Putting a Stop to Overfishing with Future of Fish’s Cheryl Dahle

September 1, 2014

JOHN SHEGERIAN: Welcome to another edition of Green is Good, and we’re so honored to have with us today Cheryl Dahle. She’s the founder and Executive Director of Future of Fish. Welcome to Green is Good, Cheryl Dahle. CHERYL DAHLE: Thank you for having me. JOHN SHEGERIAN: We’re so happy to have you on. This is a very important topic we’re gonna be talking about and something we haven’t covered really in depth before, but before we get talking about Future of Fish, can you please give a little bit of the Cheryl Dahle back story and journey leading up to — let me just say it this way. Can you talk about your journey, Cheryl, from becoming a journalist — a well-known journalist, by the way — to the fish lady? CHERYL DAHLE: Absolutely. I think I’m the least likely person to be known as ‘the fish lady’ being that I grew up in the Midwest, so I didn’t see the ocean for the first time until I was 17, I’m deathly allergic to shellfish, and I get seasick just looking at a boat, so I didn’t really have much of a marine science background or aspirations to explore or scuba dive or any of that so I came to this topic by way of exploring through writing, so I spent about 13 years as a journalist writing about social entrepreneurship, which led me to then think about, you know, it’s interesting to write about people who are trying to change the world but maybe it might be interesting to go do that myself and so I started working for a nonprofit and the work I did for them was similar to what I did as a journalist, which was looking for patterns in the work of social entrepreneurs that we could then distill into investment advice for foundations and as I was doing that work, a foundation approached that worked in green fisheries and trying to promote sustainable fish so they asked me to do an analysis and that led to a product that then also became The Future of Fish and so I came to this by way of falling in love with contact systemic problems as opposed to falling in love with fish, although I can say that that has been a follow-up of that and consequence of that. JOHN SHEGERIAN: Now, I’m on your website and it has so much great information and for our listeners out there that want to follow along as we visit with Cheryl today, go to www.futureoffish.org. Can you please set the show up by just talking to us about The Future of Fish’s journey as an organization? What is the model and what does it really look like as a nonprofit? CHERYL DAHLE: As probably many of your listeners know, we have a chronic problem with overfishing globally. About 80% of the world’s fisheries are fished at maximum or over maximum levels and our mission has been to figure out how do we enlist industry as a partner in ending overfishing and we looked specifically at what are the cultural practices behind this equation that keep driving the practices that cause overfishing so our research began with sending anthropologists into the supply chain to observe day to day activities and understand what does it mean to live in the industry and what are the motivations and the incentives all the way through the supply chain so having that information and that knowledge, we decided that probably the most useful thing we could do would be to stoke more innovation in the seafood industry so Future of Fish is an innovation hub and we work with entrepreneurs in the supply chain who’ve come up with new ideas that drive better practices and all of these target levers that we’ve discovered in our research look at energy practices, some of the supply chain behaviors and markets and how that all works so we have about 30 entrepreneurs who we work with and we organize them into kind of teams or pods that work on different issues. We have about four or five pods going now and a bunch of entrepreneurs who are flexing their muscle to figure out how do we get the market to drive better outcomes for the ocean? JOHN SHEGERIAN: That’s an amazing mission and so exciting and I’m so glad you’re on the show but let’s step back. Our listeners out there either eat fish themselves or they have loved ones, family, friends that eat fish. Let’s talk about where acceptable fish is now coming from and non-acceptable so for instance, the wild fisheries. What is the problem with wild fisheries right now? CHERYL DAHLE: So, as I mentioned, I think one of the big issues is that we haven’t done a great job historically monitoring how much we take out of the ocean and so we take out so much in some fisheries that the resource doesn’t have a chance to recover so there are various regulatory systems across the globe. In North America, the systems are really quite good so if you’re buying domestic wild fish, either U.S. or Canada, those are typically well-managed fisheries. The same is true of Europe in many instances. I think when you’re starting to get toward fish that’s gonna be questionable, it’s gonna be fish that comes from what are called highest use fisheries so that’s international fisheries so it’s the space between all of the fisheries that are technically owned by respective countries to kind of the broad ocean out there and so fish that are in the high seas that are migratory fish such as tuna, they don’t belong to any one country. As they swim through different territories, the fishery exists in multiple different domains and the problem there is that it’s really hard to police the high seas, right? It’s a huge ocean, and so we often wind up with illegal fish coming in from those fisheries. About 25% of all fish is actually illegally caught or not reported and it’s easy for that fish to hide in this illegal supply chain because we actually don’t do a great job of labeling our legal fish so in North America, about a third of all seafood is mislabeled, meaning it isn’t the species of fish you think it is or it didn’t come from where you think it came from and that’s a problem, so I think a big challenge for consumers is that even if you come into a restaurant or retail location with your iPhone app from the Monterey Seafood Watch program and you’re looking for what fish are green listed or red listed, often even if you made the right choice based on the guidelines, you’re not actually getting the fish that you thought you were getting anyway. JOHN SHEGERIAN: Unbelievable. I never even heard that before and I’m sure our listeners listening right now are in shock like I am. When you’re talking to friends, family on an elevator with somebody who knows what you’re doing and they ask you, ‘What is then, Cheryl, safe fish? What can I eat as a “clean fish”?’ Is there such a thing now? CHERYL DAHLE: There are several types of fish that are safe fish, so Wild Alaskan Salmon is always a good choice and domestic fish here in the U.S. is very well managed and so that’s always a good choice. I’d say there are certain places you can get fish where you get the story with the fish and some restaurants will actually tell you what boat the fish came off of and in those cases, often the supply chains are shorter and they have a direct relationship with fishers and so places where you can get a story about the fish; how it was caught, where it was caught, who caught it, you’re more likely to be getting real information. Those are all recommendations. I also quite honestly tell people if you do one thing, stop eating foreign shrimp. JOHN SHEGERIAN: That’s good to know for our listeners out there. We love giving things like this out to our listeners and this is great information. Tell us why. CHERYL DAHLE: So, foreign shrimp is first of all, if it’s farmed, the conditions of the farming often are not great or very sanitary and the other piece of this is that the shrimping industry, particularly in Southeast Asia, particularly in Thailand, is well known for having human slavery in the supply chain and so what you’re getting with your fish is not just cheap fish. The implications of that because of the cheap labor involved is that you’re subsidizing modern day slavery. JOHN SHEGERIAN: Human rights violations, got it. For our listeners out there who just joined us, we’re so honored to have with us today Cheryl Dahle. She’s the founder and Executive Director of Future of Fish. You can check them out at FutureofFish.org. Cheryl, let’s go back to the top of the show. You started talking about the innovators that you work with and in the whole seafood supply chain and how you’re working with them to get it from fish to dock to plate. Talk a little bit about innovation with regards to fish and transportation and sustainability and what are some of the biggest barriers that you see out there that you’re trying to overcome. CHERYL DAHLE: So, I think one of the biggest barriers we’re trying to overcome is that mislabeling that I mentioned so in order for fish to be labeled properly, we need better labeling systems and there’s a lot of cultural and cost related barriers to that in the supply chain and so what we look at is how can we make this new technology a win for industry? One of our examples is a company called CalTech Fisheries, which is based in Hawaii and also Seattle and they’re a global distributor and importer of fish and they decided it’s not okay that we’re not able to track our inventory when we want to and at that time, there were very few types of software or platforms out there that could actually track the disassembly of a product within the factory, which is essentially what happens when you’re processing fish. You take a fish and you cut it into parts so you need to be able to track those parts to the whole, which is the opposite of what happens in a computer assembly factory where you have all the parts getting assembled into one thing so all the specifics and the design of that are different so they invented their own system and went through the very tough process of pioneering that and troubleshooting all the problems that came up in the invention process and now they have made that available to their supply chain partners so the result is that they can actually track a fish that has a barcode with it as it comes into the factory, as it turns into multiple filets and products and goes out the door and that means that at any point, you could look at the barcode that’s on the package and know what boat your fish came from and the implication for them as a business is that they’ve reduced their over time cost by 80% and they’ve also reduced their cost of goods by 2%, which in the fishing industry is pretty huge so what they wind up with them is a business win for them and then also, it’s an environmental win because the supply chain’s actually tracking what it should track and the implications of that for the system is that if we actually had a level playing ground where all of the food was accurately labeled, consumers then could value things like I know this fish came from a fair label environment or I know this fish actually was sustainable or I know what it’s quality control conditions were and they could actually decide to pay more money for those things because they were worth something. In a situation where the whole market is mystery fish or mislabeled fish, you as a consumer can’t decide what means anything because you are looking at mostly a void of information and compared to that, an extra buck-fifty a pound for fish may seem unjustified. JOHN SHEGERIAN: Now, I’m starting to get it, and I’m on your website and tying what you just said with what I see on your website, the term, ‘storied fish’; I’ve never seen that before speaking with you today and your website. Can you then tie what you just said in terms of tracking with your terminology called storied fish? CHERYL DAHLE: Yes, so what we’re looking for is beyond eco-label — and there are several eco-labels out there — we’re interested in the dimensions of a fish that have to do with the community where it was harvested, the economics of the local fishery, all the pieces that are the story behind how that fish was harvested and what we have found is that consumers don’t really relate very much to the term sustainable. It’s kind of a sciencey term. No one really knows what it means. Even most nonprofits can’t agree on what the actual definition of sustainable is and so if you talk to consumers about what matters to them, they’ll talk about things like is the fish healthy? Or they’ll talk about things like is the fish local? Can I meet the fisher that caught my fish? Or am I supporting a local economy that I care about and I live in? So, some of those pieces start to be an important component of the story of the fish and what we like to do is say if you build a story around a fish and can have enough data to tell a story, it’s easier to align that with good, responsible harvesting practices versus saying something is eco-labeled doesn’t actually verify any of those other dimensions that consumers care about and it’s trying to sell consumers based on what the nonprofits and environmentalists care about as opposed to what matters to consumer when they’re walking through a store so for us, the big issue is get enough data to tell a story because if you have enough data to tell a story, you’ve got technology that prevents the whole chain from committing fraud. JOHN SHEGERIAN: That is just great. I love it. I also see on your website a term called, ‘breakthrough aquaculture’. Can you explain what that means and how that relates to storied fishing, the transparency, and sustainability that you’re working so hard on driving at your organization, FutureofFish.org? CHERYL DAHLE: Sure. Most of your listeners have probably hears historically that they should avoid farmed fish, which for large industrial farms is actually typically true so many large farms, particularly ones that are large nets so they’re in the ocean and the fish are kind of penned, can have some bad practices, which include things like feeding the fish antibiotics or food with dye in it to color the flesh of the salmon. You also wind up with issues like salmon is a carnivorous fish so it eats other fish so farmed fish has to be fed pellets that are made from wild fish so you end up decimating forge fisheries of anchovies and herring to grind up that fish to make food pellets for salmon because we’re much more accustomed to eating salmon than we are to sardines and herring so there issues with farming traditionally. There are new models of farming that are looking at how can you replace fishmeal and fish oil in the meal? How can we look at the environmental practices around the density of pens or even having fish on land in land —based tanks to avoid some of those environmental consequences? So, we’re actually working to convene a group of innovators in the farming industry for fish farming to help evolve some of those models. JOHN SHEGERIAN: Gotcha. So, really, aquaculture deals with fish farming and making fish farming more sustainable and more traceable and trackable as you were sharing with our listeners with regards to storied fish and things of that such? CHERYL DAHLE: Absolutely. Knowing the stories behind the farm tells you whether the farm is a sustainable one or not and whether you would want to consume that fish. JOHN SHEGERIAN: How do you go now from the research portion of what you’re doing at Future of Fish to the entrepreneur? How do you now scale some of the things you’re learning and finding out and innovating into bigger ventures so we can all have cleaner, more storied fish to eat and enjoy and not poison ourselves with? CHERYL DAHLE: That’s a great question so a lot of what we’re trying to do is a combination of how do we scale practices and how do we scale companies so I think it’s true that it’s hard to grow a small company into a large, influential player. However, these small, disruptive companies have ideas that start to reshape markets that the big boys have to play in so for instance, if you look at the cluster of entrepreneurs that we have who are telling stories about their fish, they’ve grown substantially in the time that we’ve worked with them and they’re making more money from selling storied fish because they’re making the case to consumers that it matters whether your fish was harvested or not. It matters whether your fish was caught locally or not. Most people don’t realize that the typical supply chain for a piece of fish that you buy in the supermarket that’s frozen, it goes around the world and back because most frozen fish that you buy in the supermarket was processed in China because that’s where it’s cheapest to put those fish so these small players banding together and proving that storied fish is more profitable starts to create some market pressure in the industry on other players so that’s one way that we think about it. Another way is to look at the technology pieces and so we have several entrepreneurs that we work with who’ve come up with disruptive technologies or new ways of sharing information and once those start to proliferate in the supply chain, again, it starts to put pressure on some of the bigger players. JOHN SHEGERIAN: That’s great. We have about a minute, minute and a half left. Cheryl, can you share with our listeners some of the things that they can do right now to support seafood sustainability? CHERYL DAHLE: I would say one of the first things you can do is every single time you go purchase fish, whether it’s in the supermarket or whether it’s in a restaurant, ask where the fish came from and if you don’t get a good answer, let the person know that you’re talking to that that wasn’t a good enough answer. Giving that feedback to the retail level of the supply chain starts to set in motion some pressure for there to be better information served up to those outlets. It’s frustrating to engage when you don’t get the answers you want or people shrug their shoulders but even asking the question is important and for you to stay connected that way is really important. Second, download to your phone either the Android or the iPhone version of Monterey Bay Aquarium’s Seafood Watch app. Download that app because it lists all the kinds of fish that you would want to eat and whether they’re red or yellow or green. Red means don’t eat it. Yellow means it’s a fisher that’s improving but has some issues and green means it’s a good fish and there’s a sushi guide in there as well for those of you who are addicted to sushi. JOHN SHEGERIAN: Wow. Cheryl, listen. Thank you so much. I’m so glad you went from journalist to fish lady because there’s so much that we learned today and so much that we need to learn but we want to continue to support your great work. For our listeners out there to learn more and to support Cheryl’s great work, go to www.futureoffish.org. Thank you, Cheryl, for being an aquaculture visionary and sustainability superstar. You are truly living proof that green is good.