Subsumed by Fish: A Conversation with Julie Kuchepatov of Fair Trade Seafood

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This interview blog was transcribed from the OCTOPOD podcast episode here. Not all of the podcast episode has been presented in this transcript so please go give the episode a listen.

Julie Kuchepatov is the Seafood Director at Fair Trade USA and we had the pleasure of talking with her about her path to this position and what her position entails. 

OCTOPOD
Can you tell us what Fair Trade is?

JULIE
Fair Trade is the leading fair trade certifier of products in North America and so we're a certification. You might have heard of Fair Trade coffee, Fair Trade tea. There's upwards of 30 products that are now certified according to our standards, which are rigorous and include social, economic and environmental criteria. The products that are certified, again, are various - from coffee to tea, sugar, cocoa, sports balls, wine, and seafood is our newest standard at fair trade. So we're celebrating our fifth year anniversary this year. We have what's called the capture fisheries standard and we certify small to mid-scale fisheries, wild capture fisheries according to our, again, rigorous standard. And we make sure that the products that are certified have sufficient support on the market, on the US market so people can enjoy them.

OCTOPOD
You said rigorous standards, so what exactly is the process of certifying the seafood?

JULIE
There are nuances of course, but in terms of a fishery wanting to get certified, if they think that they can get certified, if they think that they can pass the standard and adhere to the standard and maintain it, then they would put in an application to a third party assessment body, which is called a CAB. And they're the auditing body. So they get an application and then they arrange to have an audit. So an in-person audit happens, the auditor takes our standard and has a series of checks and balances that they have to do and interviews that they have to conduct with people involved in the fishery and in the supply chain and in the primary processing facility, which is the first processor after harvest. That's also included in our standards. So not only do we certify fishermen and the products that they harvest and produce, but also the primary processing workers are included in our standard. So they go through the audit and they could quite possibly have what are called nonconformances, which are things that they have to address in order to adhere to the standard or pass the certification. So, you know, those could range from maybe there's insufficient data about what's called bycatch. That's the fish that their accidentally catching throughout the course of their harvest. There might need to be more information about what their catching besides the target. They might not have a plan in place about how to be organized. In a fair trade certification there's an organizational component. So all fishermen have to be organized either in a co-op or an association and that's in order to manage what's called the community development funds or the premium, which is money that the fishermen get back for every sale of Fair Trade product that's sold. So this little premium gets aggregated and given back to this fishing organization. Either they have a co-op or an association and then they decide how to spend that money for the needs of their community and their fishery and their people. So it's really about empowering them to make decisions with this money for the good of the fishery and the community.

OCTOPOD
That is really cool. So do you know of any specific projects or anything that have come about because of that money?

JULIE
Yeah, sure. What they spend that money on is really what is generating the impact. And that's what we like to give back and let people know about, because as a consumer you're going to the store and you're going to buy, let's just say Fair Trade shrimp, and there's that premium on there. So you know that with your purchase you've contributed money back to that fishery. And they're investing that in things like community improvement projects, like beach cleanups, mitigation of turtle habitat destruction. Indonesian fishermen have invested in savings accounts for children, the local children. They've invested in beautifying their community spaces and their mosques. Each community there has a mosque, so they've improved lighting. They've invested in ice to keep their product cold enough to get a higher price potentially because the quality is assured and taken care of. So there's a myriad of projects that the fishermen have invested in and that's really what this program is about. It's about generating that premium and the community development funds to generate the impact that goes back into the communities. And I'm proud to say, I will say our program is pretty new, five years relatively and communities cumulatively earned an additional almost 1.5 million dollars since the inception of the program. So that's a lot of money that's been given back to them.

OCTOPOD
Do you know off the top of your head around how many communities participate in this?

JULIE
Oh, that's a really good question. I don't know the exact number, but I can tell you the communities and the fisheries that are certified. We have Mexican shrimp, Alaskan Salmon - Alaskan salmon communities, some of them are certified I think there's three communities there. Then we have some New England scallop fisheries in the US that are certified, and then Maldivian skipjack and Yellowfin tuna, as well as Solomon Islands tuna. That's one of our newest certifications and it hasn't even hit the market yet. So there's several fishing communities and products that are certified.

OCTOPOD
And then how do you know it's certified? What's your logo look like?

JULIE
Yeah, the thing about it is that consumers have to know that this product has been certified. So yes, there's a logo component to it and it's kind of a round green circle with a silhouette of a person holding a bucket or a basket. It could also say Fair Trade Certified on it. And so that's how you know. If the product has been certified, you will find the Fair Trade Certified logo on there.

OCTOPOD
You recently went to meet some of these communities, right? Can you tell us about that trip?

JULIE
Yeah, I've actually had the opportunity to visit two certified communities. One was the Mexican shrimp fishery and the other was an Indonesian yellowfin tuna fishery. And I went there at the end of last year. It was an amazing, amazing opportunity. I happened to be in Indonesia for a conference called Our Oceans Conference that happens annually and it happened to be in Indonesia this year, it changes every year. So I was there for that and I said, you know, since I'm here I absolutely have to go out and visit a fishery and see what's actually happening on the ground and how that looks. And it was a trek for sure, it took planes and trains and automobiles and ferries to get there, but it was so worth it because I was able to meet about five or six Fair Trade Certified communities that fish for tuna and they're all in various stages of the program. Some are brand new to the program, some have been in the program from the very beginning. It was really great to see the level of engagement and it's almost like a competition between them. One of the newer ones was like, we want to be like the one down the block, you know, there are probably 10 miles in between each other, but they aspire to be more advanced and further along in the program and it was really, really inspiring. A couple takeaways is the distance of that fish and how far it travels to our plates in the US is insane. And the amount of work that goes into catching and caring for the fish and the harvest and all the post-harvest activities that take place. It's truly incredible and I can't believe it works.

OCTOPOD
What's the typical size of one of these fishing communities?

JULIE
Well it depends. So not everybody in the community is a part, not everybody chooses to be part of the program, but they can range from eight people to 40 people. It just depends on, I think if it's a newer cooperative or a newer association there might be fewer people because they're just, they're still, they don't understand it as much as others who might be further along in the program. But once they see the benefits of being part of this co-op and being united in a voice to be able to negotiate for fuel better or to negotiate with a buyer of their product better because there's power and strength in numbers eventually more people will join. And that's the hope is that ultimately we have everyone in a community as part of the fishery association, the Fair Trade Fishery Association.

OCTOPOD
So how can people support this other than buying Fair Trade seafood. Is there anything else people can do in addition to that?

JULIE
Yeah, I mean that's the number one. The number one thing that people can do is look for the Fair Trade logo at the seafood counter or in the frozen seafood aisle at your grocery store. So that's number one. I would also add that we're part of a larger sustainable seafood movement and we're not the silver bullet to solve all of the issues in the oceans and so we do a lot of work collaboratively with other certifications and ratings and we want to make sure that people not only look for the Fair Trade logo but also are aware of other options and other things that are out there. Because there are a lot of other great choices out there that are robust and third party certified and scientifically based and really supportive. I would say definitely what you can do besides looking for a Fair Trade logo on seafood, you can also ask the seafood counter or the person at the market - do you know where the seafood is from? If there's no logo on it, do you know where the seafood came from? What do you know about this product? That's really important that the consumer tries to engage and understand as much as they can about the fish that they're putting on their table. Because not only are environmental issues acute in global fisheries, but there's increasingly more awareness of social issues like human rights abuses and child labor and forced labor in seafood supply chains and traceability of a product is really key. And making sure you know where this product came from is absolutely critical.

OCTOPOD
Do you have a website that shows retailers of Fair Trade?

JULIE
Yeah, we do on our Fair Trade website fairtradecertified.org you can find all information about all Fair Trade products, not just seafood. You can find on there where to buy and what retailers support Fair Trade certified seafood right now. And if your local retailer doesn't have Fair Trade certified seafood, I would suggest you ask them to. That's another thing that consumers can do is they can actually ask their retailers to start selling Fair Trade certified seafood.

OCTOPOD
So now, so let's move back in your career. How did you get to this position as Seafood Director at Fair Trade USA, I was reading your LinkedIn and I saw that you worked in Russian fisheries for a long time and you ran a sport fishing lodge?

JULIE
I was on a team, so it was really fun. I am actually based in Portland, Oregon and I came about fisheries work and conservation and social justice in a really roundabout way. Out of my peers that I work with in this space in the sustainable seafood movement. I am not a diver. I didn't grow up around the ocean. I am not a scientist or a biologist. I did not come from that realm. So I did Russian studies in high school and it was my major in college and so I was trying to do everything I could to get to Russia. And especially since this was around the time when the Soviet Union fell and everything was open and it was just like this wide open door for discovery. So I was working in Portland with a gal who her and her husband had started this fishing lodge up in the Russian Arctic on the West coast of Russia, on the Bering Sea kind of by Finland. So I was kind of always harassing them to hire me and they finally did. They hired me and this other guy from San Francisco, his name's Maurice and we both went out there to kind of take over the management of this fly fishing lodge. And it's above the Arctic circle and the 69th parallel. It's an amazing river and it's a very, very, very prolific wild Atlantic Salmon River. And the cool thing about Atlantic salmon is that they are repeat spawners. So they're not like Pacific salmon who spawn once and then die. But these guys spawn multiple times. So you could catch the same fish over a course of three or four years. This lodge was pretty incredible. It was very remote and it's still there to this day. You can go and fish there if you have the money. It's expensive to get there. But they started a conservation program, so the anglers themselves with their guides would tag the fish. And I learned a lot from that, just about the conservation of the resource and how we can track these fish and see where they're going. And so I ended up, I stopped working. I worked there for 13 years and then I ended up back in Portland and I went to Grad school. And then I was like, well, I need to get a job. So I ended up at Wild Salmon Center, which is here in Portland, which is a conservation organization that focuses on Pacific salmon around the Pacific Rim. So in Russia, Japan, and then Alaska and the lower 48. And their concentration is really focused on protecting the last best places where wild salmon still thrive. I was there for quite a while and I was working in the sustainable fisheries department, which was really two people, so I guess it's a department, but we were working with fisheries that actually weren't in great shape and we were working with commercial fisheries that had high instances of IUU, which is illegal, unreported and unregulated harvest of fish and so there was a lot of things that we were doing over there to get these Russian salmon fisheries into environmental initiatives and fishery improvement projects and Marine Stewardship Council certifications. And I did that for many years and we had a lot of great successes. It was a really, really, really tough gig for sure. It's like herding cats, but they're actually fishermen. But the thing about that place was, you know, my colleague at the time, he said, "you know, fisheries management is really about managing people. It's not about fish." And so that's why, although I didn't have such a large knowledge to draw from about fisheries management, I still work really well with people and we were able to convince a lot of people to come on kind of a sustainability journey with us and it was great and a lot of those activities are still going on to this day. So I'm proud of that legacy. So throughout the course of that work, like I said, we were really focused on environmental sustainability initiatives. I, over time, became more and more convinced that anything that happens in a fishery is happening because people are behind it and we are not paying enough attention to people. Why are they poaching? Why is this happening and how can we take people into account? At about that same time, I was thinking that, it was an evolution of course, but around that time there was a couple of things that happened. There were a lot of AP articles and Guardian articles kind of showcasing and spotlighting human trafficking and slave labor in seafood supply chains. So that kind of confirmed like, yeah, this stuff is happening and we need to expand our definition of what is sustainable because if we're focusing only on environmental sustainability, we're forgetting about the social and the economic, which should be a part. To me that's the true definition of sustainability. So the second thing that happened around that time, or the third thing I guess is that Fair Trade USA released their capture fishery standard and I was like, yes, that's for me and that's how I ended up at Fair Trade.

OCTOPOD
That's quite the story. I can imagine you'd get really good at wrangling people working at a fishing lodge too.

JULIE
Yeah, that was really intense. It was tourists and a lot of very wealthy tourists. Bears, I mean the same stuff that you see in Alaska. Bears, moose and caribou reindeer, but they had a ton of fish and they still do so and it's really well managed. So that's, that's pretty amazing. There's no roads there, so you have to fly everything in by helicopter and it's pretty remote. It's an incredible feat of logistics for sure. So I mentioned that I was working on environmental sustainability initiatives in Russia and I was specifically working with pink salmon fisheries on Sakhalin Island and Sakhalin Island is the big island right off the coast of Russia on the eastern coast of Russia. It's the island that's north of the northern most island of Japan. So it's just right above there, but it's Russia. Commercial fisheries are all over the place. And I was doing a lot of work there and we worked with one company who were very vertically integrated. So that means that they ran the fishery, they harvested the fish, they had a processing facility that would process the fish, and then they handled all the sales and distribution of the fish. So we were working with this company really closely to, again, to get them into some environmental sustainability initiatives. This company had a processing facility and they had a contract with the local police or the local authorities to process any fish that was confiscated from being illegally harvested. If the fish was still viable for human consumption the police would bring this fish to this processing facility and they would process it and then give it to orphanages or old folks homes or you know, to people in need that could eat the fish. So that was a really great project and I thought that was wonderful and one day, and bear in mind I'm still thinking about how we've got to start thinking about people. We can't just keep people out of the equation. Like we need to to start thinking about people that are involved in these fisheries and why are they doing things to hurt the fisheries. So I'm thinking about this too. So one day at this processing facility, the police tow a car up and the car, if you can imagine, is a Russian brand car, but it's about the size of one of those little mini coopers or a little Fiat, you know, those really small ones. At the wheel of the car is a guy and he's completely subsumed by fresh salmon. His arms are pinned to his side and he cannot drive. He's stuck and he's got fish up to his shoulders. He can't get out. So the cops tow him to this processing facility and everyone kind of files out of the processing facility to see what's going on. And they're laughing, right? Because this poor guy is stuck at the wheel of the car, can't move his arms because he's basically subsumed by a ton of fish. So what happened was this guy was part of an illegal harvest operation, a poacher, and he had taken out that kind of the trunk part of the car. And then he also took out all the back seats of this car, it kind of created a well. And then he put this flimsy piece of plywood in between the driver's seat and this back well part and then they filled this well up with salmon that they illegally harvested, or that they poached. So this guy goes on his way, he comes to the first stop light or stop sign, hits the brakes and a ton, a metric ton of fish just breaches the plywood and basically subsumes him. He can't move, his arms are pinned so he can't move. I imagine he's stuck at one of those four way clashing stops. Essentially what happened was, you know, the rivers on Sakhalin are really, really small. They have a lot of them, but they're really, really small and they go up from south to north or north to south. Each run of salmon in each river has it's own distinct run of salmon. So this fish that's in this car could very well represent an entire run of salmon. So that means that this salmon has been taken out of the ecosystem. It will no longer spawn, it will no longer feed any of the other 137 species that depend on salmon, including humans. So the environmental implications are very clear, right? So this is salmon that's been taken out of the ecosystem. It could be its own distinct run. It won't feed anybody in the future. So then I'm thinking about the social implications of this, right? Because that to me becomes even more urgent. Why did this guy do this? What drove this guy to commit such acts?

There's many well-documented and well-researched reasons why people participate in illegal fisheries. So, you know, it could be, they don't care about the consequences. It could be he is from a neighboring state, from the former Soviet Union, and had to come out far east to make some money and make his way. He could have been kidnapped for all we know. We don't know. There are multiple reasons why someone would participate in this. So, thinking about this story and kind of putting that on top of what I was already thinking about really drove the point home to me that I need to be part of something that actually takes all of these social, economic and environmental issues holistically because we can't separate them out and just try to address them a little bit at a time independently.

OCTOPOD
That's just such an important point to make, how much fair trade helps with human rights abuses, obviously in the fishery sector, and other agricultural sectors as well, you know, it's not just limited to fisheries at all.

JULIE
Exactly. And the tough thing with fisheries is that unfortunately, it's so difficult to audit a ship that's out at sea, like an industrial vessel that is out at sea for years at a time and it possibly could never come into port because they do what's called transshipping. So another boat will come up and they'll put the fish that they caught onto this other boat and that boat will go in. This boat that's out at sea for so long, we can't audit that. And unfortunately, that's something that Fair Trade can't help with right now because our scope is not those large industrial vessels and distant fleet fisheries. It's really a problem. The thing about Fair Trade is yes, we do look at wages and working conditions and safety and contracts. Like how are workers hired? Because that's where a lot of issues happen in terms of slave labor and forced labor. So we want to make sure to avoid those situations. But our scope is small scale coastal fisheries and the reason why that's our scope is because these long distance fleets and industrial scale fisheries are very, very difficult to monitor. And it's almost impossible to go on one of those and enforce something. And that's the nut that needs to be cracked by the sustainable seafood movement is how can we effectively monitor and audit these long distance, giant vessels that are out for years at a time without ever coming into port. And that's where most of the egregious human rights violations occur.

So we're not the the tool to solve these large scale issues, but we are a piece of a solution and again, working collaboratively with others in the sustainable seafood movement and ocean conservation even, eventually we hope to solve these issues that are happening on our open seas.

You can follow along with Julie on Twitter at @seacuterie

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