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Seafood NGOs have a lovely view from their ivory tower

Last week's gathering of NGOs, industry and government in Thailand revealed a disquieting disconnect in the real battle for change.

Once upon a time, there was a princess who lived in a beautiful, tall, ivory tower, dining on line-caught Maldives tuna and tossing out handfuls of gold stars to all those who bowed down at the palace doors.

Then, one day, the Thai fishing industry came along, dirty and scarred and deeply entrenched in the worst kinds of human rights abuses. She knew there was no gold star to give them, and her fountain of advice ran dry in the face of such adversity. So she left it to the business community and the Thai government to begin the real work of mending the industry while she watched, quietly murmuring something about labeling. The End.

And herein lies one of the biggest shifts I have witnessed in the seafood sector to date.

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Attending the Seaweb Seafood Summit last week, a disquieting reshuffling of dynamics bubbled to the surface in panel discussion after panel discussion.

Diminished now is the chatter about traceability, labeling and processing standards. Now, it is unsettling and important conversations around slavery, human rights and protection of an environment deep in climate disaster.

This is the big stuff, the gritty underbelly of the international seafood industry that desperately needs to be scrubbed clean, and many of the NGOs are out of their depth.

The NGO community that has in the past driven these meetings and attempted to beat industry into submission with salacious press stories and admonishments, played a dumbed-down role at last week's gathering, with just a few standing out with a real voice and understanding of the complexities at play.

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They still occupied half the seats in the room, but from my perspective and some of the other delegates I spoke with, a grinding disconnect has developed between the somewhat repetitive bleating of some sections of the NGO community and the very real, very hard and very earnest work being done by business and government attending the event.

The fact it took place in Bangkok played a large role in this. The Thai seafood sector, with incredible drive and commitment from the Thai government, has marched headlong down a path that has a genuine chance of transforming one of the largest seafood industries in the world.

Whether you believe that has only happened through trade necessity -- the EU yellow card certainly turned some heads -- or out of the goodness of people's hearts, is largely irrelevant. Because there is no doubt that the work that is now taking place in the Thai seafood industry is heartfelt and stubborn in its push for change.

What's more, in a country steeped in social hierarchy and construct, there is a real sense that great shifts in thinking and tradition have had to be made to enable these changes.

These are changes on which the rest of the world -- yes, even in "developed" nations -- still has some way to go, which is what made the instructional and increasingly irrelevant demands of some of the largely western NGO bodies so much more painful to endure at last week's conference sessions.

With the long-fought structures of climate and social change in the United States being rapidly unpicked by the current government and those who voted for it, and similar crises reflected in European nations, it feels patronizing for some NGOs to come to these meetings with the same messages they have been spouting for the last decade.

The seafood kingdom has, for them, been a rosy place for many years now. When you dance barefoot and free in the golden palace of NGO-dom, occasionally leaving to build someone a mud hut they don't want, you are righteous and good, and paid to be so. Businesses, on the other hand, are money-grabbing and thoughtless, thinking of nothing but lining their coffers.

"When you dance barefoot and free in the golden palace of NGO-dom, occasionally leaving to build someone a mud hut they don't want, you are righteous and good, and paid to be so."

But last week, for me, with some clear frustration, this institutionalized dynamic came very much unstuck.

This is not to say that all seafood companies are good and that all NGOs are bad. Far from it. There are many, many disreputable seafood companies and there were, at last week's summit, several standout NGOs who seemed to have taken the time and effort to really understand the route of the problems they so vehemently publicize, come to the table with feasible solutions or funding, and give credit to those working hard to improve practices.

I strongly believe there is a role for NGOs in the sector. But business and government have shown that they are where the real driving force needs to come from to really take hold of some of the most important challenges facing the sector. They need an NGO community that tugs on the supply chain for change, but also understands the complexities and culture of what is being dealt with.

Whacking industry with a stick and then handing out barely negligible rewards no longer makes a difference. It is time to come down from your towers and get your hands dirty with the real, frustrating and expensive work at hand. It is one thing to ask the hard questions and then retreat. It is another to create alliances and forge actual change.

Email comments and Letters to: rachel.mutter@intrafish.com

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