Sustainable seafood investing for dummies

Want to make an impact? Try something boring.

I don't have enough space on the Internet to catalogue the number of tombstones in the sustainable seafood graveyard.

Sustainable investing in 10 easy steps

Follow this guide, you too can invest in sustainable seafood!*

1) Identify a problem, opportunity, or something that sounds really, really cool.

2) Find a charismatic champion to be the face of your project. No seafood experience? No problem!

3) Spend, spend, spend! Invest in mission-critical things such as websites and logos. High-resolution photos of laborers -- the ones your project ostensibly will create economic opportunities for -- are a must.

4) Get NGO backing. A lot easier than you might think! An email with a link to the new webpage and a phone call or two will typically get somebody on board. Quickly issue a press release.

5) Commercialize. It's time -- yes, unfortunately you have to harvest and get to market. Annoying! And to quote a tremendous leader, "Who knew sustainability could be so hard?"

6) Sign a retail deal. The hook is set, now give it a good yank. With NGOs on your side and great-looking marketing material, you're ready to wow a buyer.

7) When production, quality or delivery issues inevitably arise, cover them up by loudly asserting the sustainability of the product.

8) Encourage the buyer to be patient, remind them of the green credentials they are burnishing.

9) Panic. Yes, panic. Without experience, relationships and practical wisdom, your money isn't worth much. Silver lining: website still looks great.

10) Fold, but do it quietly -- consultancy jobs await!

*Amount of money lost Results may vary

Just a passing look through our archives brought back memories: shrimp producers, land-based salmon farms, community-based fisheries with a story to tell.

Remember No Catch? The ultimate live fast and die young sustainable seafood company? If you don't, for god's sake read about it so you don't make the same mistakes -- it could save you millions.

A lot of enthusiastic investors have lost a lot of money over the years, chasing a beautiful but ultimately empty dream: the notion that one, industry-changing idea would prove that everybody else was doing it wrong.

It's an uncomfortable truth, but sustainability -- the kind that truly matters -- requires scale.

I can replace my house lights with LED bulbs, and sleep on a downy pillow of self-satisfaction. But I haven't really done anything. But if GE and Philips make some sweeping commitments to changing how they manufacture lightbulbs? Now we're getting somewhere.

As most of you reading this column well know, fisheries and aquaculture are not cottage industries, nor are they agri-protein behemoths (yet). What they are, even at the very biggest scale, is open to influence. I'd challenge anyone to point to another protein sector that has collectively been so pliable in working with NGOs and governments to improve their production models.

So forgive me if I raise an eyebrow when I see investors flooding the seafood sector with capital focused on "game changers."

Those investors that have shown success with sustainable seafood startups tend to have a clear knowledge of the industry, it's pitfalls, and most importantly -- it's people.

I recently interviewed aquaculture investment pioneer David Tze, who is now planning a new venture in the sector. One line stuck out when he describes how his investment philosophy has evolved.

“My priorities have changed, now they are even more aligned with the old venture capital adage, 'if you have to choose, invest in a grade ‘A’ team with a ‘B’ plan instead of the ‘B’ team with an ‘A’ plan,’” he said.

Tze noted that while "game changers" were once attractive, he is now looking for investments with "a high probability of success."

A high probability of success means a proven track record. It may be hard for some impact investors to stomach, but your money may make more of a difference if it was invested in a major salmon farmer, processing company or multi-national harvesting, processing and distribution business.

By all means, innovate, experiment, invest and take risks on new models. But let's not assume that the major players currently sitting at the top of the heap are not making strides everyday to improve our food chain for the better, and that those strides won't ultimately cover a lot more ground than some of the more titillating newcomers.

Truth is, if you want to make an impact on the seafood sector, you already have a hell of a lot of options.

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Follow me on Twitter: @drewcherry


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