One of the Erb Institute’s biggest draws was its numerous hands-on learning experiences. Last fall, Heidi Graves ’22, Wes Davis ’22 and I had the wonderful opportunity to work with the World Economic Forum (WEF) and the World Resources Institute (WRI) through the Friends of Ocean Action initiative.
Friends of Ocean Action is a group of more than 65 ocean leaders who are fast-tracking solutions to the most pressing challenges in ocean conservation and sustainable use. One of the UN’s targets is dedicated to halving global food waste by 2030, but seafood loss and waste are generally missing from these targets. For our Erb Impact Project, my team’s goal was to conduct a mapping exercise of the seafood processing sector in Africa and then to provide stakeholder recommendations for Friends of Ocean Action to target for further research and partnerships.
With a passion for food systems and sustainability, I was simultaneously excited to learn and intimidated by the project’s scope. Hailing from a health-care tech company with an analytics and product management background, I knew little about the seafood industry. I had studied abroad in South Africa eight years ago, and now I needed to learn about the entire continent’s seafood production—and my team would have to do it fully virtually. But we managed to overcome these difficulties.
First, I leaned heavily into my experience in analytics and found some databases from which to pull meaningful statistics on the global fishing industry. This task proved to be overwhelming due to the lack of reliable data, but this preliminary research allowed us to get a sense of scale as we approached stakeholders for interviews. We could then continue our research with a better understanding of tonnage and commodity value.
Given my team’s backgrounds, engaging with experts in the seafood industry was crucial. We leveraged networks across WRI, WEF, Erb (thanks to Luke Sawitsky ’18) and beyond to find context behind the statistics. Unsurprisingly, we found the seafood processing industry to be particularly nuanced and under-investigated. Through our stakeholder interviews, we learned that most seafood processing happens with a handful of companies that largely share very little of their data. We also were dismayed to find that certain methods of seafood waste reduction, such as fishmeal production, could have unintended ecological and financial consequences.
Ultimately, we recommended diverse stakeholder engagement to implement digital data sharing and to spread knowledge about waste reduction and valorization. Fish provides 22% to 63% of the protein intake in sub-Saharan Africa. As global fish stocks are overfished, closing the gap between fish supply and demand will need to include finding ways to reduce loss and waste in seafood processing. Much more research and case studies are needed to address this gap, and I’m eager to see where that work goes.
I cannot underscore enough the importance of teamwork when three dual-degree students are juggling an Erb Impact Project, recruiting, classwork and personal engagements. I had hesitations about working virtually during my first year of graduate school, but Heidi and Wes were incredible and hardworking teammates, and I’m grateful to have had such a dynamic and complementary team.