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Turning the ship around - Sealord on embedded sustainability

Credit: The Aotearoa Circle

I remember as a kid going out with my dad on the fishing boat Da Vinci. We left Riverton, dad was in the wheelhouse, and I was in the bow (without a lifejacket), and off we went into the wild blue yonder of Foveaux Strait.  At the time we didn’t have a care in the world. The lobster and blue cod almost jumped in the boat of their own accord. Fast forward almost fifty years and our world is a very different place. I’m now in the fishing industry and looking to be part of making one of the most significant shifts in fishing since the quota management system came into being.

That shift will require the Seafood sector to integrate climate and environmental stewardship into its food production systems by looking at ways to manage climate-related risk and increasing its investment in sustainable harvesting technology.  We are going to have to be courageous. My dad used to say, “if I only fish on the good weather days son we won’t be fishing”. This shift will require us all to be courageous and say “if we only do the easy stuff, we won’t be fishing so let’s get stuck in”.

The long-term future of the seafood industry lies in sustainable harvesting, minimising impacts on the marine ecosystem whilst accessing a much-valued source of high-quality protein. It is worth noting we start from an incredibly positive place in seafood, since most operations are carried out at sea, therefore our industry has relatively minor terrestrial impacts and wild-caught fish in particular has a low carbon footprint.

In Sealord’s case our analysis shows that for each kilo of fish harvested, less than 2kg CO2e is emitted.  As new technology for more sustainable fisheries management develops, an environmentally sustainable, low-carbon fishing industry will play a key role in providing protein to feed the global population.

Responding to climate change requires us to systematically identify and analyse a range of risks, look at how they interact and consider how they may be affected by existing or emerging issues under different future climate scenarios.

The Aotearoa Circle’s 2020 report on the seafood industry’s future, Climate-related risk scenarios for the 2050s, makes no bones about the fact that whichever climate change scenario the world achieves, the New Zealand seafood industry needs to meet these risks head on – at sea, on the land, and in our communities.

Amongst the great work the Aotearoa Circle is doing, the marine group is now supporting the development of a Seafood Sector Adaptation Strategy to look at how the sector can manage those risks going forward.

As an industry, the value of our natural capital is dependent on the environmental integrity of the 4.1 million square kilometres of our Exclusive Economic Zone. Controlling the world’s fourth largest coastal fishing zone is our blessing and our responsibility, and it is one that we do not take lightly.

Sealord’s current business model is dependent on natural ecosystems and fossil fuels. We are increasingly aware of the need to gear up for systemic industry changes, including transformational change in the energy industry, plus the commitments embedded in the Climate Change Response (Zero Carbon) Amendment Act.

At an operational level, we will certainly be impacted by the effects of sea level rise, extreme weather, increases in ocean temperatures and acidity. We know these things are beginning to happen now, and we are working to do what we can to minimise our own carbon footprint, and build on our previous commitment to sustainability, to develop a business strategy that has sustainable prosperity at its core.

As members will know, The Aotearoa Circle climate change report considers two marine scenarios, which represent two opposing realities of climate change outcomes in 2050.

Under the worst-case scenario, warming is on course to exceed 4˚C by 2100. This would mean faster increases in ocean and air temperatures, increasing ocean acidity, considerable sea level rise and profound changes in the abundance and distribution of commercial fish species.

The best case, where the world is likely to keep total warming below 2˚C over the 21st century, would mean less dramatic physical changes to the marine environment.  Under this scenario we would see a rapid shift to a more sustainable industry that meets the expectations of consumers, and likely greater regulatory requirements for our sector with new outcomes that go beyond the bottom line. We could also expect to see fundamental changes to energy sources and fuel management.

Sealord have used these scenarios to better assess the climate related risks within our business. These risks have been translated into our board risk register with mitigation and adaption plans being developed as key to our future prosperity. Our long-term business strategy has underpinned our focus on the 2050 deadline, and the development of sustainability strategies across our operations.

In 2019 we measured our carbon footprint and put science-based targets in place to reduce our carbon emissions. This has already reaped some gains as we’ve recorded a 4.9% drop in emissions from 2019 to 2020. Whilst there are obvious gains to be made in the short term, it will get harder and more expensive to make future gains, and so we need to build this into our long-term thinking.

In the immediate term Sealord is moving forward with several environmental work streams to reduce our contribution to the sector’s carbon emissions as well as reducing plastic waste and water use.  

We are also leading a partnership research project into reducing kingfish bycatch. Kingfish can reach 1.7m in length and weigh up to 56kg. As a bycatch, they are technically more difficult to remove or avoid because they are bigger than the target species so cannot be filtered out through net sizes. They are a traditional food source for Māori and a highly valued game fish for recreational fishers.

This collaborative industry project takes a whole new look at bycatch management through fish behavioural science. It will look at what is going on under the water in the trawl nets, and how we can leverage fish behaviour to reduce this much-valued bycatch.

This heralds an exciting new direction for how we fish in New Zealand – going beyond the mechanics of the trawl system to think more cleverly about how we deploy behavioural technology in the ocean.  In reality, breakthrough innovation in how we trawl could be the biggest global game-changer for fishing in the future.

Looking ahead to 2050, we will have to cope with increasing levels of uncertainty. Whichever climate scenario is realised, the fishing industry in New Zealand could well be affected by global impacts related to labour resources, costs of production, species migration, food shortages and geo-political pressures.  

New Zealand may have some advantages – in a worst-case scenario we are likely to avoid the worst extremes of biomass decline, and we may have expanded catch potential as new species migrate into our waters, but marketing and business planning will face increasingly complex uncertainties.

These conversations are being held in boardrooms and management meetings across the sector, and I expect we will see more industry-wide alignment and collaboration in both strategies and actions as we move forward. This will take time as not all businesses are prepared to act. As a responsible corporate, some level of risk is necessary. You have to be prepared to act first, even though you may not know all the variables or see the payback on some financial model. 

My dad isn’t with us anymore, but I think he’d be proud that New Zealand is preparing to meet these challenges head-on and no doubt he’d bring out another one of his sayings. “It isn’t always about the money Doug, it’s about doing what is right.”

Turning the ship around – Sealord on embedded sustainability — The Aotearoa Circle

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