SeaWeb Sustainable Seafood Conference – New Orleans 2015

by Mark J. Spalding, President

As you may have noticed from other posts, last week I was in New Orleans attending the SeaWeb Sustainable Seafood conference.  Hundreds of fishermen, fisheries experts, government officials, NGO representatives, chefs, aquaculture and other industry executives, and foundation officers gathered to learn about efforts underway to make fish consumption more sustainable at every level.  I attended the last Seafood Summit, which was held in Hong Kong in 2013.  It was very clear that everyone who attended in New Orleans was eager to be back together to share information and learn about new sustainability efforts.  I share with you here some of the highlights.

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Kathryn Sullivan.jpgWe led off with a keynote address by Dr. Kathryn Sullivan, Under Secretary of Commerce for Oceans and Atmosphere and NOAA Administrator. Immediately afterwards, there was a panel that included Russell Smith, deputy assistant secretary for International Fisheries at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, who is responsible for overseeing NOAA’s work with other countries to ensure that fish stocks are sustainably managed.  This panel talked about the report from the Presidential Task Force on Combating Illegal, Unreported and Unregulated (IUU) Fishing and Seafood Fraud and their much-anticipated implementation strategy. President Obama had directed the Task Force to issue recommendations on steps the government could take to prioritize actions to address IUU fishing and protect these valuable food and ecological resources.      



Malicious But Delicious, The National Marine Sanctuary Foundation’s Atlantic Lionfish Cookoff: One evening, we gathered to watch seven renowned chefs from different parts of the U.S. prepare lionfish in their own special way.  TOF Board of Advisors member Bart Seaver was the master of ceremonies for this event, which was designed to highlight the huge challenge of removing an invasive species once it has started to thrive.  Traced to fewer than 10 females who were dumped in the Atlantic off of Florida, lionfish can now be found all over the Caribbean and in the Gulf of Mexico.  Promoting their capture for consumption is one strategy that is designed to cope with this hungry predator.  The lionfish, once popular in aquarium trade, is native to the Pacific Ocean where it is not the all-consuming, rapidly reproducing carnivore that it has become in the Atlantic.

I found this event particularly interesting because TOF’s Cuba Marine Research Program is undertaking a project to answer the question:  What level of manual removal effort is necessary to reduce local invasive lionfish populations in Cuba, and mitigate their effects on native species and fisheries? This question has been tackled without much success elsewhere, because confounding human effects on both native fish and lionfish populations (i.e., poaching in MPAs or subsistence fishing of lionfish) have been difficult to correct for. In Cuba however, pursuing this question is feasible in a well-protected MPA such as Jardines or Guanahacabibes National Park in western Cuba. In such well-enforced MPAs, the catch of all marine organisms, including lionfish, is strictly regulated, so the effects of humans on both native fishes and lionfish are a known quantity—making it easier to determine what needs to be done in order to share with managers throughout the region.

Coastal Business Sustainability: Managing through Crisis and Resiliency through Diversification was a small breakout session held after lunch on the first day that gave us some great examples of local Louisianans working to make their fisheries more sustainable and more resilient to big events such as Hurricanes Katrina and Rita (2005), and the BP Oil Spill (2010). One interesting new line of business that some communities are trying is cultural tourism in the Bayou.

Lance Nacio is an example of one local fisherman who has worked hard to improve the quality of his shrimp catch—he has virtually no bycatch thanks to using a well-designed Turtle Excluder Device and he makes every effort to ensure that the shrimp are of the highest quality—sorting them by size on board, and keeping them cold and clean all the way to market.  His work is much like that of TOF project “Smart Fish,” whose team was on-site last week.

slavery at sea.pngPreventing Human Rights Abuses in Seafood Supply Chains: Facilitated by Tobias Aguirre, executive director of FishWise, this six-member plenary panel focused on expanding efforts to identify ways to improve accountability in the entire seafood supply chain from catch to plate.  There is little doubt that the affordability of wild fish in US markets is due in part to the appalling working conditions found on many fishing trawlers, especially in southeast Asia.  Far too many fishing boat workers are virtual slaves, unable to go ashore, either unpaid or paid far below a working wage, and living in crowded, unhealthy conditions on minimal diets.  Fair Trade USA and other organizations are working to develop labels that assure consumers that the fish they eat can be traced back to the boat from which it was caught—and that the fishermen who caught it were decently paid and voluntarily there.  Other efforts focus on working with other countries to improve enforcement strategies and to step up monitoring of the supply chain.  To learn more about this topic, watch this short powerful video on the topic.

Ocean Acidification Panel: The SeaWeb Seafood Summit chose The Ocean Foundation as its blue carbon offset partner for the conference.  Attendees were invited to pay an additional carbon offset fee when they registered for the conference—a fee that will go to the TOF SeaGrass Grow program.  Because of our diverse projects that relate to ocean acidification, I was happy that the panel dedicated to this critical issue was well-designed and repeated how certain the science is on this threat to the ocean food web. Dr. Richard Zimmerman of Old Dominion University pointed out that that we need to worry about ocean acidification in our estuaries and tributaries not just the nearshore environment. He is concerned that our pH monitoring is not in the shallowest areas and often not in the areas where shellfish farming is taking place.  [PS, just this week, new maps were released that reveal the extent of ocean acidification.]

better aquaculture.jpgAquaculture: Such a conference would be incomplete without a great deal of discussion on aquaculture.  Aquaculture now makes up more than half of the global fish supply.  A number of really interesting panels on this important topic were included—the panel on Recirculating Aquaculture Systems was fascinating.  These systems are designed to be wholly on land, thus avoiding any of the water quality, escaped fish and escaped diseases, and other issues that can stem from open pen (nearshore and offshore) facilities.  The panelists offered diverse experiences and production facilities that offered some great ideas about how vacant land in coastal areas and other cities might be put to use for protein production, creating jobs and meeting demand.  From Vancouver Island where a First Nation land-based RAS is producing Atlantic salmon in clean water on a fraction of the area needed for the same number of salmon in the ocean, to complex producers such as Bell Aquaculture in Indiana, USA and Target Marine in Sechelt, BC, Canada, where fish, roe, fertilizer and other products are being produced for the domestic market.

I learned that overall the use of fish-based feeds for salmon production is dropping drastically, as is the use of antibiotics. These advances are good news as we move towards ever more sustainable fish, shellfish, and other production.  One additional advantage of RAS is that land-based systems do not compete with other uses in our crowded coastal waters—and there is significantly more control over the quality of the water the fish are swimming in, and thus in the quality of the fish themselves.

I cannot say that we spent 100 percent of our time in windowless conference rooms.  There were a few opportunities to enjoy some of what the weeks before Mardi Gras offer in New Orleans—a city that lives precariously on the brink between land and sea.  It was a great place to talk about our global dependence on a healthy ocean—and healthy populations of the plants and animals within.

photos courtesy of NOAA, Mark Spalding, and EJF