What can you say about a group of alarmist publicity-seekers whose greatest passion is “saving” fish species that aren’t even endangered? Are they crazy? Power-hungry? Misguided, as the U.S. government has said? Sadly, SeaWeb is just one in a long line of recent entrants into the food-scare industry. And judging from the the company it keeps, SeaWeb is a prime example of the well-networked Nanny Culture. Its pockets are deep, its friends are powerful, its tactics are disingenuous, and it’s not going away any time soon.
SeaWeb was formed in early 1996 as a project of the Pew Charitable Trusts. Rather than operating the project in-house, Pew awarded a start-up grant to the “Ocean Awareness Campaign” at the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC). The grant’s stated purpose was the promotion of “ocean awareness in the national audience of aquariums, zoos, and science museums.” So far, so good.
But by the time SeaWeb was spun off as a separate entity, and Vikki Spruill took over the helm from NRDC program officer Lisa Speer (bringing along decades of PR and advertising experience, much of it in the food and restaurant industries), SeaWeb became a first-rate Food Nanny. Not that anyone was surprised. NRDC had long been a client of Fenton Communications, the Washington PR boutique that engineered its 1989 Alar-on-apples fundraising scam. SeaWeb joined that same client list in 1997, and the “Give Swordfish a Break!” campaign was born the following January.
The two-year promotion’s premise, later termed “flawed to the core” by U.S. Fish and Wildlife officials, was that Atlantic swordfish populations were dwindling near extinction. SeaWeb’s plan, engineered by Fenton Communications, was to marshal the forces of celebrity chefs and high-profile restaurateurs to declare a moratorium on serving the fish until its numbers had demonstrably rebounded.
Of course, when Fenton and NRDC launch a made-for-the-media effort like this, they don’t go it alone. Environmental Defense chipped in, as did the Pew Charitable Trusts (to the tune of over $2 million). And the Chefs Collaborative, another Fenton client, took the message to the pheasant-under-glass set. At the campaign’s peak, SeaWeb claimed that over 700 restaurants across America were declining to buy or serve swordfish.
After two years of carping to the media about their solution-in-search-of-a-problem, SeaWeb finally called off the swordfish boycott in 2000, acknowledging that eating swordfish was once again “a personal choice.” The federal government, however, maintained throughout that swordfish were never in any danger in the first place. And some fishery industry analysts say that SeaWeb’s fishy jihad actually backfired. It seems that when the four-star restaurants stopped serving swordfish, the market was flooded with fish (you didn’t think the fishermen were going to stop catching it, did you?). When supply went up, the price went down, which meant that more and more mid-priced and “family” restaurants could afford to put swordfish on their menus. So while white-tablecloth dining may have been sans swordfish for a while, Mr. & Mrs. Middle America got to try the dish instead.
U.S. imports of swordfish actually rose 200 metric tons from 1998 to 1999 alone (when the boycott campaign was in full-swing), as the marketplace expanded and prices slipped. One problem, though: domestic fisheries, which had previously supplied the high end of the marketplace with swordfish, suffered the economic consequences of SeaWeb’s campaign. Many went out of business for good. It seems their usual customers (elite chefs and restaurant suppliers) chose to support the political boycott rather than American fishermen.
SeaWeb has since moved on to a variety of other projects, all aimed at changing your eating habits for the good of one politically-correct species or another. The Packard Foundation is bankrolling SeaWeb’s “Caviar Emptor” program, which seeks to reduce the demand for Caspian caviar, “a luxury product no one really needs.” Memo to Fenton Communications: we’ll decide what to eat, thank you.
SeaWeb is a charter member of COMPASS (the Communications Partnership for Science and the Sea), a Pew- and Packard-funded Washington PR office for ocean issues. It also operates the misleadingly named Seafood Choices Network, a web site where you can be lectured on the political correctness of eating over two dozen fish species. “To dine or not to dine” verdicts are handed down by SeaWeb “partners” NRDC, Environmental Defense, the National Audubon Society, and the Monterey Bay Aquarium. All are frequent Pew and Packard donees, and all are present or former Fenton Communications clients.
In April 1999, at the height of the “Give Swordfish a Break!” campaign, the Washington Post called all 78 of the restaurants that SeaWeb claimed were participating in its Atlantic swordfish boycott.
“About a quarter of the restaurateurs said they do indeed serve swordfish,” reported the Post. “Some said they had participated in the campaign for a short while, but then reneged after customers asked for swordfish or because they thought the ban was over. A couple of restaurateurs didn’t remember signing a pledge…
“Even among the majority who had stopped serving it, things weren’t always clear-cut. A few restaurateurs said they joined the campaign but had taken swordfish off their menus for other reasons. A couple more said that they had never served swordfish in the first place or that it had been offered as a special and so was never a big part of their menu anyway. A few more said they were having second thoughts about continuing their participation.
“And in at least two cases, it was hard to tell whether swordfish was on or off the menu because the restaurateurs hedged their answers after learning why the Post was inquiring.”
When SeaWeb and the Natural Resources Defense Council announced their joint effort to discourage the consumption of Caspian Sea sturgeon caviar, a news release blamed the imported caviar market for the “overfishing” of these sturgeon. SeaWeb’s web site still publicly brands the food as “a luxury product no one really needs and for which there are a number of viable alternatives.”
Within three weeks of SeaWeb’s proclamation, Whole Foods Markets announced that it would begin selling a new “sustainable alternative to endangered wild sturgeon.” The news release was promoted to the mass media by another Washington PR outfit called Environmental Media Services (EMS). Could this be the “viable alternative” that SeaWeb is so keen on?
Consider this: Whole Foods and EMS are both clients of Fenton Communications. It’s probably not a coincidence that one Fenton client is trying to skew public perception of an issue that could benefit another client.
And another Fenton Client, EcoFish, is promoting its wares (again, with the help of EMS) as a “sustainable alternative” to so-called “overfished” species like Chilean sea bass and (of course) Atlantic swordfish. The real purpose behind SeaWeb’s campaigns seems to be to drive business to Fenton Communications’ other clients.
In the legal world they call this “conflict of interest.” In the Public Relations world, it’s called “synergy.” Let the buyer beware.