Last month, the Seafood Choices Alliance selected Steve Phillips, president and CEO of Phillips Foods, Inc., as a 2011 winner of its sixth annual Seafood Champions Award.
Since the 1990s, Phillips has worked to establish a thriving blue swimming crab industry in Asia that is now on the path to sustainability. His work started when he realized crabs in the region were susceptible to overfishing, and that the fishing practices that harvest juvenile crabs and pregnant females are unsustainable.
RMGT spoke with Steve Phillips.
Why are you so passionate about sustainable seafood?
One of my grandfathers was a Chesapeake Bay fisherman and my other grandfather had a small seafood-processing factory, so I grew up understanding what fishermen were concerned about as well as what a manufacturer was concerned about.
We had so many varieties of seafood and it was so bountiful that I thought it was going to be here forever. But in my lifetime a lot of it has gone, as well as many of the fishermen, their livelihoods, and a whole lifestyle.
What have you achieved regarding sustainability in Asia?
Several years ago, even though I compete with the Asian competitors every day, we got everyone together, all the crab processors, and formed two associations—APRI (Association of Indonesian Crab Processors)in Indonesia and PACPI (Philippine Crab Processors Association Inc.) in the Philippines—to specifically address sustainability in Asia.
And a couple of years ago we got together the 13 companies that import Asian crab and created the NFI Crab Council, to help fund and implement the fishery improvement programs; to encourage and support the sustainability work in Asia being done by the producer associations; and to persuade governments to establish and enforce appropriate regulations for the crab industry.
One of the unique things our council has done is impose a 1.5-cents-per-pound fee on each pound of crabmeat we import. Through this import fee imposed upon ourselves and from grants from other organizations, we had $500,000 last year to help fund the sustainability programs in Asia. If we double that next year to 3 cents that will double the total amount to $1 million to fund sustainability initiatives in Southeast Asia.
You not only have to work from the top down [the Secretary of Agriculture] but also from the communities—the fishermen and their families—because it takes time to make changes. We are looking to create some hatcheries to do some restocking programs and put billions of crabs back into the water. In a hatchery we can control the water quality, keep the diseases out, keep the predators out, and we can control the food system.
By giving Mother Nature a hand in this way, we can drastically increase the survival rate of the crabs from one female. A crab might release 800,000 eggs with only two surviving in the natural environment. Yet, with the use of hatcheries we can hope for hundreds to survive.
What have APRI and PACPI accomplished?
They’ve worked to implement fishery improvement programs; they’ve recommended the development of cages to allow the female to release the eggs back into the natural environment; they’ve also worked with the fishermen to educate them about why they shouldn’t take crabs with eggs. The members of the NFI Crab Council have all agreed to a minimum size of 8 cm and crabs can’t be taken that are smaller than that. It is now up to the importing companies to impose that on their suppliers.
You have met with Indonesian and Philippine government officials; what has come of those meetings?
These are very rural areas and these fishing villages of 200 or 300 people fall under the radar screen and we’re trying to make the governments aware of how important these people and this industry are. Our definition of sustainability is making sure that the resource will be there for future generations and we want the government to be aware of that and to put regulations into place.
What do you most hope to see change in the U.S. regarding purchasing seafood from Asia?
A greater awareness of the work we are doing to move a young fishery towards sustainability. Recognition that not all fisheries have rules and regulations in place and it takes time to start from the beginning to build this structure.
Fisheries in progress toward sustainability are vital to the U.S. seafood market. And, we have a responsibility to take care of the fishermen and families that depend on the resource as much as we enjoy eating it here in the U.S.