Last year, I found myself standing in a room full of people passionate about fish in Paris for the 2010 Seafood Summit. Six hundred scientists, NGO-types, journalists, philanthropists, and a small handful of progressive businesses had descended on this suburban (albeit French) Marriott to discuss the present and future of sustainable sea-food. Finding myself in a room full of people I don’t have much in common with happens to me all the time.
So I started listening. Listening carefully to the group narrative. Listening for the frames that were being used and for the words that were not being said. Listening for who was not in the room. Fishing is perhaps the world’s third oldest profession. But the conversation over sustainability was new . . . and, in addition to the huge stride of bringing all these folks together, something was missing.
The opening keynote came from Daniel Pauly, a university scientist from Canada, who compared the current state of fishing to a Ponzi scheme replete with cartoon pictures of Bernie Madoff on each of his powerpoint slides. Each slide illustrated yet another unsustainable behavior of the global fishing sector. Got it: white hats go to the scientists and environmentally focused non-profits. Black hats go to the fishermen, bureaucracies, business, and . . . bankers.
This narrative makes the "white hats" gathered in this room feel good . . . but it is ultimately self-defeating. To tar the bankers and businesses as the “black hats” means that only people that can actually create innovation and change are excluded from the conversation. The scientists and non-profits have created a level of change that even they are dissatisfied with. Perhaps it’s time to change the narrative to include the other actors of change to make a durable impact on the sea-food industry.
The move from analysis to innovation is as difficult as it is unfamiliar. Change would require that this well-meaning group invites even more people to the party—to make the problem bigger. Already in the room are people who normally don’t rub shoulders: scientists and non-profits along with some progressively-minded industry folks. This is indeed an enormous start.
These groups don’t always share a common frame of thoughst and seem to have learned a little bit about speaking each others’ language. Worse, the same word like "sustainable" can mean different things to the people assembled in the room. "Sustainable" means profitable for bankers whereas the rate of of reproduction must balance the rate of fishing for scientists.
Some scientists actually think most of what we eat will die anyway because seas will warm more than about 3 or 4 degrees. The coral reefs in many locations are already starting to "bleach", turning white as they die, due to ocean warming. There's an idiom in English when a cause is hopeless but we still keep trying to make the best of it: "Are we rearranging deck chairs on the Titanic?"
Farming endangered species like the very popular Blu Fin tuna might be a solution. Farming techniques might not be sustainable though. Farming salmon requires feeding them with other fishes, affecting the food chain in destructive ways as well. Standardizing safe wild-catching and farming techniques is a necassary step to allow a large industry to change and welcome technology.
Integrating tracking technology is a particularly important area to watch as relabeling is unfortunately common practice. If you eat talapia at a restaurant, it might another type of white fish... restaurants in Buenos Aires where I lived actually call white fish "white fish" and do not even pretend to know what fish species they are serving you. GreenTech Media recently published an article title on where does the fish on your plate come from?, and explored whether there is room for venture capitalists around the table.
To really make change in the seafood industry and take some pressure off the oceans so that they can recover, the group of sustainability minded activists, the self-proclaimed “white hats” and saviors of the oceans, will need to expand their current relations and establish relationships with those they see as “black hats".
There’s something scary about consorting with the "black hats" though. We might dilute our ideals, lose our way, make compromises we’re not comfortable with, and soil the purity of our white hats. Moving out of the safety of analysis to the riskiness of innovation demands a different kind of thinking (and doing) and a greater tolerance for mistakes. Analysis risks nothing.
If mistakes are made, then the solution is “more analysis". Scientists are comfortable here. Analysis will never change the status quo since its source material is just that—what is happening out there today. The very rules of analysis doom us to return to the same structure of a conversation. In contrast, innovation risks everything—money, inventions, relationships, ideas, time. If mistakes are made, these things — and along with them our own assumptions and self-image — cannot escape unchanged.
To my new friends in Paris, I want you to be successful in your quest to create a sustainable seafood supply. I really do. I’m deeply troubled that so many inspired idealists and gifted analysts may find themselves having the same conversation in ten years. The businessmen and the bankers are now interested in sustainability. That's progress.
To join the action, scientists will need to learn how to move beyond the safety of a conversation to a game that risks something more. The Investor Circle hosted this week in San Francisco a panel on Fish, Finance and System Changes. The conversation is evolving, and that is good news for fishes. With regards to Blu Fin tuna, that species is done in my opinion... too delicious!