Interview of the Week: Lori Steele, West Coast Seafood Processors Association (WCSPA)

Lori Steele is the Executive Director of the West Coast Seafood Processors Association, the first seafood industry group in the United States to endorse and implement the United States Fisheries Industry Principles for Responsible Fisheries.

ODP:  Your organization represents seafood processors. What do processors do?

LS:  Seafood processors are companies that convert whole fish or shellfish into other seafood products. This can occur at-sea or shoreside; WCSPA represents shoreside processing companies. In its simplest form, for example, seafood processing can consist of gutting and filleting a fresh fish for a consumer to easily toss on the grill. However, most seafood processing requires many more steps (oftentimes including cooking and/or freezing) in order to convert fish/shellfish into other popular product forms like specialty steaks, frozen products, breaded fish portions, and canned/smoked products. For this reason, seafood processing requires a growing base of technical expertise and significant resource and technology investments.

Processing plants are places where the commercial fishing boats land, offload, sell their catch, and regroup and reload supplies before their next trip. We are the fish houses, the fish buyers, the fish dealers, the fish marketers. We convert healthy, sustainable West Coast fish/shellfish harvest into a variety of delicious seafood products for consumers around the world to enjoy. We provide important infrastructure in coastal communities. We provide year-round employment and economic stability to these communities. We represent an important part of the identity, character, and history of West Coast communities.

Shoreside processors work at the crossroads of land and sea – the interface between the marine environment and the terrestrial environment. Not only do our companies struggle with fishing regulations, but they also work every day under stringent regulations addressing food safety; food packaging and handling; seafood traceability and illegal, unreported and unregulated (IUU) fishing; and water quality, among others. These companies manage shipping and other transportation challenges and struggle to address trade, marketing and sales challenges in a very dynamic and unpredictable environment.

WCSPA represents shore-based seafood processors located in all three West Coast states as well as several ancillary/support businesses and related fishing groups. All WCSPA processor members are American companies, and all but one are family-owned. Our smaller members are mostly “mom and pop” (or in one case, “mom and daughters”) companies. Several companies have been in business for three generations or more on the West Coast or in Alaska. While our members are involved mostly in primary processing of U.S.-caught seafood, some companies also engage in harvesting, distribution, transportation, retail sales, aquaculture, imports, and exports.

ODP: How important is it to your processors that the seafood they are processing is sustainably caught and how can they be sure?

LS:  Sustainability is a fundamental necessity for the long-term success of all of our companies and support businesses. No one depends on the future of our living marine resources more than those who make their livelihoods from the ocean. We continue to demonstrate this through our commitment to fisheries and investment in fishing communities, and the knowledge and ingenuity this industry brings to the table, which is critical to successful and sustainable fisheries management.

Accountability is a fundamental tenet of fisheries management and regulation. U.S. fishers are mandated by law, the Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act, to end and prevent overfishing. In effect, every U.S.-caught fish can be considered sustainably managed. Our fisheries are managed according to annual catch limits; if a fish stock is approaching its limit, fisheries managers and industry use accountability measures to keep the catch below an unsustainable level. Accountability measures may be in the form of trip limits, size limits, area or seasonal closures, gear restrictions and more. Processors support and abide by these measures to ensure the public has access to high quality, sustainable seafood for years to come.

ODP:  Your organization was a leader in sustainability – the first to adopt the industry’s principles for responsible fishing. What are those and why are they so important?

LS:  Yes, WCSPA was among the first industry groups to sign the United States Fisheries Industry Principles for Responsible Fisheries on March 26, 1997. This milestone coincides with the first major reauthorization of the U.S. Federal fisheries law, the Magnuson-Stevens Act, and it represents the beginning of a significant shift in how fisheries and ocean ecosystems are viewed
by all user groups, and how these important resources are managed and regulated. The Industry Principles represented a formalization of our ongoing commitment to maintaining healthy, productive ocean ecosystems with a specific focus on responsibility, accountability, and sustainable fisheries. They promote good science, sustainable fishing practices, habitat
conservation, production and sale of safe products, and compliance with conservation laws and regulations.

While many of the elements of these principles have since been adopted and accepted as “the norm” in our fisheries, this was really “cutting edge” for the seafood industry at the time. It was easy for WCSPA member companies to sign on and support these principles, though, because our companies had already implemented these principles.

ODP: How is new technology making this easier? Is it cost-prohibitive?

LS:  Seafood processors have always embraced technology for a number of reasons. Ultimately, new and better technology is good for business and the environment – technological progress and development can increase efficiency and reduce operating costs. However, up-front costs, bureaucratic overreach, and research and development (R&D) requirements can be very cost-prohibitive and often preclude a good idea from materializing into something beneficial. Each seafood processor is different; technology may often be developed to match a single processor’s space, season, or market needs. Sharing technology between processors also may give one processor an advantage over another; therefore, sharing some technology doesn’t happen immediately. It may take years.

Developing new technology to the point of application across an entire industry – and consequently a need for additional management and regulation – can also become very costly for all parties involved and often results in cost requirements for smaller/marginal business operations that may not even be best suited for the new technology. For example, shrimp
peeling machines became prevalent among larger processors, but smaller processors relied on people to peel the shrimp as the pink shrimp fishery grew off the West Coast. Now, small processors rarely process pink shrimp while the larger processors have moved on to include computerized shrimp-peeling operations.

These new, technologically advanced machines enable processors to also more closely monitor and trace their products (traceability) to the vessel and/or area of the ocean in which the seafood was caught. This kind of technology helps ensure the public has access to the safest and healthiest seafood available. Including these kinds of technologies and monitoring programs help processors comply with some independent sustainable certification regimes, such as the Marine Stewardship Council (MSC).

Technology that allows processors and the fishermen who fish for those plants to stay within the annual catch limits are more complex and wide-ranging. Independent sustainable certification companies may have certain requirements that don’t translate to other certifications.

ODP:  What will it take for the entire U.S. seafood industry to embrace this kind of new technology?

LS:  Ultimately, adoption of technologies that apply “across the board” will require significant amounts of industry and government buy-in, trust in the return on investment over the long-term, and money to fund pilot projects, R&D, and large-scale implementation. This all sounds daunting. Challenges will be significant – one thing we’ve learned in fisheries management is that one size certainly does not fit all, in most cases. However, to the extent that we can combine resources in this effort, share information, foster innovation, and not try to reinvent the wheel, there are still many benefits to be realized.

Government oversight always complicates matters and increases the number of hurdles to overcome (and – more often than not – costs). The most successful approaches to developing new technologies must be based on a clear set of shared goals/objectives; they must start simple and allow for flexibility, adaptation, and creative thinking.

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