INFOFISH: Mr Connelly, with your extensive domestic and international experience and affiliations, it’s hard to know which questions to start with, but let’s begin with global issues and then we can move on to the US seafood industry.
Sustainability is clearly a core value for you, as reflected in your work with the MSC and the ISSF, and one aspect of that is eco-labelling and certification. But would you agree with detractors that certification (especially by third-party certifiers) has become a business concern? Are they really making a difference in terms of fisheries sustainability? And in your opinion, how does the consumer decide which label is best?
John Connelly: Lots packed into the question, so let me answer in a few parts. First, the Global Seafood Sustainability Initiative, a multi-stakeholder effort with strong UN Food and Agriculture Organisation support, has designed the most reliable means to determine which third party certification programmes are credible. A third party scheme recognised by GSSI provides food assurances to buyers that the fishery or aquaculture operation was certified by a credible process.
Third party certification schemes do generate significant revenue for their businesses. It is important that the groups continue to identify ways to reinvest those profits back into the fisheries or aquaculture operations that are being certified.
While it is not a standard, the research that the International Seafood Sustainability Foundation sponsors should be a model to emulate. Tuna scientists identify a current or potential problem, and ISSF gathers world class teams of scientists who work with fishers to understand the issue and develop solutions – it is “on-the-water”, practical research that solves real problems. Importantly, these solutions are presented to tuna RFMOs.
Lastly, it is essential that fisheries managers do a much better job of communicating how their fisheries are managed. If done well, they should proudly and boldly state that in order to prevent any misinterpretation of how well most fisheries or fish farms actually operate.
INFOFISH: It seems that every couple of years some new anti-IUU regulation is being promoted by regional and international bodies. We all concur that IUU fishing must be prevented as far as possible, but on a domestic and global scale, what are the main challenges faced by countries in actually putting these regulations into practice?
John Connelly: It frustrates the seafood supply chain when each nation or region develops its own “solutions” to pirate fishing. The UN FAO took the major step of negotiating and the member states adopting the Port States Measures Agreement. When countries add their own modification to PSMA, or develop yet another requirement, it does not add new tools to the fight against IUU.
Even more problematic is when nations, including the United States, impose requirements on all fisheries trade, even from countries that have never been credibly accused of allowing IUU. To be clear, some of these schemes are designed to block trade. If a nation has problems with how another country operates its fisheries, it would make much more sense to work bilaterally on the problem and not impose new burdens on trade from countries that operate world class fisheries management systems.
INFOFISH: You are a proponent of pre-competitive strategies which basically means that by collaborating with competitors, everyone wins. Could you give some examples where you know these strategies have resulted in success in the seafood industry?
John Connelly: We are very proud of the work of the NFI Crab Council. It’s a group that has gone from a small but determined collection of sustainability-focused crab importers in 2009, to a coalition of more than thirty companies that represent about 85 percent of the imported Blue Swimming Crab market in the U.S. They tax themselves 2 cents a pound on all imported product and turn that money around to directly fund Fisheries Improvement Projects (FIPs) in six Asian countries. They’ve spent millions in industry dollars to work toward the sustainability of a product they all have a stake in. They’ve also joined forces with partners like the World Bank and some foundations to bring in even more investments in their sustainability work. For the first time, in 2018, the group moved past its core six target countries for Blue Swimming Crab and launched Red Crab FIP work in China.
INFOFISH: We read that the NFI has joined 80 other trade associations in a campaign (not limited to seafood) called ‘Tariffs Hurt the Heartland’ but what other alternatives to tariffs are there to force international trading partners to come to the negotiating table?
John Connelly: NFI is part of the leadership of a coalition known as the Americans for Free Trade. The ‘Tariffs Hurt the Heartland’ campaign dovetails with NFI’s own campaign; ‘Seafood, See Jobs.’ These operations are working hard to illustrate to policy makers in Washington that tariffs don’t help U.S. companies, they hurt them. Tariffs cost American jobs, not promote them. This is a critical message that is being delivered to the Administration and to Capitol Hill. And by the way, this is not just an import issue. There are myriad examples of U.S. seafood exports that are suffering from the impact of retaliatory tariffs. From Alaska to Minnesota to Maine, we can point to those very real impacts. This is not economic theory we’re talking about, it’s real jobs, right now. Our effort is not designed to come up with different solutions to trade issues that work, it’s merely to expose one that does not work: tariffs. There is no question that China has an abysmal record when it comes to intellectual property rights and that needs to be addressed. The administration is right to take action on that issue. But costing hard working American jobs in the seafood sector is not the way to do it. In fact there is a fundamental disconnect there that leaves you scratching your head.
INFOFISH: Of course, no discussion on tariffs would be complete without mention of the current US-China tit-for-tat trade tensions, escalating even as we speak. The longer the ‘war’ continues, the more jobs in the US and China will be affected. How do you see this issue playing out, and what recommendations would you suggest to resolve these tensions?
John Connelly: We are very pleased that President Xi and President Trump announced in early December to enter into serious trade discussions. A temporary suspension of tariff increases and a commitment to continued trade negotiations are welcome developments. Seafood exports to China and seafood imports from China both play an important role in growing and maintaining U.S jobs. The expanding middle class in China is an important export market for U.S seafood products. At the same time, raw material from China fuels production of finished seafood products here. When it comes to seafood, the relationship between the U.S and China has historically been symbiotic. Tariffs damage that partnership.
Certainty in supply is key to the seafood community on both sides. Even a pause in trade hostilities can help return a degree of confidence to the market.
INFOFISH: What did the seafood industry think of the US’s withdrawal from the Trans-Pacific Partnership Agreement? Do you think that the US should sign on with the new CPTPP?
John Connelly: American seafood companies would have benefited significantly from the Trans-Pacific Partnership Agreement. Companies that fish for wild Alaska pollock or Maine lobster see Asia as a hugely important part of their future growth. By stepping away from a trade agreement with this growing part of the global economy, the American seafood companies are now at a disadvantage in gaining market access to CPTPP members.
INFOFISH: Regarding the European market, last year Germany, Spain and France were the top markets for US seafood, with the UK in 4th place. Will Brexit affect the trade flow between the US and the UK?
John Connelly: The UK will remain an important market for wild Alaska pollock, salmon, and lobsters, among other American seafoods. As London and Brussels sort through the final agreements, it will be important for us to understand what, if any, barriers are created in moving fish into and around Europe. Brexit could create more opportunities or more challenges … all we truly know at this point is that it has caused uncertainty for companies’ planners!
On a broader point, the American seafood market is largely open to imported product, and consumers generally benefit from that trade. However, it is important to recognise that President Trump is right to the extent that not all other markets, including the European Union, are as open and that disadvantages American companies unfairly.
INFOFISH: Statistics indicate that the average US consumer is consuming more seafood now than five years ago. More seafood means more harvests from capture and culture. In recent years there has been an interesting trend where startups are utilising technology to produce fish meat (made from real fish cells) in laboratories , as well as ‘fish’ made from non-fish sources but tasting and looking amazingly like the real thing. Do you see a future where these products will be available in supermarkets in sufficient volumes to make a dent in the demand for ‘real’ seafood?
John Connelly: “Test tube” fish will challenge the wild and farmed seafood community. It is not a technology that will be stopped, as traditional meats are facing the same competition. We do feel strongly that methods of production should be labelled for the consumer to make an educated decision about their meal choices. For instance, it is patently unfair to sell “fishless tuna” or “fishless shrimp”. Companies should not deceive the consumer by calling a product “fish” ---- unless it has fish in it!
INFOFISH: You’ve been the face of the US National Fisheries Institute for more than a decade. It’s a multi-billion dollar industry, filled with people with strong opinions, politicians to lobby, and fires to put out. What would you say your three biggest challenges have been thus far? Conversely, what were some high points for you and the NFI during your tenure to date?
John Connelly: The seafood community, in the United States and around the globe, is a fascinating business. The diversity of species, harvest and aquaculture production methods, complex supply chains, etc. all create a tough challenge to sort out. That said, it is a great industry to work for – the intellectual challenge of trying to get strong-willed and successful entrepreneurs to work together continues to invigorate me each day. The NFI members have taken on some tough challenges of which we are proud. Ensuring more accurate labelling of seafood items, understanding where labour issues in the supply chain might exist, emphasising the incredible health benefits of seafood for the average consumer, and working with groups like ISSF are certainly actions that make me proud of our efforts.
INFOFISH: And finally, here we are at the start of a brand new year. Could you take a look into the crystal ball and let us know what you think will be the most pressing issues for the seafood industry in the US as well as globally?
John Connelly: I gave up long ago trying to figure out the seafood business or American politics, so any forecast would probably be wrong!