From Dock to Dish: A Deep Dive Into Seafood Sustainability
This week we dive into an interview with Wendy Norden, Director of Science and Global Strategies at Seafood Watch Program at the Monterey Bay Aquarium, discussing the interconnected depths of consumer buying, aquaculture, climate change, and economics of seafood.
Celebrating seafood sustainability is a cause bigger than itself affecting human populations around the world as much as the species we fish and farm, and a cause that Meg Vandervort of Groundswell is particularly passionate about. Meg sat down with Wendy Norden from the Monterey Bay Aquarium’s Seafood Watch Program with questions to help all of us non-marine biologists understand the challenges and successes surrounding sustainable seafood.
Wendy spent years working underwater as a marine biologist and researcher, before moving to New Zealand and working in a government role overseeing their seafood industry. For the past twelve years, Wendy has been with the Monterey Bay Aquarium and is currently the Director of Science and Global Strategies for their Seafood Watch Program, responsible for the overall scientific integrity, vision, innovation, and direction of the program. She’s also in charge of maintaining global strategic direction and partnerships that support global fisheries and aquaculture improvement.
Welcome! In celebration of World Oceans Day this year, I’m excited to dive into a topic near and dear to me—seafood sustainability. I’m a huge fan of Monterey Bay Aquarium and have been following the Seafood Watch program for some years now. For those who aren’t as familiar, can you give a brief overview of what Seafood Watch is doing to advance healthier oceans?
Wendy: Sure, and of course. Seafood Watch provides the information needed to make better choices at the supermarket, and we’ll work with business partners to really source seafood and see that it’s more responsibly done. And it really boils down to very difficult subject matter into a guide, like red, yellow, and green, knowing what to source and also knowing that you know, consumer choices really do matter quite a bit.
You know, that also has very broad reaching applications as well. So when consumers make choices in the United States, our business partners kind of come to the table—they want to source those seafood products that the consumers are looking for and also to make a better planet as well. But on top of that, it also gives producers around the world an idea of where their product is in terms of sustainability. And it is a big landscape, right, from really great production to really poor and everything kind of in between.
So, we provide that information that helps guide purchasing but also helps industry understand about sustainability in order to make change and make things better, because our goal really is about celebrating seafood, making the right choices, and hopefully improving the rest.
That’s wonderful! I’m actually curious to learn a little bit more about you. We always love to highlight the people behind some of these amazing movements that are happening, but can you give us a brief history or your journey to the Monterey Bay Aquarium, Seafood Watch program, and have you always had a passion for the ocean growing up?
Wendy: It’s a very winding path. Growing up I got into scuba diving. Before college, I worked several jobs and saved a lot of money because I wanted to travel, so then I went to New Zealand, Australia, and Fiji as a young person. When I went scuba diving in most of these places for the first time, I did not realize at that point that it could be a job, like you could actually do this kind of work.
The minute I came back home, I officially got advanced certified and I enrolled in college to really be a marine biologist. Everyone told me at that point, “that’s nice, you’ll never get a job”, but I was determined to do it anyway because I knew I’d figure it out. Throughout college, I had a lot of great internships, and I did a lot of work underwater. I got more experience doing research, but I wanted to do more.
I ended up moving to New Zealand for several years, and I got a really great job working for the government working on a program to reduce bycatch, and I actually worked on the observer program for the whole country. That really helped me understand how to work better with the industry, how to set goals that maybe people didn’t agree with, but learned how to actually work together. That and science, plus understanding what to actually call it, really helped me. With that experience, I ended up working in academics for a while. When I got to Seafood Watch, all that experience helped me understand how to apply science in an understandable way—how to work with the industry, knowing that you might be at odds at some point, but you actually all want the same end goal as well.
It really helped me set up my career, and I’ve been with Seafood Watch for almost twelve years now. It’s been a very exciting journey. I learn every day—something different, something new—and I have amazing partners.
That’s exciting! Sounds like a dream job.
Wendy: Yeah, I feel really lucky. I never get bored. I find I’m amazed at the people that I meet all the time because I travel—or I used to before COVID— all over the place, talking to people about seafood, working with producers, understanding where everyones’ values are. At the end of the day, everyone wants to do a good job for seafood sustainability.
You touched on something that leads me to my next question about seafood sustainability in general, which is that it’s actually an extremely complex thing, and it’s not so cut and dry, like just buying from the local fisherman, or don’t eat fish.
But between sustainable fishing practices, aquaculture and the seafood supply chain – it’s a lot to wrap your head around. What would you say for someone who’s just getting into understanding this topic? What is the most pressing thing we can focus on?
Wendy: I feel like at any level, if you want to get involved, there’s a place for you. I think if you really just want to, say, I want to understand the source of a particular seafood and I’m going to purchase responsibly, use our information. We boil it all down into very simple red, yellow and green.
All of our reports and assessments are online, so if you want to dig a little deeper, you can read those assessments and understand the issues. There really is a place for any level of information you want, essentially, because we put it all out there. It’s all out there publicly available.
I think it really is important to know that the choices we make do matter at the grocery store. They do mean something. And they help us do our work and improve, because we want to celebrate seafood. We think eating seafood is a great thing.
We want to have all seafood produced in a way that’s sustainable and when I say sustainable, I mean the environment. I mean food security. I also mean things like better equity and supply chains. So, it really has to be good for people and the ocean.
Oh, that’s so interesting. I’m also curious, from the general consumers’ perspective, a question that might come up is “should I potentially avoid buying a particular type of seafood?” For example, if I’m buying shrimp, is it more likely that it’s unsustainably caught or has human trafficking attached to it?
Wendy: I go back to using our recommendations. The red is really what things you should avoid. Our hope is that red doesn’t stay red. Our hope is not like you just abandon it and say, I’m not buying this again. But it does matter because when consumers don’t buy something because it’s red, that gives us a lot of incentives to go to the industry and say look, this is really what people are wanting. They want more sustainable products. That does go a long way.
What we do in our reports is dig into those major issues. Why does it cause red? So we have standards that we develop from wild-capture and fisheries. We know scientifically why it’s not sustainable, and it gives us the consumer demand. It really gives us that extra incentive for the industry to make those changes, which are also good for them.
Any seafood product generally can be the best choice, farmed from any country that has a species—it’s just a matter of us getting the right data, and us being able to say it isn’t being done the right way.
So the ability is there, like our green listing isn’t completely aspirational. It is doable, but it’s a high bar. Everyone can actually get there. And that is our goal: To push the entire industry and have a much more sustainable industry overall.
On a brighter note, what are some of the bigger recent accomplishments that the Seafood Watch program has had that maybe people don’t know about?
Wendy: Well, I think a big one that we haven’t talked about enough is our development of our improvement verification platform, which doesn’t sound very exciting, but it really is. We have developed the technology with partners to collect data efficiently and quickly on a farm and then scale it up to a region to understand. We actually can assess thousands of farms and in little time spent, get them to that green level. That has not happened in the past. We’ve developed technology that basically works online or offline and collects data efficiently and quickly, and then we scale it up to a region so you can have more scalable change. It also identifies areas needing improvement.
We already have 2,000 shrimp farms going through the system that are green. To me, that’s a huge accomplishment that’s taken us a long time to develop. Very exciting.
We also have recently launched aquaculture governance indicators, which again doesn’t sound exciting, but it is because we have developed these indicators. We don’t really know what makes really good aquaculture governance structures. What do you need to have? What are the key elements? We worked on developing those key elements to help the governance structures, and it isn’t just about legislation, it’s about how the industry is formed, and how reactive it is to change and how adaptable it is that the system in place in a country or region that allows for good things to happen allowing for sustainability.
Understanding those underlying conditions and what gets in the way of sustainability is super important, because it isn’t as simple as saying, here’s a checklist. There’s a reason why that isn’t happening. And it could be infrastructure, it could be poverty, it could be too many illegal things happening. It could be many different things. It helps us understand underlying conditions that exist.
A third one I’ll just briefly talk about, one issue, is why use antibiotics for aquaculture? And that’s spread across every production system from farm salmon, shrimp, tilapia, you name it.
We convened a large working group of fifty people from over twenty-one countries in the last year with the World Bank and came up with the key areas of impact on antibiotics, because we still don’t even know that necessarily. What are our key recommendations going forward about what we think we should do, and how do you actually make sure the antibiotic issue doesn’t get out of control? Because right now, with warming water temperatures, you’re gonna have more disease, more need for antibiotics. And in poor countries, you often don’t even have labels on bottles for these things. Some people don’t really know what they’re putting in their ponds.
We are going to be launching our key recommendations very soon on that government and industry and then we’re also doing a series of workshops to talk to farmers directly and find out what their needs are.
Wonderful, thank you so much for your insight and time, Wendy!
For Seafood Watch’s consumer guides to buying sustainable seafood that Wendy mentions, you can find them at SeafoodWatch.org.
Log into your Groundswell Personal Giving Account to support Monterey Bay Aquarium and the Seafood Watch Program.
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