Blake Lee-Harwood is a UK-based environmental campaigner who has spent long periods working with NGOs like Greenpeace, Friends of the Earth and RSPB as well as stints as a government advisor and consultant to industry. He is passionate about wildlife, and particularly the marine environment, and spends his non-working hours either mucking about with boats or tending his veg patch. Blake is currently working with Sustainable Fisheries Partnership on a global campaign to persuade companies to publicly disclose their impacts on the marine environment.
Want to know what leadership in sustainable oceans looks like? Go no further than Leeds
The city of Leeds isn’t usually associated with dynamic leadership in safeguarding our oceans – in fact it’s 57 miles from the nearest beach – but appearances can be deceptive. Last week, Leeds-based retailer Asda worked with three leading NGOs (Sustainable Fisheries Partnership, Whale and Dolphin Conservation and the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds) to both assess and publicise the impact that their seafood can have on marine wildlife and this may mark a milestone in supermarket transparency (not to mention corporate courage).
The report compiled by the NGOs, working collaboratively with Asda, demonstrates that across the major seafood categories there are several hotspots where ocean life can be harmed through accidental capture by nets, lines and ropes (so called ‘bycatch’). For example, seabirds like albatrosses can be particularly vulnerable to accidental hooking on long lines set for tuna while dolphins and porpoises can become entangled with nets and ropes and then drown. The report examined all the fisheries that supply Asda with seafood and then assessed the bycatch risk to sharks, turtles, seabirds, and cetaceans.
The findings of the assessment make sobering reading but there’s nothing unique to Asda in the conclusions. All retailers basically source from the same, or very similar, fisheries and all of them have the same challenge – how to put seafood on their shelves without being associated with the incidental killing of endangered, protected and threatened marine species. The difference in this case is that Asda had the bravery and commitment to support a comprehensive review of their seafood portfolio and then publish the results.
Sunlight may be the greatest disinfectant, as the old adage would have it, but transparency is certainly one of the most powerful drivers for sustainable practices. Since 2015 some leading companies have been disclosing the origins of their seafood via the Ocean Disclosure Project and revealed where their fish come from and whether the stocks are well managed. This ability to publicly scrutinize retailer performance in sustainable sourcing has proved a major spur to corporate performance, allowing clear assessments of whether company pledges are really matched by actions. Asda has now gone one step further by drilling down into that data and looking at specific impacts on iconic marine species.
But while Asda may get the plaudits this month, we should also recognise that other players in the retail sector are considerably less deserving. Unbelievably, there are still retailers in the UK that do not disclose the sources of their seafood despite an endless drumbeat of self-congratulatory statements about their sustainability credentials. Let’s hope that someone calls them out sooner rather than later.
And the Asda story doesn’t finish here. Following on from the report, the retailer is now preparing a set of recommendations for how to address the problems identified in the assessment and intends to make further public statements before the end of the year. We can only hope that other retailers follow this lead and we can achieve a significant reduction in the destructive impacts on marine wildlife as soon as possible.