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Global Aquaculture Alliance chief sees new opportunities emerging for the sector

From wild fisheries to fish farming to seafood buyers, the new CEO of the Global Aquaculture Alliance sees a continuum of forward movement for the seafood sector, and a critical role for aquaculture in the future if it can get organized, he tells IntraFish.

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Andrew Mallison is just one year in as CEO of the Global Aquaculture Alliance (GAA), and while the learning curve has been steep, he sees a logical progression in both his career and the forward movement of the aquaculture sector.

Up until he joined GAA, Mallison’s background and education primary focused on wild fisheries.

He joined GAA from IFFO, the Marine Ingredients Organisation, where he served as director general for seven years. Prior to that he spent a stint with the Marine Stewardship Council (MSC) as director of standards and licensing. But increasingly, wild fisheries and aquaculture are part of the same continuum, Mallison noted.

“It wasn’t as difficult a transition as you might think. The work at IFFO was so closely linked to the aquaculture industry,” Mallison told IntraFish. “I often found myself talking about aquaculture as a long-term success story to then say, ‘Here’s why you need these feed ingredients.’”

Though Mallison spent years with UK retailer Marks & Spencer, the scale of the US food sector in particular and the unique demands seafood purchasers have in the country have been among his most eye-opening experiences at GAA.

“Working with the big market drivers – buyers such as Walmart, Sysco and US Foods – has been the biggest area of learning for me,” he said.

“Sitting across the table and talking sustainable strategies and how we could help them with that is quite different than dealing with it theoretically.”

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From the outside, GAA’s mission seems in-line with several NGOs, Mallison said. But behind its success is what he sees as a “slightly different DNA.”

“Something I’ve come to realize is that we often talk about sustainability of the environment but leave aside the social and economic requirements,” Mallison said. “GAA has been built on business principles, not conservation funding, so there’s an aspect of understanding issues like continuity of supply.”

Continuity is a big part of any retail business, Mallison said. Speaking from experience as a retail buyer, a disruption in supply can quickly become a crisis.

Harnessing growth

GAA, which was founded in 1997, has been on a steady growth path, first by serving as a loose association of aquaculture producers, then a meeting place for aquaculture producers and buyers, a clearinghouse for aquaculture information and, eventually, a certification scheme.

Though the group has staffed up substantially to serve all areas of that chain, it’s the certification aspect that’s proven the real growth driver, both in scale and scope.

The 2,430 BAP-certified facilities through March this year -- 156 new facilities in the first quarter alone -- are on pace to match or pass last year's growth, which was up 29 percent from the year prior.

By the end of the year, it's likely BAP-certified facilities will be more than four times higher than they were in 2014. The 1,642 BAP-certified farms produce around 1.65 million metric tons of seafood annually.

So for Mallison, it wasn’t an organization that needed a turnaround. It was an organization that needed, well, organizing.

“I thought I knew a bit about GAA before I joined it, but I knew about half of what goes on under the hood. There’s an incredible amount of projects going on, and that’s been a function of rapid growth,” he said.

“There’s a lot being started, and the organization has been growing incredibly quickly in the last five years. What I wanted to do was to give it some framework – that wasn’t needed when it was just five people, but now we’re 75 people.”

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One of the areas Mallison has put focus on is robust traceability systems, which are rapidly becoming more important to buyers than simply certified seafood.

“There are buyers who want to dive right into this,” Mallison said. “But we’re looking at the best way to move forward with it, given new developments in software and blockchain.”

Two years ago GAA began working with a process it calls "supply chain transparency" to meet the expanding demands of traceability, which cross-checks volumes purchased against what’s produced in Best Aquaculture Practices (BAP) certified facilities.

“If they’re buying more than the certified production, then obviously there’s a problem,” Mallison said. “But sometimes farms are actually producing more volumes than a buyer expects, and we’re able to say, ‘Look, you could actually source more responsibly farmed seafood.’”

Cutting the red tape

Mallison is also trying to spearhead solutions to a common complaint from buyers and industry: the massive administrative burden of meeting sustainability commitments and certifications. GAA is currently reaching out to convene executives from the Aquaculture Stewardship Council (ASC), the MSC, Seafood Fishery Partnership, Seafood Watch and others to discuss how groups can work together to address this.

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“We want to know how we can bring efficiency into the process. There are a lot of standards with specialist areas, but there are a lot of common areas as well,” Mallison said.

“You’ll have much in ASC standards that is within BAP standards. Can you afford to be equivalent? I think there is an area to explore, but I don’t know what that conversation will be. Hopefully we can make some way toward efficiency.”

It’s not just industry that’s having the discussion, Mallison said.

“There’s a bit of pressure on NGOs from funders that recognize the issue, such as Packard and Walton,” Mallison said. “They see the need for NGOs to work together to prevent duplication.”

The “standards wars” that marked the earlier rush among bodies to be the certification of choice has largely subsided, Mallison said, and as competitive as GAA wants to be, it welcomes the diversity.

“There needs to be choice – the market has a varying set of demands,” Mallison said. “You’ll have some that want to [focus] on the environmental end, such as ASC, MSC and WWF. If that suits the brand values and consumer messaging, great. Others will be looking for a more practical solution. We have to respect that there will always be different requirements.”

Building consumer confidence

Mallison sees his mission in a larger sense of encouraging a message to consumers that there are multiple ways to consume sustainable seafood, and a plentiful supply of options on the market.

“I think the goal of certification has to be to give the market confidence to buy seafood,” he said. “At the moment we have a confusion and a little bit of scare tactics. We’re putting people off seafood, which is unfortunate.”

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The irony is that aquaculture is uniquely positioned to offer a far more sustainable protein, as evidenced by recent comparisons. Mallison pointed to the recent United Nations Climate Report, which highlighted that catastrophic weather events are expected to increase, with land-based agriculture poised to take the brunt of the changes.

“If we look at the future for seafood, it’s all going the right direction, not just from a climate change perspective but also to supply food security,” he said.

“How do we take the fear out of it? The certification should give that assurance that consumers can buy seafood with confidence. Ultimately and ideally, they should not be concerned about social and environmental impacts when they buy seafood.”

That is, in a larger sense, what Mallison’s and GAA’s role is ultimately about.

“Our vision is to convene markets, buyers and suppliers in a pre-competitive space to promote responsible seafood,” Mallison said. “All the assurance in the world is meaningless if we can’t stimulate demand and take away fear from consumers. If we can get our act together, the future is amazing.”

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