Stephen Reiss Fisher, Sustainability Director at Sea Delight

From his port city of Nha Trang in Vietnam on the South China Sea, we interviewed Stephen Reiss Fisher, Sustainability Director at Sea Delight on the value of joining the sustainability movement, supporting fisheries in transition, and what trends he is seeing from his work at the heart of global seafood supply chain. In 2009, Sea Delight made a commitment to sustainability and created a public company-wide policy. As part of that, Sea Delight continues to assess its seafood purchases again some of the most robust certifications like the Marine Stewardship Council (MSC). The company is also supporting fisheries on their journey toward sustainability by sourcing products from over a dozen Fishery Improvement Projects (FIPs), including Peru and Ecuador mahi-mahi and Vietnam Handline Tuna FIPs.

Q: As a leading family-owned supplier of seafood to the US market, what does seafood sustainability mean for your brand and what motivated you to join this movement?

A: Sea Delight focuses on environmentally sound, sustainably sourced seafood. We believe in changing business models to help protect our planet’s most valuable natural resource, our ocean. We are an importer and distributor of frozen seafood, primarily Tuna but also a range of other products, and we were first motivated by the growing interest from our customers in seafood sustainability. It was around 2009, more than a decade ago, when we started this journey. We started learning more about sustainability and actively work on achieving it. Our primary concern then was related to major issues with seafood like food safety, quality, and sourcing from reliable suppliers. As a company we have a policy of trying to be pro-active, so we obtained as much information as we could and got involved right away with WWF-Indonesia on some projects. Sustainability is key for the Sea Delight brand because through this experience we became recognized as industry leaders in improving fisheries. To maintain that reputation, we constantly seek to source seafood responsibly and to help fisheries and aquaculture improvement projects improve their management practices. We also have a policy of initiating new projects, so practically every year we try to push forward one or two new ones.

Q: You have been one of the most active Fishery Improvement Project participants in partnership with WWF helping to transform some key fisheries on the path to better management practices. Why are FIPs important to your company? How do you think FIPs are helping preserve precious ecosystems and protecting the livelihoods of fishing communities? Do you have any success story you care to share with us?

A: A FIP is a minimum requirement for many of our customers, so market demand makes FIPs essential for our work. Also, the first thing that comes to mind when I think about Fishery Improvement Projects are the fishers, the families, the communities that depend on these resources for their livelihoods. You may hear some people from the sustainability movement repeating that fishers just want to catch everything, and they don’t care about protecting the stocks or the environment, and that is absolutely false. If you take the time to talk to them, you will see how much they care about the sustainability of the ecosystem, and raising their awareness is one of the most important parts of a FIP.
FIPs can be expensive, take a long time, and require cooperation with the local governments, so things don’t happen overnight as WWF knows very well. To get things done right it takes time and the convergence of many actors, but we are always trying to find innovative solutions to issues like data collection and traceability and we can already see many success stories. For example, we are working on a traceability app for Tuna and Swordfish fisheries, which has been very helpful in capturing and illustrating many issues hindering the development of the projects. Unfortunately, the successive Covid19 lockdowns made it difficult to rollout, but we are in the process of field testing in the next few months. Success stories are more significant when all actors are being involved and tangible change is taking place.

Q: Global seafood supply chains are often complex and opaque and importers face challenges in monitoring every step of the process, how is your engagement with the sustainability movement helping shield your supply chain from environmental, legal, and social risks?

A: That is a good question. It is a matter of trust with our suppliers. Because of our reputation, we strive to work closely and form long term business relationships with our suppliers. We know our partners. We have our own representatives working directly with the factories and fisheries. This allows us to know the story of the products we sell, and we can back that up through traceability and other information we collect. By obtaining accurate information about each production lot, we can easily answer our customers’ questions and thus minimize all kinds of supply chain risks from food safety to legal risks and ensure that our customers are offering responsibly sourced products.

Q: More sustainable seafood is often seen as more costly and not enough in demand in importing markets, how do you respond to that from your experience and what is the value of more sustainable seafood according to what you see in your everyday work?

A: The type of customers we cater for and the level of demand they have for more sustainably and responsibly sourced seafood, doesn’t allow for cheap and easy seafood. Generally, there is a demand for a higher quality product and the costs are not very different especially when you have long term relationships with your suppliers for 5 to 10 years. For Sea Delight we believe that sustainability is a necessity not an option anymore. Additionally, consumers want to have confidence in the products they buy. There is so much in offer in the store that they need to know the story behind the product and that’s a great motivator for us to only accept the best. For example, what is currently going on with the logistics issues causes challenges about controlling costs, but we always try to keep costs competitive to meet the demand for responsibly sourced seafood for the markets we work with.

Q: Your company has been involved with the Global Dialogue for Seafood Traceability (GDST), why is traceability and transparency important for seafood supply chains, and how did unified standards help you align with other actors in the industry?

A: We have been working on this traceability application that is designed to link and be interoperable with the GDST Standard. I am not a tech person, but I learned from working with the GDST how we can take a customed traceability platform that we use and make it synchronized with the existing international traceability standards that our customers require. There is already a GS1 or equivalent barcode on the product, and now the information we collect can link with that data as well. I think the GDST has done a great work and we are very happy to be part of it. We hope that what we are learning now can be expended to more fisheries as we develop it further and finetune it.

Q: What is your message for other suppliers and supply chain actors in the seafood industry which are still hesitant about joining the sustainability movement?

A: It’s very hard for me to imagine that there are so many actors still hesitant about offering responsibly sourced seafood. This is an essential part of any seafood business nowadays. My message would be: Listen to your customers. If they are not asking for responsibly sourced seafood, they soon will be, so now is the time to join the sustainability movement before you get left behind. The train is already leaving the station. I recall in the nineties, when the Hazards Analysis Critical Control Point (HACCP) system was mandated by the US government and a lot of people didn’t want to get involved in it and now of course it’s standard. Food safety is a basic requirement. Similarly, I think that sustainably sourced seafood is a basic requirement going forward into the future. The rules keep changing right now because of the current situation but we need to stick together and remain resilient, and we will grow stronger once this is all over and be able to support more transitioning fisheries. Sea Delight is happy to be partnering with WWF on some of these crucial projects to protect the environment and the people who depend on it.