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August 11, 2009

Fish systems and design


A grim new film, The End of the Line, reveals the impact of overfishing on our oceans. It exposes the extent to which global stocks of fish are dwindling; features scientists who warn we could see the end of most seafood by 2048; and includes chefs and fishers who seem indiferent to the ecocidal consequences of their business practices. "We must act now to protect the sea from rampant overfishing” says Charles Clover, author of the book of the film.

Must, must. Although important in raising awareness, the danger with films like The End of the Line (as with 'An Inconvenient Truth', and Michael Pollan’s 'Food, Inc') is that they bombard us with so much bad news that positive and practical actions, that are also being taken, are obscured - and opportunities to help them develop are missed.

The End of the Line received far more publicity, for example, than the launch of FishChoice.com


This free, non-profit web portal helps chefs and retail buyers procure sustainable seafood from suppliers accredited by leading ocean conservation organizations; FishChoice partners include the Marine Stewardship Council, The Monterey Bay Aquarium, and the Blue Ocean Institute.

FishChoice.com is one of many business-to-business (B2B) innovations that begin to unlock an intractable problem: how to reconfigure food systems that lock their participants into ecocidal behaviour.

It’s not as if fishermen, wholesalers, food processing firms, retailers, chefs,and consumers, want to destroy the world’s fisheries; but the linear structure of the supply and communication chains they operate in prevents them from seeing, and responding appropriately to, the bigger picture.

For food systems to be resilient we need to reconfigure, radically, relationships between fishers and consumers; we need to measure what matters throughout the lifecycle of fish; turn supply chains into supply webs, or ecologies; and put in place new, transparent economic relationships between fishers and citizens.

This is easy to say - hard, in practice, to do. I received the Fish Choice press release on market day where I live in France, and I soon found myself at my regular independent fish stall. The friendly couple who run it told me what tasted best that day - but information about the fish on the table before me was otherwise minimal. Hand-written tags told me things like “Cod, North Atlantic” and a price per kilo. But I was given no idea where the fish came from, how or when it was caught, by whom, or what has happened to it since then.

In the language of system design, I was an “actor” at a “touch point” at the end of a “chain of custody” running from the fishing vessel to the dock, from the dock to a processor or wholesaler, and from there, in this case, to my fishmonger.

In the language of stating the obvious, I was buying blind.


I do carry around a credit card sized consumer guide to buying fish (above) published by the World Wildlife Fund. It divides fish into “preferred”, “buy in moderation” and “avoid”. I use the leaflet in restaurants where one can consult it discreetly whilst reading the menu. But standing in front of my cheerful fishmonger, with a queue of people behind me, I did not. It’s too small and fiddly to read easily; the names of fish listed by the WWF do not always correspond with the words on the plastic tags; and above all, I was not at all sure I possessed the social tact to engage the friendly fishmonger in a non-confrontational way.


The above mobile phone application has, it’s true, been designed to make fish consumers smarter. Monterey Bay Aquarium’s new service brings Seafood Watch recommendations directly to your iPhone (in the US only so far). But although a step forward on the WWF leaflet, the iphone service is still based on a linear model: you receive information from a trusted supplier, which is good; but the service does not enable you confer with fellow citizens about it, still less with intermediaries further up the fish supply chain.

Seafood traceability is an essential element in sustainability. But most food systems are based on closed, proprietory networks in which access to information is controlled by powerful supermarkets and wholsesalers. In the UK, for example, five chains control 80 percent of food sales. They derive immense competitive advantage from their control over information flows – and handsome profits follow. I don’t have a number for fishers, but I’m sure it’s similar to the coffee farmers who receive less than six per cent of the value of a standard pack of ground coffee sold in a grocery store.

It’s not that large firms are filled with personally evil people. On the contrary, retail giants like Walmart, Carrefour and Elior (Europe’s third largest contract catering firm) are doing a lot to promote sustainable fishing. Walmart, for example, is committed to sell only MSC certified fish in its 3,700 US stories, and had achieved 50% of that target by January 2009; and in the UK, Waitrose supported the production of The End of the Line.

But however well-intentioned, these global players are not about to remove themselves as intermediaries in long global supply chains; neither are they ready to open up their information systems to independent scrutiny.

Besides, the main problem is not a lack of information. A raft of eco labels has been launched, and Iceland, Sweden and Ireland run their their own ecolabel systems for fish. But the multiplicity of such schemes, many of which are based on contradictory criteria, makes it harder for consumers make informed choices about what they are buying.

Another problem is that global accreditation schemes, such as the Marine Stewardship Council's blue ecolabel, do not take account of the energy impacts of the airfreight often used to move eco-labelled products around the world. A Danish researcher, Mikkel Thrane, who has proposed a ban on the air freight of MSC-labelled products, argues that “it doesn’t make sense to put a label on a product reflecting sustainability when non-carbon-friendly shipping methods are being used.”

The same argument applies to the huge amounts of energy used by retailers to display fish


– for example, in brightly-lit chiller cabinets; or in the location of fish counters in out-of-town megastores that greatly amplify biosphere-damaging transport intensity.

Everything in a food system needs to be measured and accounted for - not just one element in the process.

The biggest challenge is the impossibility of feedback and personal relationships in attenuated global systems. In a truly sustainable fish system, its actors will be connected in a web of relationships rather than in a one-way chain.

Technology can help here. Peer-to-peer networks, wikis, crowdsourcing, participatory mapping, mobile communications, platforms for knowledge-sharing – all these are potential components of distributed systems that connect citzens more directly with producers.

] Food systems are social systems

But iphones are only part of the answer. Food systems are social systems, and technology on its own cannot orchestrate the multitude of actors and stakeholders involved. Practical, context-specific issues need to be dealt with, continuously - and it's through these day-to-day negotiations that mutual trust develops.

Place-specific social enterprises for food, based on distributed models, are already emerging in cities of the South. In in such cities as Kinshasa or Dakar, in Africa, a “multi-actor ecosystem participation approach” (MEPA) has been developed that treats food supply as an ecosystem in which farmers, policy makers, environmentalists and regulatory bodies collaborate on the basis that the ecosystem itself is a shared responsibility. The interactions. Involved are complex and multi-directional, but geography and culture provides a shared space.

A more ecosystem-centric approach is also being pioneered in the North. In the fast-growing Transition Towns movement, for example, citizen groups are mapping foodsheds and watersheds as the basis for a more holisitc, regional approach to food security.


These maps, and other web-based tools in development, are viewed by Transitioners as tools to enable face-to-face contact among each other, and with food producers and citizens - not as visually mesmerising ends in themselves.

An especially inspiring UK model is a restaurant-led initiative, Pisces Responsible Fish Restaurants, that “links good fishermen with chefs…the idea is to build a long term relationship with “your” fishermen”. The Pisces team therefore insists on getting out on individual boats, and sees for themselves how the fish are caught.

Chefs laughingPICT3601.jpg

This is a huge commitment of time and effort – and of trust on the part of the fishers. But for Pisces, it’s a worthwhile investment in the future. “Managing simply to avoid stock collapse is a miserably negative goal” they say; “despite all the problems, there remain an amazing diversity of fish just off the British coast - over 170 species in the North Sea alone. We want stocks to be built up so that they can support bigger catches, and better profits, while still leaving plenty for other species”.

The design lesson here is that there can be no one global “sustainable fish system”. The design task, instead, is to look for practical ways to help a multitude of different models – like MEPA in the South, or Pisces in the North – succeed, multiply, connect and adapt - in different ways in different contexts.

Posted by John Thackara at August 11, 2009 03:12 PM


Great article. I love your book - In the Bubble. Was eye-opening. So is this article, in its own way. The points about needing to reconfigure the system, about how corporate giants are not necessarily evil - both are great insights. It is a prejudice that many of us leap to - accusing the big guys, that is. And the more I read this, I realize what a great set of principles and a framework you had in your book. This seems to be a bit too fawning but that book changed my perspective on a lot of things. about time I read it again.

Posted by: Arvind Ashok at August 11, 2009 09:59 PM

Thank you, this is a fabulous analysis of a very complex problem. I just spent 6 months doing fieldwork in a Newfoundland fishing village and it made the difficulty of the situation for small producers and the bizarre politics involved very clear. The question of who has the right to know is really central.

Thanks Phoebe: have you published your Newfoundland story?

Posted by: Phoebe Sengers at August 27, 2009 07:44 PM

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