Posted tagged ‘sustainable’

When “Environmentalists” Take Anti-Science Positions….

August 20, 2013

I have been following with great interest this discussion in the “Aquaculture & Seafood Networkers” group on LinkedIn. If  you are an aquaculture professional and you don’t belong to this group, you should (and if you don’t belong to LinkedIn because “I don’t have time for social media” — shame on you!)

The discussion, at the start, is about a Vancouver Sun article on closed-containment aquaculture. However, when a group member who is currently making a documentary about net-pen salmon farming enters to pronounce that “closed containment systems should be the only way farmed fisheries operate” and open-net farms “are devastating to our oceans and our wild salmon,” a conversation is sparked that should be taking place much more publicly than on a specialist LinkedIn group.

As he can always be counted on to do, Dave Conley, senior consultant and founding partner of Aquaculture Communications Group,  springs forth to challenge the scientific basis of net-pen opponents’ objections. At this writing, the Alaskan filmmaker has yet to produce a single piece of peer-reviewed research supporting her arguments about “the harmful impacts of farmed salmon to our health and to our environment.”

In response to several links supporting her position, Ivar Warrer-Hansen, Head of Business Developments at Inter Aqua Advance — who makes his living selling the very type of closed-containment systems the filmmaker advocates — asks her to “just give me one peer reviewed article please, just one.” So far, she has been unable to do so. I will keep watching and report here if she does.

Within this discussion is a brief but interesting exchange about feed-conversion ratios that is a must-read for anyone who has ever tried to defend aquaculture against the “10 pounds of fishmeal for every 1 pound of salmon” meme. Again, thank you Dave Conley for providing the links to the relevant research.

I’ll give the last word to Ivar: “The sad thing is that when [environmentalists] take anti-science positions, they weaken the environmental movement – they give environmentalists a bad name. We all want to look after our environment.”

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Aquaculture 2013: “Strike a Chord for Sustainable Aquaculture”

February 22, 2013

Amid the small talk at last night’s cocktail reception, I was asked, “How is it that you came to aquaculture through your interest in marine conservation when so many environmentalists are hostile to aquaculture?”

The full answer would require more than a single blog post, but the short version is, “I came to it naive, without knowing what, as an environmentalist, I was ‘supposed to know’.” As I’ve written elsewhere, when I started down this path several years ago I thought a fistfight might break out during the Q&A following an advance screening of the film “The End of the Line” when an audience member suggested that the film gave short shrift to aquaculture as part of the solution to the problem of global overfishing.

A couple of years later, I was pleasantly surprised during a screening of “Sushi: The Global Catch” to see aquaculture prominently featured as a beneficial component of any strategy to reduce the impact of sushi’s global popularity on bluefin tuna stocks.

Aquaculture 2013’s theme is “Strike a Chord for Sustainable Aquaculture.” Today’s keynote address by climate change expert Dr. Edward Allison of the University of East Anglia and the WorldFish Center (titled: “Aquaculture in a Changing Climate”) presented a much more nuanced picture both of the climate change debate and of the environmental friendliness of aquaculture than we are used to seeing from professional environmentalists. While he didn’t equivocate over whether climate change and sea level rise are real and have their roots in human behavior, he acknowledged repeatedly that the issues are complex, impacts are hard to predict, and “there will be winners and losers.”

“Aquaculture is a small contributor to global warming,” Dr. Allison said, adding that the biggest contributing factor is feed (the capture and processing of fish for fishmeal). So, the biggest factor in a small contribution to global warming is feed production – an impact that is completely addressable through existing and yet-to-be-developed means. When compared with other, more energy-intensive forms of livestock with much higher feed-conversion ratios, aquaculture starts to look awfully good.

Whole Foods Move Can Only Benefit Responsible Aquaculture

March 31, 2012

Whole Foods Market‘s decision, announced yesterday, to stop selling red-listed seafood — if seriously and diligently executed — can only benefit responsible aquaculture operators.

Starting Earth Day, April 22,Whole Foods — the 500-pound gorilla of the natural/organic/sustainable/local retail food world — says it will no longer carry wild-caught seafood that is “red-rated,” a color code that indicates it is either overfished or caught in a way that harms other species. The ratings are determined by the Blue Ocean Institute, an advocacy group, and the Monterey Bay Aquarium in California.

It has long irked me to see Whole Foods offering red-listed seafood, and if supermarket chain is serious about this latest move it will only up the ante for other retailers that wish to reach more-affluent, ecologically conscious consumers. In the short term, it should lead to rising prices for seafood that can be verified as sustainably sourced — “bad news” for those of us who want to buy responsibly, but higher prices create a greater incentive for new players to get into the sustainable supply chain and existing operators to become more fastidious in their practices.

Who will step up to seize this opportunity?

Inventing the Digital Fish

January 25, 2012

 One of the things I enjoy about the discussions on the Aquaculture Means Business LinkedIn group is the fact  that, despite my gray whiskers, I get to feel like the “new kid” on the seafood block. Coming out of the business-to-business media world (or, “The Industry Formerly Known as Trade Publishing”), I am constantly being reminded how much I have to learn about seafood, aquaculture, and all their sub-markets and sub-disciplines.

At the same time, I am continually gaining insight into common business realities that transcend specific industries: the need to understand your customers and the problems they need solved; supply/demand; risk management and mitigation; market dynamics and investor psychology.

I’ve recently been having a productive conversation with LinkedIn group member Durwood Dugger about the opportunities and challenges facing aquaculture. Durwood, as president at Biocepts International, is a 40-year veteran in the field who I’m sure has forgotten more about the business of aquaculture than I will ever know.  He has clearly done more and thought a lot longer and harder about how to make these businesses work than I have.

Like many of the industry veterans I speak with, I sense in Durwood an acute awareness of the difficulties aquaculture faces that borders on (but never quite crosses over into) pessimism. These folks have seen more businesses fail than prosper, far fewer thrive than merely survive.  This is the curse of knowledge, isn’t it? History comes to feel more like a description of natural law than a chaos of creative and destructive forces whose ultimate outcome is anybody’s guess.

In the conversation I referred to above, I drew some analogies from my world of information and media to suggest the possibilities I see for the development of aquaculture. Durwood correctly pointed out that my analogies have limits in their applicability to the seafood industry, since physical commodities like fish cannot be digitized.

Or can they?

Okay, the day of breaking tuna down to bits and bytes and beaming them Star Trek-style around the world may still be the stuff of sci-fi, but let’s think a little more deeply about what digitization means. What are the practical effects of digitization and how might they be applied to seafood?

To my mind, digitization’s practical effects can be boiled down to three concepts:

1) Disintermediation (eliminating the middle man)

2) Thinning out material inputs (some people use the term “dematerialization” — while this sounds really cool, I find it misleading. To go back to the publishing analogy, online content may seem “dematerialized”, but it is still created and distributed by means of physical assets and infrastructure. These assets, however, are more uniformly distributed and less obtrusively visible and weighty than the printing presses  and newsrooms of olden times).

3) Loosening the bonds of time and place (content can be created and shared from virtually anywhere at any time).

Disintermediation in an industry as dependent on middlemen as the seafood industry is certainly is a tall order (Durwood: “There will be entire industry sectors that will fight this tooth and nail – because it would take about 6 layers of middlemen — and their margins — out of the average seafood transaction”); but it is by no means implausible. Digital technology has made it easier to distribute and share information, conduct transactions, and build relationships — activities that middlemen historically have had a lock on. Everywhere from music to finance to politics, we’re seeing that lock erode, so I’m optimistic that people far cleverer than I am are working hard on technologies and strategies that will help dislodge these costly layers.

Thinning out material input could, I suppose, be restated as “cost sharing through creative partnerships”. One of the reasons the internet has been as successful as it has been is that a basic distribution infrastructure (the phone system) already existed and, once smart people began to realize the ‘Net’s potential and created the Web, all manner of creative types were willing to jump in and invest their own time, energy, and money to make it better and better, faster and more robust. Long before the big-money people got into the game, it was the garage tinkerers who were coming up with the cool stuff. More to the point, though, people were willing to pay for the value this innovation brought into their homes. Through their subscriptions and their phone bills (remember “dial-up”? Seems like yesterday!), people were willing to pay some amount to access services that, looking back from the perspective conferred by a couple of decades of innovation, seem awfully paltry and primitive. It was the feeble beginning of the technological miracles that we now take for granted and, in fact, get angry at if they don’t work instantaneously.

How does this concept translate into aquaculture? I suppose you’d have to be able to answer the following questions in the affirmative for it to work:

1. Is there a market that would be willing to pay some kind of premium for some kind of farmed fish? The premium might be justified because it:

– Makes a high-value product available to consumers who want it but either can’t get it where they are or the cost is prohibitively high.

– Provides a fresher, more sustainable, or simply local alternative to the same product obtained through conventional means.

The existence of grocery chains like Whole Foods and Trader Joe‘s demonstrates that such markets exist — the question is how to serve them cost-effectively?

2. Does the technology exist to spread the cost of production and distribution out among partners, vendors, and customers?

– To some degree, this answer must also address disintermediation. Can price and other market information be accessed and made available that would enable customers (families, restaurants, and stores alike) to go straight to the producer to obtain the most reliable terms? Can exchanges be created or supply-chain management tools or lead-generation databases be developed that not only facilitate transactions but generated additional value in the form of information that can be aggregated, translated, and sold as part of an industry-wide knowledge base?

3. Have other industries that deal in high-volume physical commodities developed models that can be imitated?

4. Are there natural partners — say, grocery or restaurant chains — whose scale, clout, and self-interest could be leveraged? As Durwood mentioned in our conversation: “I’m not aware of any aquaculture producer that has a restaurant chain – or the opposite. When and if that ever happens, then you might see the seafood commodity industry start to make some significant changes.” I agree, and can’t help believing this to be a likely development, especially as Wal-Mart and Target become increasingly interested in “sustainable” and “local”. Are there opportunities for the aquaculture Davids to collaborate with the corporate Goliaths instead of throwing stones?

Loosening the bonds of time and place, if it is to happen, will depend on technological developments, creative partnerships, public-private involvement,  and intensely hyper-local focus. If technology and site selection can dramatically reduce the energy- and labor-intensiveness of production and distribution; if partnerships with states, municipalities, and corporate entities with a focus on sustainability and locality can establish a foothold for aquaculture projects near feed suppliers and/or major markets; if consumers can be educated to care about where their seafood is coming from (remember: EVERY consumer doesn’t have to get it — a significant minority will do) and to be willing to pay for that added value, then I can imagine a loosely connected web of smallish production units empowered by digital exchanges that help producers get found and consumers get the best terms, leveraging shared purchasing power, creating “virtual scale” and competitive advantage.

That’s a lot of “ifs”, some of them bigger and more daunting than others. The good news is, these things don’t have to happen all at once or in any particular order.  The business world is full of models, analogies, and examples of success amid what seems like insuperable odds — examples that, in hindsight, often seem obvious, though at the time their authors were regarded as dreamy-eyed optimists. My vision may not be the way the future plays out, but it’s a vision. What’s your vision?

Blue Oasis Pure Shrimp: More Kick-Ass Storytelling

January 14, 2012

This short video from Blue Oasis is another example of what I’ve been calling “Kick-ass storytelling” by aquaculture enterprises.  Professionally produced, a compelling answer to the question: “Why should I care about this company and its products?”

What do you think?

Why Am I Doing This?

October 16, 2011

The following post is an excerpt of one that appeared a year ago in the feeble first iteration of this blog, created on Tumblr.  Over the ensuing year, I’ve created and moderated the Aquaculture Means Business group on LinkedIn, where I’ve had the privilege of getting to know a lot of people who know an awful lot more about the business of aquaculture than I do or probably ever will.  I now feel better prepared to begin delivering on my goal of bringing together people, ideas and resources in support of  a sustainable, profitable global aquaculture industry.

With that disclosure behind me, here I go again.  Wish me luck!

Why Am I Doing This?

Answering this question is as good a place to start as any.

I love the ocean, always have. In particular, I love to eat things that come out of the ocean. Several years ago, when my doctor told me I should eat more fish to help my “good cholesterol”, I thought, “Hot damn! Medical advice I may actually follow!”

I’d long known the world’s oceans were being abused, but it was only in recent years that I began to understand the extent of the problem and its interconnected causes.  What pushed me over the edge was the book Bottom Feeder by Taras Grescoe. Like most people, I was aware of the mercury issue (though part of me thought, “Wasn’t that in the ’70s? No one talks about it anymore – probably was just one of those overblown health scares that crop up from time to time!”); I knew plastics in the ocean were a problem, but I kind of vaguely thought it was just the occasional seabird or turtle getting snagged in a plastic six-pack holder (sad, but hardly something to get all activist about); and aquaculture — well, I thought farming fish was just a really cool idea, but why would anyone buy farmed fish when the ocean was just teeming with them?

Then I picked up Bottom Feeder. I won’t go into detail here, but let’s just say I promptly gave up shrimp, salmon, and tuna. As I read more on the subject — especially The End of the Line by Charles Clover — I began to wonder if I could ever eat seafood in good conscience again. And the more I learned about the global food industry, the more I wondered whether I could ever eat ANYTHING again.

It took a series of conversations with people like Casson Trenor, of Sustainable Sushi fame, and chef and sustainability activist Barton Seaver, and others, to persuade me that, yes, it is possible to enjoy seafood in ways that make you part of the solution, rather than part of the problem. But it is not easy. I filled my pockets with Seafood Watch cards that I passed out with cult-like zeal to friends, family members, and strangers. I began researching concepts for ocean-friendly businesses.

Aquaculture, I came to believe, has to be part of the solution — however, I quickly learned that my view was not shared by some of my environmentalist friends. At a premiere of the film version of The End of the Line I thought a fistfight was going to break out when one of the viewers suggested during a post-viewing Q&A that the film had given fish farming short shrift.  To be sure, there are major issues concerning feed and waste — some of the same issues that turned me off of shrimp and salmon after reading Bottom Feeder — but I do believe these are issues that can be addressed.

Many of the environmental problems we face were created by business, and I have always believed business must play a role in solving them. Activist passion and the profit motive have to learn to become allies, rather than adversaries. Those of us who care about the oceans have to put our money where our mouths are. Consumers have to learn to make food-buying decisions based on more than price and to hold businesses accountable for the social and environmental impacts of their practices. Businesses have to do more than use words like “green” or “sustainable” in their marketing materials.

More to the point, though, business must return to its roots of satisfying existing needs, rather than artificially creating new ones.

That, in part, is why I’m doing this.



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