The Future of Sustainable Fish

Meghan French Dunbar April 4, 2015

Individuals who care about what types of fish they are purchasing don’t even have the option of “voting with their dollars” because the responsibly caught fish are often commingled with irresponsibly or illegally caught fish. With over one billion people worldwide depending on fish as their primary source of protein, and with limited options for consumers to purchase fish caught in a responsible manner that doesn’t promote overfishing, theCheryl Dahle stakes couldn’t be higher to change this system.

The team at Future of Fish is taking on the entire fishing industry in its mission to create such change. Future of Fish is a “nonprofit systems change incubator” that is working to bring traceable, trustworthy, and legally caught fish to market. The group recruits entrepreneurs, businesses, and other nonprofits to work together in what it calls “pods” to develop strategies for achieving this goal. In addition to facilitating the pods, Future of Fish provides in-depth research and systems maps that identify problem areas in the global fishing industry, hosts workshops to co-design strategic solutions to specific challenges, and provides advisory and media services for the entrepreneurs tackling these issues within the system. We discussed this innovative model for systems change with Founder and Executive Director Cheryl Dahle.

How did you develop the model for tackling this huge issue?

Cheryl Dahle: Like most origin stories, it’s a combination of intention and accident. My background is as a journalist, and then I was an analyst of nonprofits. In those jobs, I had a lot of opportunity to look at social change. As a reporter, I worked for Fast Company magazine for about ten years, writing about social entrepreneurs and the intersection of business and social change. I got to see a lot of patterns, and I became very interested in how we create new solutions to these thorny, really wicked problems. In doing that work, I came up with some theories on what I thought might be one approach to incubate bigger change.

I decided to couple a type of analysis that I had been applying to find patterns in the work of social entrepreneurs, with a design-based approach to coming up with new ideas. The whole point of the process was to understand what was missing from the current ecosystem of solutions. When we got to the end of the process, the idea was Future of Fish, a nonprofit systems incubator. However, we couldn’t find anyone to run it. We had thought we would find an entrepreneur already active in this space who would take it on, and we had this – in hindsight predictable – chicken and egg problem. The entrepreneurs we recruited said, “This is a fantastic idea, but you don’t have any money.” The investors said, “This is a great idea, but you have no team.”

At some point, I was trying to talk yet another entrepreneur into doing this gig and she turned to me and said, “What do you not get about the fact that you’re the entrepreneur here?” This really took me aback because I had always seen myself as a writer and an analyst. I went to the funder and asked, “If I led this project, would you seed fund it?” And they said yes. It was a little bit of an accident, a little bit of pushing, and a little bit of just being so invested in the work that, had I not taken the risk and stepped up, two years’ worth of work would have been lost and I just couldn’t bear to see that happen, no matter how scared I was to move into the space of entrepreneurship.

Most people tend to assume I must have a degree in marine biology, or I must be one of those ocean people who surfs all the time. It’s not like that. I’m terrible at snorkeling, and I didn’t even see the ocean for the first time until I was in high school because I was born in the Midwest. It did not come from a very deeply rooted love of oceans; it came from a very deeply rooted love for systems and a passion for tackling complex challenges.

What does it mean to be a “nonprofit systems change incubator”?

CD: I think people are familiar with what an incubator does – it tries to help things grow. Most incubators are focused on the level of one company and the sole success of that individual company. At Future of Fish, we’re looking at a different level of change; we’re creating initiatives and systems through collaboration and collective impact. What that means in practice is that we only recruit entrepreneurs and individuals whose theories of change are actually targeting the systems levers that we’ve identified. There is a group intention around this initiative that’s not typically present in most incubators.

Can you provide us with an example of a successful project that Future of Fish has supported?

CD: Future of Fish finds new opportunities with both market potential and impact potential. We then cultivate a cluster of entrepreneurs around those ideas to build a business ecosystem. Those clusters, or “pods,” help take disruptive ideas and spread them to the mainstream while developing investable companies at the same time.

One example of that process is the work we’ve done with Tom Kraft, an entrepreneur in the seafood distribution and import business. His company had developed a homegrown IT system to track inventory and provide traceability down to the fillet, a breakthrough achievement in an industry that has a mislabeling rate of more than 33 percent and sells millions of metric tons of illegally caught seafood every year.

His innovation was the basis of a research paper we produced to document the business ROI of better IT. That report led us to convene technology vendors and seafood industry executives to devise ways to increase technology adoption, which will also decrease the amount of illegal product. In the meantime, Tom has launched a new company to commercialize a technology system for other seafood companies using the insights he gleaned from his first effort. We’re helping him secure investors. Business wins, and the fish win.

In your vision for a reinvented fishing supply chain, what do you mean when you talk about moving from commodity fish to storied fish? What does storied fish mean to you?

CD: If we want markets to drive change, then the incentives have to be linked to the right behaviors. We can’t reward fishers who fish responsibly by paying them more if we can’t even accurately label and pack products. Until we have a supply chain that can deliver fish that have a story, what we get is fish without a history, which means it all gets valued at the level of a commodity. There’s no differentiation in the product if you don’t have a story, and there’s no story if you don’t have good data. So for us, that’s why this whole conversation begins with traceability and our ability to bring it to this supply chain.

What have been some of the most challenging moments since the launch of this project?

CD: I think that people tend to feel defeated working on these large, complex systems problems when they’re looking for short-term wins and easy answers. We’ve become embedded in the system we’re trying to fix, and we’re working alongside the people whom we’re trying to support, and this is totally a patience game.

You hear lots of “nos,” lots of “this will never work,” or “you’re on the wrong track.” When we first started our work, everybody said that focusing on traceability, data, and the middle of the supply chain was the wrong strategy. Now, four years later, they all agree with us. Some of it is just the ability to believe in the wisdom you’ve unearthed by studying the system before it actually starts to come to fruition.

What strategies have you found to be truly effective for Future of Fish?

CD: I think one of the things that distinguishes us from some of the other players – not just in fish but, frankly, the way many nonprofits view problems – is that we’re not coming to people saying, “You’re wrong, you should adopt our way of thinking.” We’re coming to the table, listening carefully, and saying, “How can we understand the motivations that produce behaviors driving bad outcomes for the system?” That means meeting people where they are and empathetically engaging with folks around how to drive change, how to design different pathways, and how to design different motivations to shift the outcome.

It’s much easier to stand back and say, “There are people who wear black hats and people who wear white hats. We have the white hats, you have the black hats, so you’re wrong.” But it’s not a very effective way of driving change. You can make an industry wrong all day long and it’s still going to function, and it’s still going to operate. Figuring out how to get in the trenches with them and then help them to change is a better strategy. As a journalist, I brought a level of openness and objectivity around not being vested in one approach. It’s folly to think there’s one silver bullet, or that there’s one solution. I’m not attached to, “Hey we’ve got this particular idea, and this is the one that we need to run with, and there are never any other good ideas.” It makes it easier to build a platform where you can pull lots of different players to the table and see merit in everything that they’re doing.

Are there any other movements or examples of teams consciously trying to drive change in a system that you find inspiring and that you look to?

CD: There’s an organization called Black Male Engagement. It’s a project and initiative that’s intended to shift the perception of black males in the US as contributors, as opposed to risks or threats. A lot of the group’s work is taking a look at how we culturally and socially stereotype and then ignore facts and stories that run counter to those assumptions. One of its primary roles is to highlight positive stories of African American men who have been incredible achievers. What I find inspiring about Trabian Shorters’ work is that it started with great examples of leaders, but then built a distribution platform for those stories through media partnerships, a book, and outreach in specific cities. He found a way to make that change in consciousness ripple out into the world.

Another great example is Patricia Majluf, a marine biologist in Peru. She managed to reinvent the way that Peru consumed fish. Peru has a really large thriving anchovy industry, yet worldwide, anchovies primarily wound up being turned into pig or fish meal. You take these really great, nutritious fish and you grind them up and turn them into animal food. This was happening in Peru, which at the time had a very high child malnutrition rate. Patricia said, “This is crazy,” and part of what she did was to enlist chefs in a movement to rebrand the anchovy as a sexy, elite food. It changed consumption patterns, and they ended up getting anchovies into state-sponsored school lunches throughout the whole country. That started by her saying, “This doesn’t make any sense. We’ve got child malnutrition on the one hand and then we’ve got overfishing of anchovies on the other.” Essentially, by making the problem bigger – by making it a problem that belonged to chefs, a problem that belonged to child health advocates, to the schools, and to politicians, rather than to marine biologists alone – she made it everybody’s issue. That’s one of the things that systems change leaders do well.

“You can make an industry wrong all day long and it’s still going to function, and it’s still going to operate. Figuring out how to get in the trenches with them and then help them to change is a better strategy.”

How has it been working with some of the stakeholders from the fishing industry? Has there been resistance to your efforts and, if so, how have you dealt with it?

CD: A lot of other groups had done very deep work with fishers before we arrived on the scene. Particularly in the US, there is a lot of awareness and there are a lot of progressive fishers that understand that if the resource is overfished, they don’t have a future. The issue becomes not just environmental, but regulatory. I find that other people that I’ve met who have been most reverent about fish and most appreciative of the resource are not nonprofits, they’re fishers! When your livelihood is tied to something, the value of it is enormous. I’ve listened to fishers talk about the history that they have and the link they have to the fish in the sea, and they break down in tears. It’s not true that fishers will reject change out of hand; I think a lot of it has to do with how you position the change.

What is the greatest piece of advice you could give to any young entrepreneur who has a vision for creating impact and driving change?

CD: I would say, as much as you work on your idea, work twice as hard on who you’re being as you do it. You are the instrument of change, and to be a good one, you have to consistently show integrity in your relationships through authenticity and open-hearted listening. All systems change demands a different form of leadership – one that’s networked, humble, enabling, and empathetic to its core. If those aren’t your strengths, or if you don’t care about cultivating them, I’d think about doing something else.

What does working on “who you’re being” look like for you?

CD: For me, it looked like working with leadership coaches, and it also has meant creating a space and a team that operates with absolute honesty. We have a commitment to admit when we make mistakes, and we can ask for forgiveness from the group. We relentlessly confront all the ways in which I, and we, fall short, and that is a conversation we’re OK having.

Driving change in the fishing industry will be a long process, but has your work so far inspired you to look at any other systems that you might one day potentially like to work on?

CD: Yes, absolutely. Actually, the intention from the very beginning was to come up with a methodology that could create more solutions. Fish was always a demonstration case. In September, we launched a for-profit company called Flip Labs. It is our first effort toward starting to take this approach and apply it to other systems. We’ve been running now for a couple of months and we’re in conversations with several different partners about what topics we might take on, and the range is pretty interesting. We’re looking at everything from the treatment and diagnosis of trauma, to soil restoration, to looking at end-of-life care. All of those are systems that have plenty of different issues, and yet the methodology that we’ve designed is flexible enough to take on any of them.

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