Crystal Sanders has a diversified background in marine science, ocean conservation and sustainable fisheries. As Founder of Fish Revolution, she helps industry members incorporate seafood sustainability into their business models by focusing on the unique needs of their company. By working with industry members Sanders has shifted millions of dollars in annual revenue away from unsustainable species and increased sustainable seafood wholesale purchases and sales to consumers. She keenly understands the intersection of science, sustainability, and business needs of all stakeholders in the seafood supply chain. She is passionate about integrating business solutions that ensure ocean health by facilitating navigation of seafood sustainability.
Sea Delight: Sustainable seafood is an industry for the future. Maintaining a healthy ocean with responsibly sourced fish is simply good business. What attracted you to the seafood business in the first place?
Crystal Sanders: I am a Marine & Fisheries Biologist by training. I became interested in sustainable seafood while working in Fisheries Management and observing inefficiencies of government in preserving our fish populations, fishing communities, and connecting the public to their seafood. Through some soul searching on how to personally have more of a positive impact I came to the conclusion that I should be educating consumers and seafood buyers about their seafood choices. After all, the fish we pull out of the water are defined to be eaten. Through working with consumers, naturally they came to the question “where do I buy my fish then?”I didn’t have many answers for them. That is what led me to working with chefs and other members of the seafood supply chain who purchase large volumes of seafood to sell to consumers.
SD: The seafood industry is a significant contributor to the world’s growing need for healthy sustainable food. Why is sustainability important to you?
CS: I truly love the fishes in the sea, and I love the ocean. There are so many amazing species of fish that provide not only delicious food for us, but valuable role in the ocean ecosystem. Sustainability is important to me because I want to make sure that this and future generations can stand on the shores or swim in the salty waters and know that below the surface is a healthy and thriving ecosystem that provides us with nourishment, oxygen, and so much more! We do not exist without healthy oceans.
SD: What are some of the projects you are currently working on that will enhance the future of the seafood industry?
CS: I work with a growing number of chefs and restaurants who are striving to increase the amount of sustainable seafood on their menus. We take a collaborative approach to determine their baseline and develop a strategy to implement seafood sustainability into their business practices. Working from a place of non-judgement and flexibility we can make changes that work well for the business and make impacts throughout the supply chain.
We will soon launch two diner programs Seaworthy Seafood Salons & Seafood Stories Dinner Series in partnership with Fine & Rare. Seaworthy Seafood Salons will be a mobile dining experience in which we host educational seafood diners around the Bay Area to highlight our culinary talent and unite people around the dinner table to help the oceans. The Seafood Stories Dinner series is a monthly (to start) dining event highlighting seafood sustainability and opportunities for diners to engage in improvements in the seafood supply chain. Each dinner will focus on the stories around a specific species, fishermen, chef, and hot topics in ocean conservation. We will gather around the dinner table to understand issues impacting our oceans and how we as a culinary community can work for positive change that benefits the environment, people, and keeps delicious seafood on our dinner tables. Seafood Stories will feature guest chefs creating multi-course dinners illustrating the stories of the evening. The dinners will be co-hosted by Fine & Rare and Fish Revolution with proceeds from both the Seafood Salons and Seafood Stories series benefiting Fish Revolution.
I am developing project proposals to bring some of the lessons learned on the West Coast in seafood sustainability to Gulf Coast of Texas. I was raised here and moved away almost ten years ago and have seen very little change in how seafood is bought and sold or the role seafood sustainability plays in those decisions. I visit my home town of Corpus Christi and have been lied to about the seafood on my plate by servers who are scared to say “I don’t know.’ I have researched the amounts of seafood Texas imports (from areas including China, Thailand, Vietnam) and the numbers are absolutely outrageous. Many of the imports are seafood that is available in Texas waters. This is detrimental to the local economies and communities. I feel a personal responsibility to at least start pushing that conversation forward in the Gulf region.
I am currently looking into creating a few technology tools that can help streamline both the work I do as well as that of the industry members I work with.
SD: The seafood industry is one of the most complex global systems in the world because it’s about feeding people. What has been your biggest challenge working in the industry in general and also addressing sustainable seafood?
CS: An overall challenge is making sure that fishermen feel heard, included, and valued. Non-profits, government, and scientist actions often do not explicitly include the input of fishermen who risk their lives to put food on our tables and whose livelihoods depend on healthy oceans. Oftentimes decisions are made by people on a high level who have rarely, if ever, set foot onto the deck of a fishing vessel or spend time out at sea. I feel this is a huge missed opportunity to engage fishermen in conservation and nearsightedness in overlooking the valuable knowledge of those who spend the most time in and on the water. This draws a divide amongst stakeholders and makes fishermen and industry members resentful of management and conservation efforts, and rightly so. Fishermen have been constantly told “Do this because I said so” under the heavy hand of regulators and often do not feel heard or valued as stakeholders in healthy oceans, but have everything to lose when our fisheries decline. A more collaborative approach to regulation, management, and conservation is necessary. We are starting to see more of this, but it needs to be amplified and at a heightened pace.
The oceans and the seafood industry are so complex that I don’t think there is a “Silver Bullet” answer to addressing sustainable seafood. Which is why it hasn’t been done. One of the biggest challenge of addressing sustainable seafood overall I would say has been the general resistance for the industry to change. Seafood is an old school industry that is still mostly run with handwritten orders placed over a nightly voicemail. There are huge inefficiencies in this not only for labor management, but also in traceability and tracking what fish came from what boat, where and how it was caught. All information that is necessary to determine the sustainability and impact of a fishery. There are localized working examples of how we can implement these systems, but we must get all players in the supply chain to agree to use a traceability system that is compatible throughout the supply chain. We also need to work to tighten our labeling laws and what information is required to be given to the consumer when purchasing seafood. There are huge loopholes in our Country of Origin labeling as well as other labeling that prevent consumers from knowing exactly what they were buying and if it is causing harm to our oceans.
SD: The best leaders are lifelong learners. What have you learned most recently that has made an impact on your career?
CS: I learn something every time I meet someone new in the industry. Each industry member is unique and has unique business needs. My background is heavy in science but the biggest, and most rewarding, area of knowledge I have accumulated most recently has been in the culinary sector. I would have never described myself as a “foodie” but I have developed an undying appreciation for food and quality ingredients. Working with so many talented chefs with unlimited creativity who are willing to share their knowledge with me on how they choose their ingredients, the qualities the look for in the seafood they purchase, techniques they use in the kitchen, and has been such an honor and invaluable education that allows me to become better at my job as a scientist working to impact change through our food system.
SD: What advice would you give other women interested in a career in the seafood industry?
CS: Get yourself on a boat, go fishing, catch fish, eat the fish you catch, and place yourself in the shoes of each industry member you meet. Oh and don’t take anything personally because seafood industry members are salty by nature. Most are skeptical of a woman walking on the dock (especially if you are trying to create change). I have been yelled and cursed at too many times to count when I first walk onto a dock, but most of the time I am just an outlet for people to vent, and once we get past that we can begin to start solving problems together. If you are willing to get your hands dirty and go home smelling like fish with the rest of them, you will have a blast.