Fish Forever: Manila Hotels Put Sustainable Seafood and Local Livelihoods on the Menu

News traveled fast in Antique, Philippines, when some fishermen and women started earning up to 25 percent more than current market prices.

Financing Fish (13)“Word got out and fishermen from neighboring municipalities were coming around asking how they can get in the game,” says Dale Galvin, one of the architects of Fish Forever, a new initiative aimed at simultaneously securing the seafood supply chain, increasing local livelihoods and restoring the health of the depleted fish stocks in the province in the central Philippines.

Fish Forever seeks to overcome one of the biggest challenges in the seafood industry: how to support local livelihoods through the transition to more sustainable practices. For the first time, fishermen and women in Antique have the opportunity to earn a significant premium for “responsible seafood baskets” in return for adopting sustainable fishing practices, including respecting no-fish zones, agreeing to size restrictions and upgrading their gear. (See, “Is the Recovery of Wild Fisheries the New J-Curve for Impact Investors?”)

The bottleneck is not demand. It’s the infrastructure and the supply. These are really overfished fisheries and disorganized supply chains.Dale Galvin, Rare

The Sulu Sea and other waters in the Philippines are rich with marine life, but more than 90 percent of Philippine fish stocks have been seriously plundered by overfishing, pollution and destructive or illegal fishing practices. Fishing is the major source of livelihood in most of Antique’s coastal communities.

Fish Forever is a project of Rare, a nonprofit based in Arlington, Virginia and backed by Bloomberg Philanthropies' Vibrant Oceans program and USAID. “We want our fishermen to behave a differently and really earn the premium,” says Galvin, who manages Rare's sustainable markets and finance program. “That solves for the incentive and adoption hump among fishermen.”

Participating fishers gain access to designated TURF’s, or territorial use rights for fishing, designed to create incentive for fishers to adopt regenerative practices by guaranteeing them the benefits of responsible ecosystem management. Some fishers are setting up auxiliary businesses as well, such as ice and distribution services.

A report by the Environmental Defense Fund suggests that within 10 years, sustainable management could recover 79 percent of the world’s fisheries and increase annual profits in the fishing sector by $51 billion, a 115 percent jump. By 2050, the report found, millions more tons of seafood could be harvested every year at the same time wild fish populations increase significantly.

New recipes

The key to the higher prices for local fishers are agreements Rare has brokered with five-star hotels in Manila to serve sustainable fish to their high-end guests. Earlier this year, Fish Forever co-hosted with Meliomar, a Philippines fish processor, the Philippines’ first-ever Sustainable Seafood Week at venues such as Marco Polo Hotel Ortigas and Hyatt City of Dreams. The 13 participating hotels announced their commitment to serve the responsible seafood basket.

“The future of seafood is in the hands of people preparing the fish while ensuring that fresh, sustainable seafood is available for their valued customers to enjoy,” the hotels agreed in their statement. “We call upon consumers to do their share by being vigilant and conscious about the seafood that they are eating.”

The week showcased new recipes featuring species once considered “trash fish.” Out went overfished menu items with murky supply chains. In came a bundle of varied, sustainably-caught and surprisingly tasty fish. The week was a chance for Manila's top chefs to invent new, exciting recipes.

The unicorn fish, for example, is usually treated as by-catch to be thrown overboard or sold for mere sentimos, or pennies, in local markets. On the contrary, unicorn fish is delicious, abundant and good to eat. Fish Forever believes that an expanded perception of what fish is good to eat will give popular species of fish a chance to recover and expand the market opportunity for fishers. Selling fish into the domestic, rather than international, market reduces transportation costs and taxes.

“The local ‘trash’ fish is cheaper so there’s considerable value to be shared under our program,” says Galvin.

Efficiency gains

The Philippines is one of five Fish Forever sites worldwide. Rare is working on similar initiatives in Brazil, Belize, Indonesia and Rare’s latest program in Mozambique. Interest grows around regional programs. Restaurant and hotel managers in Hong Kong and Singapore are inquiring about the responsible seafood basket after hearing about Manilla.

“The bottleneck is not demand,” Galvin says. “It’s the infrastructure and the supply. These are really overfished fisheries and disorganized supply chains.”

Fish Forever has targeted local traders who have well-established trading relationships. Fish Forever hopes to improve, not upend, these relationships. “We are careful not to crowd out the traders,” says, Galvin. “Yes, they take a piece of the pie from fishers, but they also provide community services like loans and health care.”

Efficiency gains that reduce waste make higher prices possible throughout the supply chain. Varied fish, improvements such as better cold storage, and stock recovery through TURF-organized communities, means fishers can earn more without fishing more. Efficiency gains bring down the cost of sustainable fish compared to conventionally sourced fish and hotels are still paying more for the sustainability story. The sustainability story itself is being a valuable part of the new fine dining experience.

Community support

To expand its impact, Fish Forever is working on strategies to make the responsible seafood basket available to a larger market of seafood buyers. Rare is developing the Meloy Fund for Community Sustainable Fishing, an impact investment vehicle to catalyze investment in sustainable fisheries. All along the supply chain, investment is needed to launch change-making business like fish aggregators and processing plants, cold storage chains and financial instruments for fishers.

Will fishermen bite? Will buyers buy? Will consumers eat? By creating proof-points and organizing resources, Fish Forever is seeking to overcome the obstacles that have blocked the adoption of sustainable practices and hindered efforts to revive distressed fisheries. Will investors commit?

“It’s hard for fishers to change their behaviors. The pressures of earning a living daily are just too great,” says Rocky Sanchez Tirona, Fish Forever’s vice president for the Philippines. “But with support from private companies, their customers, and ultimately, the diners who patronize them, we hope to create better incentives for fishers to do the right thing.”

Disclosure

ImpactAlpha’s Financing Fish follows investors and entrepreneurs seeking opportunities in the $390 billion seafood industry’s shift towards sustainability. Sign up for the Financing Fish newsletter.

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