and said only, “I’d like some white wine”; and took home whatever we were given? In California, the wine sector producers have learned to take themselves and their products out of the realm of jug wines sold as I bought them in college in the 1970s by the gallon. California wine vineyards looked to France, and realized that there could be more to marketing and selling wine than turning out mixed blends of whites and reds labeled “Napa, Sonoma, Mendocino” wines in gallon and half-gallon jugs. Restaurants transitioned from, “Would you like red or white wine with your meal?”; to handing you a wine list that would name the county or province of origin; name the winery and appellation of the source; name the vintage and some of the highlights your palette might prefer…all at elevated levels of premium value due to the demand for transparent information on the source, even the practices, and terroir of the soil. You came to learn and want to learn more about the region that could produce such different pairings with your food. The entire wine regions of California, and now of Oregon and Washington, and New York and Virginia, have enhanced their lives and lifestyles and…
Knowledge is power. Knowledge of so much of our food systems, most certainly of our seafood systems remains far too shrouded. I found the majority of shopping market seafood counters had staff who knew next to nothing about what they were selling. I have asked waitstaff in restaurants where the fish on their menu was from? Was it farmed? Where was the farm located? What were the practices of the boat, even what gear used for that wild fish on the menu? After sending the waitstaff server back to the kitchen twice, as “the Atlantic” is not doing the job I am asking the chef to take on. My children look embarrassed, the server looks at me and may even say, “come on, give me a break”. We are not very accustomed to getting basic information about our food. The food systems have set up expectations such that you are a pain in the butt for wanting to know much of anything…Yet, what has our seafood sector, or our general food systems done to prove themselves trustworthy?
Want to make a change in all this? Ours is a Consumer Economy. Start by asking questions, educating yourself, and empowering yourself to buck this enormous and mostly imperious industrial food giant system so willing to dwarf our intentions to eat food that is good for us, and for our planet. In a Consumer Economy, we have the power. Yet, we can only exercise that power by asking questions. Good companies will know or will get that information for you once they realize you are serious. Good companies also know that you will tell others not to return to that counter, or café, or eatery, if they will not, after a few well-meaning exchanges, answer our questions.
Seaspiracy does not shock anyone in the seafood industry, I assure you. Those companies seeking to move away from such planet burdening practices are hurt even more by this lack of information flow to their customers and consumers. Our focus on learning more about our food, including most certainly seafood, will drive the changes we want. Knowledge is power. There are better players out there willingly rethinking how to adapt to all of this. You have come to learn so much more about the wines you prefer, right? It is we who actually do vote with our forks for the world we want, every day.
Only if we use our power will we see the world change toward how we want it to be. So, be smart about how you are exercising your vote. And, then, do it. You get to make this vote count multiple times each day. We vote with our forks, our chopsticks, our fingers. Do it. Vote.