Portrait of Tammy Strobel
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ALLEN TO, assistant manager of WWF’s Footprint programme, remembers recruiting F&B outlets for Asia’s first Sustainable Seafood Week in Hong Kong back in 2011: only nine Western restaurants in the upscale SoHo area showed interested, despite having already rolled out its Ocean Friendly Menu Programme – which encouraged more conscious selections over shark fin – in hotels and restaurants over a year before. 

Fast forward to 2015, his network expanded to 114 and includes local cha chan tangs, fast food chains and other grass- root outlets. In the time between, he’s also witnessed successful outcomes with similar events in Singapore (which has also published a sustainable seafood guide and saw 40 supporting restaurants last year), Japan and Mainland China. 

“Despite the growing trend, sustainable seafood is still very much a niche market among hotels, suppliers and restaurants. We know it’ll never become mainstream; but we see a substantial increase in choices as well as the stability in the supply of sustainable seafood because of rising demand,” says To, whose programme specifically looks at ecological footprints, shark fin consumption and sustainable seafood. 

Though overfishing is not a new global problem, change is snail- paced because sustainable items in both restaurants and supermarkets were 30 to 50 per cent more expensive less than a decade ago; and only 10 to 15 per cent of the global wild-caught seafood comes from fisheries engaged in the Marine Stewardship Council, the international non- profit organisation that fights the cause. 

Yet, it’s an issue hitting closer and closer to home. In a recent study by The University of British Columbia (UBC) Fisheries Economic Research Unit on the South China Sea, the current seafood consumption and fishery practices will result in up to almost 60% population decline in all fish and invertebrate groups by 2045, with Asian favourites – groupers and sharks – most affected; coral reefs have also been declining at a rate of 16% per decade; and certain species like dugongs – which used to be abundant along the coast of Thailand, Malaysia and southern China – are now rarely found. 

So despite being a late-comer, Asia is still seeing improvements: on top of annual WWF Sustainable Seafood Weeks around the region, November 2015 saw the first Kin Hong Festival (which translates to “healthy” in Chinese) headed by Ocean Recovery Alliance and ADM Capital Foundation. With similar goals as WWF’s initiatives, it has recruited close to 30 participating outlets ranging from the likes of local hubs like Mexican taco chain Cali-Mex and the Chinese University of Hong Kong to even the superstars of hospitality such as Ocean Park Hong Kong, Four Seasons Hotel Hong Kong, Grand Hyatt Hong Kong and The Landmark Oriental. 

In fact, luxury hoteliers are, surprisingly, at the forefront of this movement: nine Hilton Worldwide hotels across Beijing and Shanghai joined China’s Sustainable Seafood Festival last year, for example, making it the largest number of participating hotels from a single company. The group also nominated its two award-winning Italian restaurants, Il Cielo and Glow Juice Bar and Café to partake in the Singapore event in 2014. 

Fairmont Hotels & Resorts Worldwide, meanwhile, has ousted threatened fish species like Chilean sea bass and blue fin tuna from its global menus to make way for sustainable options since 2009. As well, Shangri-La group was also one of the few pioneers to replace shark fin with sustainable seafood on its worldwide offerings. 

“We knew that removing shark fin from the menu wasn’t enough. We asked ourselves, what is the next step in protecting the environment?” says Yui Ku, director of corporate social responsibility and Sustainability of Shangri-La International Hotel Management Ltd. “When it comes to sustainable seafood, it’s a supply and demand issue. Finding suppliers was a very difficult problem back in 2010 to 2011, so we have to look at how to entice the suppliers to look for more. This is not a perfect world, but we have to understand the market shift.” 

Though she says switching to a completely sustainable menu is still something on the horizon, it’s the first step forward that matters. 

“The biggest thing to look at is to start something, to move towards the goal and hope that others – whether it be suppliers or guests or hotels – follow suit. More demand, more supply, the customers will get the idea.” 

Yet aside from awareness on the consumer and supplier levels Rashid Sumaila, principal investigator of the UBC study, argues that a big portion of the responsibility should go back to the government. 

“Of course, it’s important for the private sector to be curious about where the food comes from, but it’s the political wheel that should 

be moving to turn the issue into a serious matter: the fishing sector obviously doesn’t want to slow down; and the public may not be properly informed or aware of the consequences of sustainability. So it’s on the government’s onus to push education, push awareness,” he says, citing past success stories such as the protected Coral Triangle in Southeast Asia as well as The Salmon Treaty established between the United States and Canada. 

“China and Japan and other Asian cities, yes, consumers there may be harder to get through, but you can’t blame everything on culture. Culture is dynamic. China has already shown improvements on staying away from shark fin, for instance.” 

WWF’s To, however, suggests a more holistic approach. “All the sectors need to work hand in hand, but, admittedly, the public is where discussion, debate and persuasion is most powerful. Companies have a lot of power to produce proper food. But to be honest, anywhere we can drive change, that’s considered the important sector for us.”