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Mowi, Thai Union, Skretting and more: Can the CEOs of the largest seafood companies really 'change the world'?

With $50 billion in sales and 100,000 employees, these companies have power, but with plastics, antibiotics, climate change and traceability among the concerns, the road is long.

It seems like an optimistic plan. To bring together 10 seafood companies and a group of scientists and task them with transforming international ocean stewardship.

But when you realize the scale of the companies involved -- 1,000 subsidiaries, 100,000 employees, $50 billion (€45.4 billion) in turnover, and 15 percent of the world's seafood production -- you begin to see the vision.

But it is not just sheer size that makes the SeaBOS team influential. According to new Managing Director Martin Exel, the trust that has been formed between science and industry in the group since its formation four years ago, is an unusual and important force. "It is a very powerful commitment," Exel told IntraFish. "Now we have to transform that trust into outcomes."

THE SEABOS COMPANIES

  • Maruha Nichiro
  • Nissui
  • Thai Union
  • Mowi
  • Dongwon
  • Skretting
  • Cargill
  • Cermaq
  • Kyokuyo
  • Charoen Pokphand Foods

Building trust

Seven years in, the real work of SeaBOS is only just beginning. Exel, who is also general manager of environment and policy at Austral Fisheries, puts huge emphasis on the importance of the group's path to this point in building trust and understanding aims. This is particularly important in the relationships between scientists and industry, where there is often unconstructive conflict and lack of respect.

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"I'm very strong in building trust first," said Exel. "Then you can have that positive conflict. Then you get collaboration and accountability."

But, with that in place, the group has begun work on several processes to see if they can leverage their unique collaboration to bring focus and actual change to the vast and fragmented work happening around the world.

This, according to Exel, is one of the biggest challenges of ocean stewardship.

"There are so many similar things going on that results are just being dissipated," he said.

One word: Plastics

SeaBOS has several areas of focus but top of the agenda right now is plastic reduction, both in terms of the industry's impact through ghost gear, but also the broader issue of microplastics and its effect on the industry; antibiotics and antimicrobial resistance in feed and farming; traceability; and climate change resilience. This last theme has dual purpose, both in dealing with how climate change will impact seafood production, but also how production can mitigate impacts -- producing salmon instead of beef, for example.

There is also a taskforce set up to deal with illegal fishing and modern slavery, an area several of the group's members -- Thai Union and Austral to name a couple -- have already made significant progress on.

And in SeaBOS style, they are trying to come at it from a new angle and understand how best to deal with the issue in a positive manner.

"Not buying [from illegal fishing boats] doesn't help," Exel said. "How can we find a new, more innovative way? This will be the most difficult [part of our work], but also the most rewarding."

What about profits?

Sustainability is the core of SeaBOS's work, but there is a deep understanding of the need to be profitable, especially when it comes to its requirements of the supply chain.

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This lack of vision for the bigger picture and the need for profitability has historically done nothing to improve bad practices across many parts of the industry, not least in fishing.

As Exel points out, without profit, you cannot look after your crew, you cannot look after your community. It all has huge domino effect.

It is also perhaps why no certification bodies are involved with the process.

Exel is of the belief, as are many others, that the number of certifications is damaging to the sector, causing market confusion and a pressure on companies to spend all their time reporting.

"It is out of control," he told IntraFish.

"No doubt certification has a role to play, but can we pull together key elements across those certifications? Rather than report to loads of different initiatives, can we help in defining the important measurables and then, with a set of global standards, use various providers to acknowledge that you meet them?"

Changing the world

Unlike the certification bodies, for now, the group has also refrained from retail involvement, with certain prerequisites around its members' material inputs and government connections, among other things.

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"Linking with retailers will be really powerful, but not at this stage," said Exel.

Right now, the group is the perfect size, in terms of strength, but also in terms of minimizing the machinations of governance, said Exel.

"We want to do what we can to change the world," he said.

The aims are grand, but Exel and the SeaBOS team are realistic about what it is they are trying to do.

"This will take time," he told IntraFish, not least because these are big corporations involved where making change is a process. "Nobody is perfect -- we have all made mistakes in the past and we will all make mistakes in the future. It will take patience. But it will happen. There is real hope here."

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