Not Just Fish: World Seafood Congress Features Social Elements of the Industry

Created on Tuesday, 24 October 2017

In September 2017, I traveled to Iceland to speak about social responsibility at the 2017 World Seafood Congress. Each morning on my way to the Harpa – the site of the conference – I passed the Reykjavik old harbor and the Maritime Museum. My walk, and the historic stops along the way, reminded me of the deep connection between the Icelandic people and the seafood they consume. The World Seafood Congress made this connection apparent by focusing on the people that contribute to the seafood industry, starting with Iceland.

The Harpa Concert Hall and Conference Center

To open the conference, Sveinn Margeirsson—CEO of the Icelandic food and biotech research and development organization Matís—spoke of his family history of fishing in Iceland and the importance of the connection between an island community and its resources. This theme was carried forward beyond just the Icelandic participants. Carey Bonnell, former president of the International Association of Fish Inspectors (IAFI), spoke of his own family history during a session for the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals. Bonnell grew up in a fishing community on Newfoundland’s Northern Peninsula in a multi-generational fishing family. After the collapse of the Northern Cod fishery, when his community and family’s livelihood changed irrevocably, his family told him to get an education. Bonnell’s response? “I studied fish.”

At the World Seafood Congress, it was common to see participants who chose to study fisheries because of the natural resources’ importance for people. In addition to the main conference events, the United Nations’ Fisheries Training Program – which is based in Reykjavik—held its twenty-year anniversary. The program aims to provide seafood stakeholders with post-graduate training that they can then take back and apply within their communities. Indeed, over the course of the past two decades, 347 fellows from 53 countries have received applied post-graduate training from the program.[1] The skills that participants gain include fisheries policy and planning, resource (stock) assessments, fish handling and processing, fishing technology, sustainable aquaculture, and the management of fishing companies.

Jen Cole presenting Social Responsibility Considerations for Companies at the 2017 World Seafood Congress

In my own presentation, which focused on social responsibility considerations for companies, the human aspect of sustainability was the primary focus. Without transparent, legal, verifiable practices, the workers in seafood supply chains – fishing, processing, and beyond – may be more vulnerable to human rights abuses in the workplace. Companies, along with governments, NGOs, and other stakeholders, play a major role in ensuring that global supply chains follow legal requirements and provide workers with the appropriate protections. Without these protections, the abuses documented by the Associated PressThe Guardian, and The New York Times can occur with impunity.

While labor violations in the seafood industry continue to be documented, many efforts are underway to reduce these abuses. In particular, stakeholders are continuing to work to define sustainability more holistically. To support UN Sustainable Development Goal 14, which focuses on ocean conservation and sustainable resource usage, fishing companies like supplier North Atlantic Inc. and its subsidiary Bali Seafood International created their own voluntary commitments regarding environmental and socially sustainable fisheries management.[2] In addition, Conservation International led the development of a Voluntary Commitment for Social Responsibility in Global Fisheries and Aquaculture which FishWise, other NGOs, and seafood businesses like Albertsons Companies and Hy-Vee all signed onto. The Voluntary Commitment presents an opportunity for the sector to recognize that the wellbeing of people and the health of the oceans are interdependent. After a week in Iceland at the World Seafood Congress, where I met a global community of seafood sustainability advocates, I could not agree more.

Solfar (sun voyager) sculpture, based in Reykjavik