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Hooked from an early age

I have very clear, happy memories of me as a young child out on a little boat with my dad on the Bushmans River in the Eastern Cape. He would often catch white stumpnose, which we’d all enjoy on the braai. Twenty-five years on and, while I no longer go out on that little boat, fish remains one of the most important things in my life.

© Natasha Prince/ WWF-SA
Stephanie Rainier

Opening my eyes

Seafood is the only form of animal protein that I eat. It all started when I came to work as an intern in the marine team at WWF South Africa six years ago.

I recall a fun intern activity the other interns and I organised. It was a ‘sustainable’ team lunch for Earth Day 2012, and it got me thinking about the sustainability of different foods. (Disclaimer: While I’ve chosen to only eat sustainable seafood, I’m not saying that proteins like lamb or beef cannot be produced in a sustainable and responsible manner, or that vegetarian substitutes are automatically sustainable).

During my internship I got to know the robot system – red, orange, green – of the WWF-SASSI tools intimately. But while WWF-SASSI enabled me to make sustainable choices for seafood, there are no easy-to-use reference tools available for other produce in South Africa, yet. When I do start eating red meat again, I would like to think that it is because I’m able to have full transparency of the supply chain all the way from the place I bought it back to a responsible producer.

Finding my place

In 2014 the position of WWF-SASSI Retail Engagement Officer became available and I jumped at the opportunity. At that stage the WWF-SASSI Retailer/ Supplier Participation Scheme had already been going for six years and 10 of South Africa’s top seafood traders and retailers were participating.

As a young person in this sector, meeting with big corporates and trying to influence their operations was pretty intimidating. But, over time, I found my voice and grew confident about what I was doing and realised what we were trying to collectively achieve through this scheme: working across the supply chain to drive positive change on the water.

Getting fully invested

With my academic background in Oceanography and now working with national retailers and other corporates, something that really gets to me is the confusion created by all the different common names used for one species, including common names that have been created to link one species to another – like the notorious “salmon trout”.

This name is used globally and mixes the names of two different farmed species – Atlantic salmon and rainbow trout – to get the public to think they are eating the more expensive imported salmon when they are actually eating locally produced, and I might add probably more sustainable, rainbow trout.

Now, most people would not knowingly support illegal activities. Yet, venture up the West Coast and you almost always get offered poached, undersized rock lobster. While there’s a demand, poaching will continue.

When you scale this up to the more formalised market however, the lines get blurred between what is legally caught and what is not even though you would assume it was all legal. Frighteningly, almost a third of seafood caught globally is from illegal, unregulated and unreported fishing and the need for traceability and transparency in the supply chain has become more important than ever.

With just these few examples, you can see what challenging work it is to promote greater sustainability in the seafood sector.

© Natasha Prince/ WWF-SA
Stephanie Rainier preparing to speak at the Sustainable Seafood Symposium.

We all stand together

Today I’m working in a space where companies work collectively to tackle these important issues which have become close to my heart. I take pride in the little wins – like when I walk down the food aisles and I notice that the labelling on a can of tuna has been updated to include all the information I’d need to make an informed choice.

I have also become like a “human SASSI tool” to those around me – with my friends often calling me to check if the seafood they were buying is sustainable. My answer is always the same as the reply I would give to the companies I work with - “What species is it?”, “How was it harvested?” and, “Where is it from?”

I consider myself incredibly lucky to work in a space that creates benefits that I see in my personal life, and in that way I’m happy to bring my work home with me.

I think of my own family – 25 years in the future – creating memories for my own children one day, by enjoying seafood on the braai, and where we hope to see companies working in a more unified way. I am hopeful because I know that the work we are doing is laying the foundation for this to happen.

Stephanie Rainier Photo
Stephanie Rainier , WWF-SA Retail Engagement Officer

Marine Conservationist. Optimist.