Women of the Northwest

Christa Svensson-Navigating Sustainable Seas: A Global Perspective on Tuna Fishing and Social Responsibility

January 24, 2024 Jan Johnson/Christa Svensson Episode 85
Women of the Northwest
Christa Svensson-Navigating Sustainable Seas: A Global Perspective on Tuna Fishing and Social Responsibility
Show Notes Transcript

TRI Marine
The Outlaw Ocean Project
International Sustainable Seafood foundation 

In this episode, join host Jan Johnson as she dives into the complex world of global tuna supply and sustainability with Christa Svensson, the Sustainability Program Manager Global at Tri Marine. Christa, who grew up in a commercial fishing family, sheds light on her unique journey from being on fishing vessels to her current role responsible for reporting at Tri Marine, a company handling over 10% of the world's tuna supply. As the Sustainability Program Manager, Christa discusses her involvement with the International Sustainable Seafood Foundation and her critical work in social accountability and responsibility, particularly concerning fishing vessels.

Discover the challenges and intricacies of ensuring sustainability in the seafood industry, as Christa shares her experiences working with diverse teams across various time zones. From her involvement in social audits to addressing issues like forced labor and illegal, unreported fishing, Christa provides valuable insights into the multifaceted efforts required to maintain a responsible and ethical seafood supply chain.

Explore the global reach of Tri Marine, spanning offices in Italy, Spain, France, the Solomon Islands, Taiwan, China, Singapore, Thailand, Ecuador, Colombia, and Panama, reflecting the company's commitment to sustainability on a worldwide scale. Gain a deeper understanding of the daily challenges faced by those working in the fishing industry and the balance needed between enforcing ethical practices and ensuring food security for millions of people.

Join Jan and Christa in this eye-opening conversation about the intricate dynamics of the seafood industry, the importance of collaboration, and the continuous efforts towards creating a sustainable and socially responsible future for global fisheries.

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Find me on my website: jan-johnson.com



Jan: Okay. My guest today is Christa Svensson. Hi, Christa.

Christa: Hi.

Jan: So you work with Tri Marine. Tell me about that. What's your role there?

Christa: I am the sustainability program manager global at Tri Marine. And what that means is I work for a company that handles just over 10% of the global tuna supply. And I am responsible principally for a lot of the reporting related to the International Sustainable Seafood foundation, as well as the work that involves social accountability and social responsibility, particularly with fishing vessels.

Jan: What's your background that qualified you to do this?

Christa: I started out in a fishing family, so I have parents, both of which fished commercially. I started going well for as long as I can remember. There's pictures of me in my mom's arms as a brand-new baby on the boat, and I always wanted to fish. I started going professionally when I was 17. I had certainly been going for many years before that but was not paid. It was more playing on the boat. And I paid for undergraduate and most of grad school commercial fishing in Alaska.

Jan: Okay.

Christa: And then decided I wanted to be home a little bit more and took a job on land, working in seafood processing, in sales and marketing, which led to working in sustainability. And that is a bit of a circuitous route of how I got to where I am. But both sides on the processing, on the vessel side, really are what allow me to do the work that I'm doing today.

Jan: Yeah. With that kind of experience and the feet on the ground, you understand way more than maybe somebody else does what you're doing.

Christa: Yeah. It's a different perspective, I think, than what a lot of people who are working in the space I'm working in bring. It's not necessarily a better perspective, but it's certainly a different one, simply because I do have the on the water experience. I do have the in the plan experience. I do tend to think about food safety and the impacts to people on board, perhaps a little differently, but that also means I don't necessarily have the experience outside of the seafood industry that other people can bring in.

Jan: So then you collaborate?

Christa: Yeah, there is a lot of collaboration.

Jan: So is this something you do a lot online, or you end up. What's your day look like?

Christa: It's highly variable. I would say most of the time I do work online. I work remotely. Tri Marine, we work with about 600 different fishing vessels in any given year, and the majority of those are not based in the United States. So, you travel a lot? I travel and I work online with people through teams or Zoom or Google meets to put together plans for how we're going to work on getting connectivity on board fishing vessels or how we're going to launch grievance mechanisms or really basically anything that is working to prevent forced labor or slave labor in seafood supply chains.

Jan: So that's really the bottom line of what you're doing, is the forced labor?

Christa: Yeah.

Jan: Okay, so what's that look like? How do you even know about that, that it's happening?

Christa: Well, there's different ways you can know about it's happening. There certainly have been documentaries that have released information. We had ocean outlaw came out with a couple of articles in October. We've had other programs through the years. How do we ourselves, when we're looking at our supply chain, know what's going on? We use a variety of tools. We use risk assessments in terms of where our fleets are operating, how they're operating, are they transshipping at sea. We use social audits, where we, in many cases, go in and interview the crew and find out kind of what's going on in their lives using trained social auditors. So, this is not something that I am qualified to do by any means, but I certainly can say, hey, this is important, and let's find out and work on what we need to work on. We have the ability, through trade organizations we belong to, to get additional input from crew members and to work with others who are also working on this, both in the NGO space, civil society space, and other organizations such as ourselves that are in industry in a variety of positions. So, it could be retailers, it could be other tuna buying brands. It could be vessels themselves to really identify, even if it isn't in our own supply chain, what that looks like in terms of highest risk areas.

Jan: So, when your interviewer goes in, it's like, hi, I'm here to find out whether you're doing any. How do they go about doing, who are they deciding? They're asking because you'd think some of that would be hidden knowledge.

Christa: So, there's a variety of things that they're looking at. They're looking at health and safety. Do they have things like life rafts? They're looking at crew contracts and making certain that crew contracts are in languages that can be understood by the crew that are signing them, maybe, yeah. And if they can't be, then the expectation is that they have somebody there that can translate, say somebody is illiterate, that they have the contract clearly explained to them so that they understand what they are signing. We have auditors look at grievance mechanisms and then auditors in addition to all of that are provided with the crew list and provide, typically through random selection, they'll pick however many crew that they would like to interview and spend some time with them. And the questions aren't, is there anything going on on the boat? I mean, this is, again, why they're a trained auditor, to really kind of suss out what's going on and find out. And then from there, the steps really vary in terms of what's needed. It may be that they need to be paid back for something that they paid for. It may be that they want automatic withdrawals for their paychecks, and they're being paid in cash. It may be that they need to understand, and this is the auditor. The auditor may need some training. And to give a specific example of that, one of the first audits I did, and it's one of the few critical issues I've ever seen. I've actually only had two come up in audits, and both of them were auditor training. But the first time it was that the vessel did not have a life raft on board. And I completely freaked out. This was a boat that was going to be gone for ten months, right. Even if they were gone for two weeks, I wouldn't want them out there without a life raft.

Jan: Yeah.

Christa: And then I realized that the boat came back once a year to their home port. And I thought, I wonder if that life raft was in the shop getting repacked. And so, I asked my own, said, hey, you know, in the US, I don't know what happens where you are, but over here, we repack our life rafts annually. Is that a legal requirement in your country? And they said, yes. And I said, okay, is there any chance at all that this life raft is in the shop? And they said, well, of course it's in the shop. It's getting repacked. And I said, okay, this is not a critical nonconformity. The critical would be if it wasn't being repacked. And the auditors said, oh, we didn't know that life rafts got repacked. So now an auditor, that specific auditor, would be asking, hey, is your life raft in the shop? It's those kind of details. Details where sometimes things look different than what the reality is.

Jan: Yeah.

Christa: And that is not to say that there isn't a lot of work to be done. I think that there is, or I wouldn't have a job.

Jan: But it is.

Christa: Something that people are actively working on, and that's people like me that are actively working on. It's people that are in government in terms of legislation and even at the international fisheries management level, we're talking about cruise safety and really what that means in terms of preventing abuses at sea.

Jan: And so, part of that is the overarching is employment security and livability and doing the right thing for your employees. Correct. Is there an essence of the job of maybe fish not being reported, what they've caught being reported accurately? Or is that, well, something that happens, too?

Christa: I mean, there's IU fishing going on out there, I'm sure, somewhere. And it is something that we actively work on through ISSF, which I mentioned earlier. So, we do a variety of things ourselves, such as we report all of the fish that we purchase to the RFMOs so that they have a better handle on what is coming out of their areas. We look at transshipment at sea, that would be higher risk in terms of what's going on. And that's not something that we typically purchase. But if we do, then we're looking at observer statements to make sure that they have observers on board their vessels, which gives really a bit more oversight than just people out there cavalierly doing whatever it is that's going on or may not be going on. And I think that's one of the key pieces to remember. We get very focused on IU. We get very focused on.

Jan: Tell us what that stands for.

Christa: Illegal, unreported. Okay. Yeah. But there's an awful lot of people that are out there that love doing what they do, that are helping support food security in a safe way, in an environmentally sound way, who are being swept up in this because we have reports that are negative, and it is really difficult to prove zero.

Jan: Yeah.

Christa: And so would be kind of like, and I had somebody give this analogy, people in the US love football. I think they really love football. That would be like saying, you can't have any accident ever on the football field, or we're going to shut you down. Now, I don't see that happening anytime soon. But we can make it as safe as we possibly can for football players with padding and headgear. And if people look like they might have a concussion, making sure they stay off the field and get proper medical evaluation. And so really, when we're thinking about it for seafood, thinking about how we can keep people safe, how we can keep the environment safe is critical. But we need to understand that sometimes people are having their worst day and that may get caught in an audit. And we do need to remediate for that. Don't get me wrong. Right but we also need to understand people are human and that the environment is not one that is maybe the most forgiving.

Jan: Yeah.

Christa: And I think we also need to remember that we are talking about a source of employment for millions of people.

Jan: Right.

Christa: We are talking about a food source for billions of people, and food security is critical. So helping people to do that in a way that allows us to maintain access to that food source, because if we make things so difficult, we won't have anybody that goes fishing, and now we will have people literally starving. Yeah. There is a balance there, and I think it's important that we find solutions that are practical for people on the water, as well as give people on land the confidence to really understand what they're purchasing. Sometimes it is thinking about how to do things differently. A lot of times, vessels have, as an example, a grievance mechanism. They can talk to the captain. They can call to the boat owner if they get on shore. I'm not saying that this is a perfect grievance mechanism. They may have a suggestion box that can leave anonymous, or you can put a letter in the captain's stateroom. I'm not saying this is perfect, but I am saying that there is kind of a process. But when you go into a social audit, if you're looking at something like the seafood task force that wants a grievance policy the first time, most vessels don't score super well in that section because they don't have anything formally documented. And so, taking the time to develop a policy and procedure, which we did through the task force, and just say, hey, you know what? This will meet the requirement. If you put your company name and agree to do this, you will have a policy that's free.

Jan: Is that some things that they don't even think about, though, or there's bigger fish to fry, bigger things to be more important.

Christa: Are you talking about his grievance? No.

Jan: Yeah. Just like, say, the captain of the ship has got so many things on his mind, that's not something that has been a priority to institute or something, a box to check.

Christa: I think the policy side of things, perhaps maybe not as important to them. Dealing with personnel on board vessels in general is something that is very important to them. Morale really can make or break your crew. Oh, for sure. And so having a vehicle for people to air those grievances is important, and it's something, again, through the work we've done at the task force, that's been pretty consistently identified as something that people see as critical in terms of really advancing this work. So the big three that can change over time. We've got 15 different points that we're really looking at, but the three that have been in primary focus recently have been health and safety grievance, and then things related to responsible recruitment, which would include crew agencies and crew contracts.

Jan: That makes sense.

Christa: And there are others. There's things like child labor, but when you're looking at distant water, long line vessels, as an example, they're not taking people under 18, which is what we require, simply because they're physically, really demanding jobs. And typically, they're looking at their mariner sea book, or they're looking at their passport and validating, hey, we don't have children on the boat. So child labor, at least in our companies supply chain, really is not something we look at. And we have a policy in place of, hey, here's what we will do if somebody turns up.

Jan: Right.

Christa: But it is not something that we see, whereas we do see people again, typically they have grievance mechanisms on board, but they did not typically have policies and procedures. So that really has been an area focus for the last two years for me.

Jan: What countries do you deal with? Is it more like what countries? Don't you?

Christa: It's a mean. We work with people in the United States. We work with people. Why don't I just start with where we have offices? Sure. So, Tri Marine is owned by Bolton Foods, which is based out of Italy. So technically, we are an Italian company. Our office here in the US is based up in Bellevue. We have offices in Spain. We have a fleet of vessels that is half Spanish, half Ecuadorian. We have an office currently in France, and vessels based out of France. We're in the Solomon Islands. We have a plant in the Solomon Islands, and we have a number of Persian vessels also based out of the Solomons. We have an office in Taiwan. We have an office in China. We have an office in Singapore, one in Thailand. We have a planta, Ecuador, and one in Barranquilla, Colombia. And then we have a trade office in Panama. So, we are buying fish globally? Globally, which is why we handle 10% or so of the global tuna supply. Yeah, but it's people from literally all over.

Jan: What do you enjoy most about your job?

Christa: That's a tough question. I really like working with people on topics that are related to fishing, and I really like having variety. So, the ability to work with fishermen on, really social issues and processing plants. My biggest accomplishment this year is I launched a grievance mechanism for Tri Marine. So just over 5000 employees in all of those locations. Wow. Like I say, offices, processing plants and fishing vessels, which is a big combination of how do you provide coverage for all of those people?

Jan: Sounds like you're an expert.

Christa: It's exciting. I think that that's exciting. So, getting to work with people on that, getting to work with people on environmental through ISSF, getting to work on fisheries management issues. Again, just a different scope and setting of people. So came back earlier in December from the Cook Islands where I was at the WCPFC meeting and just got to see people from all around the Pacific and work on fisheries management, which is not on either of those two topics. But just really, I like that there's variety.

Jan: Yeah.

Christa: And I like that I am really helping support a lot of people in an industry that provides a very healthy, sustainable product.

Jan: Yeah.

Christa: For eating.

Jan: You have a broad reach. It's just like, yeah, right here in seaside.

Christa: I know.

Jan: Who knew? What do you like least about your job?

Christa: That's an even harder question. I really like my, I really, really like what I do. I think maybe the most challenging thing, as opposed to the thing I like the least would be that it is a lot of different time zones. So, I have meetings at like 06:00 a.m. To deal with maybe the east coast or Latin America or Europe. And then I will also end up taking calls at seven, eight, nine, occasionally 10:00 so that I can meet with people in Asia.

Jan: Yeah, that would be challenging.

Christa: And so that is challenging. And, yeah, especially days when it's like, hey, I've got a 06:00 a.m. Meeting that I'm leading and then, oh, wait, my last meeting. Yeah, my last meeting is at 07:00 tonight. So that I think it's a lot of erratic hours and the travel schedule can sometimes make it erratic for people that don't know me to schedule anything because I'm here for two weeks and then I'm out for two weeks and then I'm home for a month. And then very consistent in what I do. And once you're in my schedule, it's very easy to stay in it, but it can be really challenging to organize something new.

Jan: What would you tell someone who might be interested in following this career path?

Christa: I would advise to really think about what it is that you like doing and get kind of a wide range of skills. I'm not necessarily going to say my career path, but I think any career path and then I can get a little more specific. A lot of kids go to college, and they'll say to me, Christa, what degree do you have? And I'm like, well, I have a degree in anthropology. And they're like, wait, what? You've got this great job and it's in fishing. And you're what? And I said, yeah, my advanced degree is in museology. It's the study of being a muse. And they're like, no, it isn't. I'm like, no, seriously. It's actually in museum work and it's in fundraising and development. And I'm like, okay, neither of those have anything to do with commercial fishing. And I'm like, yeah, well, think about colleges. It's an opportunity to go and learn a lot about people and learn a lot about yourself and learn a lot about a lot of different topics. But your major is 40 hours.

Jan: Yeah.

Christa: And 40 hours, if you do 3 hours a week of credit in that, even if you do five of a work week is 40 hours, you're looking at three to five solid weeks in a workforce focused. I'm not talking about getting coffee or checking your email or any of that, but three to five weeks of really focused effort. So when you graduate with a degree in most fields, it isn't a specific of you've got to be having this particular credential. And there's a few exceptions, like teaching. You really do have to have your teaching credential or being a doctor. You really need to be that.

Jan: Right.

Christa: But for a lot of occupations out there, having the degree is something people can't take away from you. It gives you, it's a different skill set, and it could be in a trade. It doesn't have to be college, certainly.

Jan: Right.

Christa: And then get experience. Get experience in as many things as you can. Be open to learning new things. I started out commercial fishing. I did sales and marketing. I wrote the first plan for sustainable MSc certified shrimp processing and tuna processing, which is I didn't know it at the time. I did it because I wanted the ability to sell sustainable products.

Jan: Your experience with marketing helps you understand doing those other skills.

Christa: It does. And then later, when it came time to apply for a sustainability job, even though my experience was in fleet management and my experience was in sales and my experience was in commercial fishing, I had that bit of sustainability experience where people said, oh, okay. And then now that I'm in sustainability, the experience I had in fleet management and the experience I had in working in plants and onboard fishing vessels allows me to do the job to the extent that I'm able to do it right.

Jan: Because you learn to work with people and to understand processes of how things go.

Christa: Yeah. And so that's where I don't think in the seafood industry in particular, there is no set career path. This is not one of those. You go in and you're going to work in a sales job, and then you're going to do this, and then you're going to do this other thing. I literally don't know one single person in the seafood industry that was like, yes, we're going to do.

Jan: That's what we're going to do.

Christa: This is what we're going to do. Now, I know a lot of people like me who, hey, from the time I was like five, there were two jobs I wanted. I wanted a commercial fish, and I wanted to be a fleet manager. Guess what? I've done both of those because the skills that I was working on were going to get me to that particular role. And when the opportunity came, I jumped on it. But there isn't a school for fleet management. Right.

Jan: School of life.

Christa: It is. And there are so many amazing people in the seafood industry. I think because of that, it's diverse, and it is a place where people who really need a second chance have the ability to come in. Right. I mean, if you don't have a perfectly clean background because you did something silly when you were 19 or 20 or maybe 35, I don't know, maybe you're 50, let's not put an age on it. But if you have something going on or you needed to change careers for some reason, if you're willing to put your time in and work hard and engage with others, the opportunity is there for you. And I think that has led to more diversity, really, than anything in terms of who I've worked with, who I've had the opportunity to work with.

Jan: Sounds like fun. I mean, just meeting all kinds of people. I love meeting all kinds of people, finding out what they're doing and interacting and melding all your skills.

Christa: Yeah, it's really fun. I mean, I have friends all over the world. I've been all over the only. I've not been to two continents. I haven't been to Africa, and I haven't been to Antarctica.

Jan: Well, you've got plenty of time.

Christa: I've got plenty of time. And I don't know if Antarctica has really much fishing. I know they do fishing offshore down there, but there's a pretty good chance I could probably get to Africa for really put my mind to it with work and been a lot of places and have enjoyed, really, everybody I've met who live very different lifestyles in a lot of ways, but at the same time, we're all ocean people, and we all have kind of the same value set, which is really interesting to see that globally.

Jan: Yeah. The world is smaller place than it.

Christa: It makes it a lot smaller.

Jan: Yeah. I can't even imagine not having ever gone to another country where you don't. I don't. Everybody needs to go to at least one other country to see how other people have.

Christa: Yeah, it's definitely eye opening.

Jan: Yeah.

Christa: And it's fun to see it change, meaning over time. It's really fun to see how different places integrate technology.

Jan: Yeah. That would be interesting, too. Okay, well, thanks for joining us today. If you enjoyed this or any other of my podcast episodes, it would be amazing if you would take a few minutes to leave a review so others can find it. Transcripts are available on my website at jan-johnson.com. Please join me again next week.