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Setting a new seafood standard

11 February 2019, at 7:00am

Bas Geerts, from the World Benchmark Alliance (WBA), discusses his plans to assess and publish the sustainability scores of the world’s largest seafood companies.

What inspired you to establish the Seafood Stewardship Index (SSI)?

Working towards making the world a better place for nature and for people is what I do. Contributing my professional skills and experience to advancing that is important to me. And that is why I have been working on exactly that, in different capacities, for well over 18 years now [most recently with the ASC].

With regards to setting up the Seafood Stewardship Index (SSI), I believe that transparency is important in supporting companies to fast-track their sustainability efforts. Making international supply chains more transparent is a means to incentivise and accelerate companies’ efforts towards achieving these practices. And that’s exactly what we are set out to do: shining a light on how the seafood sector’s leading companies in terms of market cap are doing.

Not only will this incentivise those who are doing well, it is also intended to stimulate those who are lagging behind. Regardless of where companies stand in terms of sustainable practices today, given that only very few discuss this topic openly, the index – and the conversation around the index – opens up the opportunity for companies to learn from their peers. There certainly are a few encouraging examples of this in the seafood sector, such as the Global Salmon Initiative and the Sustainable Shrimp Partnership.

We must not forget the economic incentive either. The information of our indexes – seafood is only one of many industries we cover – will be used by those who have a financial stake in the industry: buyers (traders, processors, retail), investors, credit providers, etc. Not addressing sustainability is seen as a risk to businesses. In the long term, the risk is that stocks may be depleted, and companies may no longer have fish to catch and thus to sell. In the shorter term it also holds a reputational risk, which also has a significant economic value attached to it – in today’s world a company’s net worth is intrinsically linked to how it’s perceived. With this monetised, economic ‘steering hand’ better informed, we hope to contribute to creating a movement for the better, because that is what we are set out to do. The World Benchmarking Alliance (WBA) seeks to generate a movement around increasing the private sector’s impact towards a sustainable future for all.

How did you calculate the top 30 seafod companies and how many are involved in aquaculture?

The companies are selected on the basis of their seafood and/or fish feed-related revenues, their position within the supply chain – either by being active in multiple segments or dominating one segment – their international seafood-related subsidiaries and offices, and their sourcing and distribution of products globally. Sixteen of the top 30 are allegedly active in aquaculture. But, given that these companies often have many different operations across many different regions and are often involved in mergers and acquisitions, our scope is prone to change.

Bas Geerts who is well known in aquaculture after working for the ASC, is leading the project
Bas Geerts who is well known in aquaculture after working for the ASC, is leading the project

What do you see as the main challenges the aquaculture sector has to overcome in order to grow sustainably?

Aquaculture, like any other industry, must first and foremost reduce its ecological and social footprint. This means starting by reviewing the things they do today so they can do them more efficiently in the future – i.e. lower their environmental and social footprint. This would especially apply to companies’ aquaculture feed intake, siting of farms and the impact a farming operation has on the environment, the people working there and those living in close proximity.

A next step is more controversial, perhaps. One could argue that a species whose farming is only possible with a relative high footprint may not be sustainable on the long-run. In order to work towards a sustainable food system, which will be able to feed more people, in a healthier way, we will need to take this more holistic view on food production. Seafood has a relative positive environmental footprint, compared to other animal protein sources – especially beef, pork and, to a lesser extent, chicken – but worse than most plant-derived proteins. So, I would propose we look at it from that angle as well and rearrange the position of seafood among other alternatives, and that we also dare doing this within the seafood sector.

What areas of aquaculture have the most room for improvement?

It varies considerably across (and often even between) species, production systems and regions. That said, disease prevention and control is one which is critical to all for multiple reasons and siting too remains an important issue. These two issues link firmly to area-based management, by which fish farms as well as many others in the same water body work together closely to prevent diseases from occurring and from spreading if they hit a particular farm. Feed composition also must become more sustainable and its use must be as efficient as possible. Social issues must not be missed out on either, both on-farm and in terms of the local communities.

Can you give examples of sustainability indexes in other industries having long-term positive impacts?

Perhaps the oldest one that inspired us is the Access to Medicine Index, first published in 2008. As its name suggests its focus is on providing access to medicines, in particular poorer people who need it most, yet are currently not served suitably by the pharmaceutical sector. Access to medicine for those less-privileged has increased significantly since the publication of the first, and subsequent reports, although actual attribution is always tricky of course. Nonetheless, the Index triggered the interest of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation which embraced it and research shifted to also develop medicines for diseases less attractive business-wise, as did marketing, logistics and pricing.

A more recent example is the Access to Seeds Index, which aims to ensure farmers, especially small farmers in poorer areas, have access to seeds best suited to their farming reality. This access helps bring better crops and thus better income for the farmer, which may lift them out of poverty and famine. The World Benchmarking Alliance works very closely with the team behind this index. This working relationship allows us (and them) continued learning and drives best 'benchmark' practice. Whilst the content and data are different, the multi-stakeholder, iterative and transparent process and aspiration for more sustainable practice is what we have in common.

With our Seafood Stewardship Index we aim to trigger change in the world’s seafood sector in a similar way, although for us the scope is broader than ‘access to something’. For us the scope is ‘seafood stewardship’, which covers ecological, social and economic dimensions of the global seafood industry.

How valuable was your time at ASC for helping to establish this project ?

Working at the Aquaculture Stewardship Council (ASC) taught me many things, particularly deepening my appreciation of the power of the multi-stakeholder approach and understanding the many technicalities and sustainability aspects of fish farming.

What do the other team members bring to the project?

I’m grateful to have a team of good and dedicated professional to work with, like Rik Beukers, whose experience was built up largely by his 10 years at Wageningen Economic Research and Katrina Nakamura, who has a longstanding career in sustainable seafood with a strong focus on social/labour issues. We also have multiple people in our broader team, who all bring yet different expertise to the table – from communication to finances, from research to analysis and more.

For each of our indexes we also work with an expert review committee (ERC). This is in effect a governance body, comprising of outside experts who review our work and advise us on it.

Last, but certainly not least, we tap into an even wider body of knowledge and expertise by means of our multi-stakeholder approach. During the development of the methodology for our Seafood Stewardship Index we have proactively engaged with many external companies (the ones we have in scope and beyond), institutions, consultants and experts. Like ASC, we can be seen as the initiating and convening party which integrates many individuals’ and organisations’ views in our work.

Are you happy with the level of engagement in the process to date?

Yes. We met face-to-face at least once with 80 percent of the 30 companies over the last 18 months. We had seven companies participating in our roundtable in Japan in February 2017, most with multiple representatives. Two of those companies came over from the US to participate. Eleven companies took the time to provide input during our public consultation on our draft methodology, which took place between October-December 2018.

We also engaged with a good mix of stakeholders: NGOs (environmental and social), scientists and other seafood companies. As this type of document is rather technical and may not appeal to everyone, we feel this consultation was surely successful. It gave us some new insights, which allowed us to make our methodology even better.

Engaging with so many stakeholders already leads to positive change. Increased awareness among companies being an important one. But surely also the intensive engagement makes our index better and we have already brought stakeholders together who may otherwise not have exchanged information. This shows how the WBA are facilitating change across several key industries with regards to sustainable development – moving towards meeting the UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).

How do you intend to use the feedback before going ahead and collecting the data?

All feedback has been processed by the internal team and has been reviewed by our ERC prior to being approved by our executive board. Once approved, we will update and publish the final methodology on our website.

Where do you plan to glean the bulk of your data from?

Before requesting companies to provide data, we will roam the public domain to find information and data which is relevant to use to assess the companies on the topics we have identified as important. This will then be used to pre-populate a questionnaire, which will then be shared with the companies, who will be given ample time to provide additional data. The latter can be done by means of a non-disclosure agreement (NDA), as needed. In those cases we will mention in the assessment report that a company provided information under an NDA.

Companies decide for themselves whether or not they would like to provide information to us, but less information may lead to a lower score, which will hopefully be an effective motivation for companies to share as much as they can with us. With other indexes, the second version had more companies sharing information, as they noticed the impact of not submitting information. For most of these existing indexes the majority of the companies being assessed submit information these days. As we have been presenting this phenomenon to the companies in scope for our Seafood Stewardship Index we hope that we can have good participation from the start. This will not only make our index better, but will also help the companies, as well as the sector as a whole, to drive more transformative change.

The top 30

According to the WBA's assessment the following companies are in the top 30, in descending order:

  1. Maruha Nichiro, Japan
  2. Nippon Suisan Kaisha (Nissui), Japan
  3. Thai Union Group, Thailand
  4. Marine Harvest, Norway
  5. Mitsubishi Corporation, Japan
  6. Dongwon Enterprise, South Korea
  7. Red Chamber Group, United States
  8. Nutreco (Skretting), Netherlands
  9. Trident Seafoods, United States
  10. Austevoll Seafood, Norway
  11. Kyokuyo, Japan
  12. Cargill Aqua Nutrition, United States
  13. Charoen Pokphand Foods, Thailand
  14. Marubeni Corporation, Japan
  15. Pacific Seafood Group, United States
  16. Cooke Aquaculture & Cooke Seafood USA, Canada
  17. Schouw & Co (BioMar), Denmark
  18. Nueva Pescanova, Spain
  19. Tri Marine International, United States
  20. SalMar, Norway
  21. Labeyrie Fine Foods, France
  22. Shanghai Fisheries General Corporation, China
  23. Royal Greenland, Greenland
  24. FCF Fishery, Taiwan
  25. High Liner Foods, Canada
  26. Bumble Bee Foods, United States
  27. Yokohama Reito (Yokorei), Japan
  28. Wales Group (Sea Value & Sea Wealth), Thailand
  29. Parlevliet & Van der Plas, Netherlands
  30. Nomad Foods, UK