The Future of Fish

Did you know that an estimated one-third of the fish you purchase at the supermarket is mislabeled? 

Individuals who care about what types of fish they are purchasing don’t even have the option of “voting with their dollars” because the responsibly caught fish are often commingled with irresponsibly or illegally caught fish. With over one billion people worldwide depending on fish as their primary source of protein, and with limited options for consumers to purchase fish caught in a responsible manner that doesn’t promote overfishing, the stakes couldn’t be higher to change this system. The team at Future of Fish is taking on the entire fishing industry in its mission to create such change. Future of Fish is a “nonprofit systems change incubator” that is working to bring traceable, trustworthy, and legally caught fish to market. The group recruits entrepreneurs, businesses, and other nonprofits to work together in what it calls “pods” to develop strategies for achieving this goal. In addition to facilitating the pods, Future of Fish provides in-depth research and systems maps that identify problem areas in the global fishing industry, hosts workshops to co-design strategic solutions to specific challenges, and provides advisory and media services for the entrepreneurs tackling these issues within the system. We discussed this innovative model for systems change with Founder and Executive Director Cheryl Dahle.

How did you develop the model for tackling this huge issue?

Cheryl Dahle: Like most origin stories, it’s a combination of intention and accident. My background is as a journalist, and then I was an analyst of nonprofits. In those jobs, I had a lot of opportunity to look at social change. As a reporter, I worked for Fast Company magazine for about ten years, writing about social entrepreneurs and the intersection of business and social change. I got to see a lot of patterns, and I became very interested in how we create new solutions to these thorny, really wicked problems. In doing that work, I came up with some theories on what I thought might be one approach to incubate bigger change.

I decided to couple a type of analysis that I had been applying to find patterns in the work of social entrepreneurs, with a design-based approach to coming up with new ideas. The whole point of the process was to understand what was missing from the current ecosystem of solutions. When we got to the end of the process, the idea was Future of Fish, a nonprofit systems incubator. However, we couldn’t find anyone to run it. We had thought we would find an entrepreneur already active in this space who would take it on, and we had this - in hindsight predictable - chicken and egg problem. The entrepreneurs we recruited said, “This is a fantastic idea, but you don’t have any money.” The investors said, “This is a great idea, but you have no team.”

At some point, I was trying to talk yet another entrepreneur into doing this gig and she turned to me and said, “What do you not get about the fact that you’re the entrepreneur here?” This really took me aback because I had always seen myself as a writer and an analyst. I went to the funder and asked, “If I led this project, would you seed fund it?” And they said yes. It was a little bit of an accident, a little bit of pushing, and a little bit of just being so invested in the work that, had I not taken the risk and stepped up, two years’ worth of work would have been lost and I just couldn’t bear to see that happen, no matter how scared I was to move into the space of entrepreneurship.

Most people tend to assume I must have a degree in marine biology, or I must be one of those ocean people who surfs all the time. It’s not like that. I’m terrible at snorkeling, and I didn’t even see the ocean for the first time until I was in high school because I was born in the Midwest. It did not come from a very deeply rooted love of oceans; it came from a very deeply rooted love for systems and a passion for tackling complex challenges.

"At Future of Fish, we’re looking at a different level of change; we’re creating initiatives and systems through collaboration and collective impact."

What does it mean to be a “nonprofit systems change incubator”?

CD: I think people are familiar with what an incubator does - it tries to help things grow. Most incubators are focused on the level of one company and the sole success of that individual company. At Future of Fish, we’re looking at a different level of change; we’re creating initiatives and systems through collaboration and collective impact. What that means in practice is that we only recruit entrepreneurs and individuals whose theories of change are actually targeting the systems levers that we’ve identified. There is a group intention around this initiative that’s not typically present in most incubators.

Can you provide us with an example of a successful project that Future of Fish has supported?

CD: Future of Fish finds new opportunities with both market potential and impact potential. We then cultivate a cluster of entrepreneurs around those ideas to build a business ecosystem. Those clusters, or “pods,” help take disruptive ideas and spread them to the mainstream while developing investable companies at the same time.

One example of that process is the work we’ve done with Tom Kraft, an entrepreneur in the seafood distribution and import business. His company had developed a homegrown IT system to track inventory and provide traceability down to the fillet, a breakthrough achievement in an industry that has a mislabeling rate of more than 33 percent and sells millions of metric tons of illegally caught seafood every year.

His innovation was the basis of a research paper we produced to document the business ROI of better IT. That report led us to convene technology vendors and seafood industry executives to devise ways to increase technology adoption, which will also decrease the amount of illegal product. In the meantime, Tom has launched a new company to commercialize a technology system for other seafood companies using the insights he gleaned from his first effort. We’re helping him secure investors. Business wins, and the fish win. 

To see the full interview with Cheryl, purchase a print or digital copy of Issue 2 of Conscious Company Magazine in stores or online.  

This article appeared in Issue 2 | Spring 2015

To see more stories like this and features on innovative disruptors such as Chip Conley, Kimbal Musk, Plum Organics, Rocky Mountain Institute, and more - purchase Issue 2 online!

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