Last November at a historic meeting in the Maldives, eight of the world’s largest fishing companies – responsible for catching a tenth of all the fish sold on international markets – agreed to take action towards better ocean stewardship. Next month these companies meet again, this time in Stockholm, to discuss how to follow up.
Bringing these companies to the table is the fruit of years of dogged work by Henrik Österblom and his colleagues at the Stockholm Resilience Centre, based at Stockholm University. Their data painted the picture of these companies’ impacts at a global scale. And once the data were published, the researchers reached out to the leaders of these companies, asking them to join the first keystone dialogue.
The largest companies in the seafood industry have both the ability and incentives to take on a leadership role – their business depends on functioning ecosystems. In early May, as representatives from international fishing companies join Österblom and his colleagues in Stockholm to meet again, the original eight will become nine. These “keystone actors” will take the next steps on their path to improved ocean stewardship.
Unloading frozen fish from a trawler in the Dutch port of IJmuiden (Sandettie, Fecamp IMO 8012085). By Joost J. Bakker from IJmuiden [CC BY 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons.
The first steps down that path can be traced to an afternoon in 2012. While kicking around ideas after a full-day workshop, Österblom and Carl Folke, co-founder of the centre, found themselves wondering if companies could be compared to keystone species. Were they acting as linchpins in the environment? And what about their impacts at the global scale?
Keystone species are plants or animals that are crucial to maintaining the function of the ecosystems in which they live. Without them, the ecosystem would change or could disappear entirely. The impact these species have on their home environment is in a sense disproportionate to how common they are in that system.
The sea otter in the North Pacific provides a prime example: otters feast on sea urchins, keeping down their numbers and thereby protecting kelp forests – and all the other species that make their homes there. Sea urchins have few other predators so, without otters, they would increase in numbers and overeat kelp, shrinking the underwater forests.
Inspired by this disproportionate influence of some species in ecosystems, Österblom, a marine ecologist, used the concept to explore the seafood market ecosystems and corporations that dominate them. Together with graduate student Jean-Baptiste Jouffray, Österblom led a team of researchers on a deep dive into the publicly available numbers.
Most fisheries companies will protect the information about their catches – when, where, and how much – to a certain extent. But they also have to respect quotas in many of the waters where they fish, or report their bottom lines to stockholders and other stakeholders in annual reports, among other numbers.
Österblom says he spoke to journalists, policy makers, marine scientists, regulators, company representatives, and more. When sources could not give him numbers, they could often give him contacts who gave more contacts and advised on documents to look up or other information.
The researchers used every number they could find to extrapolate the bigger picture. Considering the uncertainties, the team came to the conclusion that 13 companies hauled 9 to 13 million tonnes of fish and other creatures out of the sea, or somewhere between 11% to 16% of the global marine catch. These companies also controlled around a third of the largest and most lucrative fish stocks, including tuna, the team reported in PLOS ONE in 2015.
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Österblom knew exactly what to do with that information: his experience as both a researcher and former strategic advisor to the Swedish government led him to suspect that these keystone actors, as he came to call them, could make a difference. He just had to figure out how to get them in the same room.
Idyllic lecture hall
Eventually, Österblom and his team convinced representatives of eight of these keystone companies to attend the Soneva Dialogue in the Maldives, hosted by Sonu and Eva Shivdasani of the Soneva Foundation at their resort, and under the patronage of Sweden’s Crown Princess Victoria. For two days straight, the scientists – Österblom, Folke, Jouffray, and Johan Rockström, also of Stockholm Resilience Centre – presented the big picture in a wall-less “classroom” under a thatched roof.
Folke and Rockström delivered a “complete shock treatment”, as Österblom phrases it, painting the picture of the state of the planet. Oceans are acidifying from climate change. Overfishing threatens key stocks, from small white fish to large tuna. Aquaculture grew dramatically in the past several decades, and while operators have figured out how to use fewer wild-caught fish as feed for farmed fish, they have turned to land-grown crops like soy – with attendant agricultural chemical pollution and nutrient run-off – and antibiotics to keep farmed fish healthy.
All these activities may result in fast-changing conditions that could harm ocean environments, and the seafood industry. The scientists’ onslaught of information led the industry representatives – CEOs and sustainability chiefs – to share their own concerns and the challenges they faced in their respective segments of the industry with their colleagues around the table. The challenges ranged from the spread of antibiotic resistance in aquaculture to slavery in the fishing fleets of smaller companies from which they bought wild-caught fish.
The message the scientific researchers wanted to get across was that if there are “functioning ecosystems into the future, you can have a good business”, Österblom said after the event. “The global and interconnected challenges we presented were an eye opener to everyone at the table. … One of the industry representatives said that, ‘after getting this information, I really understand that we have a bigger role to play for the planet, not just managing our fisheries but taking big-picture responsibility for these challenges’.”
The original research required “reconceiving responsibility for environmental problems in terms of corporate responsibility”, says Jennifer Jacquet, a social scientist at New York University. “This is a very new way of talking about the problem” of overfishing and other fisheries impacts.
Jacquet compares the trajectory to societal views of climate change: researchers catalogued emissions from nation states starting in the 1990s, then individuals’ emissions became a topic of research in the 2000s, and finally corporations came into focus in the past decade or so. For fisheries, consumers were the focus for a long time, with labelling such as certification by the Marine Stewardship Council (MSC) or guidelines like the Seafood Watch from the Monterey Bay Aquarium in California. Consumers – individuals and large corporate retailers – have been held more responsible for fisheries impacts than producers.
Consumers – individuals and large corporate retailers – have been held more responsible for fisheries impacts than producers.
The original accounting by Österblom and his colleagues “was an impressive amount of work, but what impressed me more was the intellectual shift of seeing producers in the limelight”, Jacquet says. These big companies “are operating all over the world. They have a global reach, potentially bigger than some nation state impacts”.
The eight companies signed a statement committing to the Soneva Dialogue goals, but now they must meet again to discuss next steps, which will not be simple, considering their global reach. Perhaps they will agree to methods to monitor catches, or strategies to work with the thousands of subsidiaries they contract with to get fish around the world. Jacquet wonders how these decisions will mesh with local governments’ and other stakeholders’ interests.
Getting these big players together is “a good initiative”, says Martin Purves of the International Pole and Line Foundation, an international non-profit organisation based in the UK that works to develop and support small- and medium-scale tuna fisheries, connecting them to global supply chains and promoting their environmental and social benefits. Purves points out that though the top catchers may be keystone actors, they do not act alone: “Large companies certainly have a very important role to play in the way food is traded. [But with] only the big guys around the table, the voices of smaller scale fishers might get lost.”
Purves, who once worked for MSC, agrees that high volume fisheries make for relatively low-hanging fruit when it comes to issues of sustainability and traceability. Large-scale industrial fishing vessels are more easily traced: they catch large volumes of fish, often at well-serviced and well-monitored sites. In comparison, small-scale fisheries are often more dispersed and land smaller catches at scattered, less-monitored sites. Technologies such as identification tags can track fish from ship to table, and already do for larger operations, but may be too expensive for many smaller ones. These challenges do not mean, however, that these smaller-scale fisheries should be neglected.
Tuna for sale at Auki market, Malaita Province, Solomon Islands. Photo by Filip Milovac.
Because they are large targets, corporations can be easier to hold accountable for their actions. That means they are also more likely to benefit from market-based incentives linked to accountability. Purves says smaller scale operations might miss out: they are dispersed and therefore take more time and effort to track, even though these small- and medium-scale fisheries often employ environmentally less destructive fishing techniques.
They also employ many more people per tonne of catch relative to industrial operators, Purves notes, and hold a very important cultural and economic value for coastal communities. But they also might have unequal access to international markets, jeopardising their success.
On the flip side, in some cases, that lack of access might make smaller operations less susceptible to international market pressures. Purves says keystone companies could help ensure small- to medium-scale operations are not neglected, and get some assistance to reach larger markets while maintaining sustainable fishing methods.
The numbers that Österblom and his colleagues collected are not precise, in part because of lack of transparency, and the lack of oversight over contractors or captains, notes Jacquet. Finding the levers to pull to change this and other conditions – from slavery at sea to tracking catches better – could be difficult, and she admits to being cynical and hopeful at the same time.
“You look across the nongovernmental organisations, and certain ones are more positioned to talk with corporations, and others better positioned to threaten them with reputation campaigns”, Jacquet says. These processes take time and patience. And when it comes to the fisheries world, the political ecology is a bit disjointed, she says, where aquaculture companies may or may not interact with seagoing companies and may have different impacts on the environment.
Despite his own reservations, the potential for improvement is across the whole spectrum, Purves says. “The [Soneva Dialogue] statement is laudable. The proof will be in seeing how these commitments actually pan out, and whether there’s any way of measuring that commitment down the line.”
Copyright: Elsa Wikander/Azote.
Österblom is committed to continuing that work, after years spent building a network, trust between scientists and industry, and most recently, the dialogue itself. “We’re on the same team too: we want functioning ecosystems indefinitely into the future so that we can thrive, and you know, the same thing is required for corporations to have a good business”, he says. Though these keystone actors aren’t the only ones at sea, they can lead by example.
“A clear lesson from this work is that it’s a really small world. Connect to a few people, and you’ll have access to the rest of the network”, Österblom says. From a development perspective, he advises that such work at any scale takes time and a lot of determination. And that requires the freedom to work on a problem for a long time and to act when opportunities arise.