Hook to Plate Social Entrepreneurship: An Ethnographic Approach to Driving Sustainable Change in the Global Fishing Industry

Authored by: Jay Hasbrouck , Charley Scull

Handbook of Anthropology in Business

Print publication date:  June  2014
Online publication date:  June  2016

Print ISBN: 9781611321715
eBook ISBN: 9781315427850
Adobe ISBN: 9781315427843


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This chapter explores how an adapted form of anthropological research can serve as a platform for the collaborative, dispersed, and interdisciplinary approach needed to stimulate innovation within social entrepreneurship. It does so through the lens of a project that focused on developing sustainable economic models for the fishing industry. We begin with the project design brief and an overview of social entrepreneurship and sustainability. We then contrast the scope and scale of traditional ethnographic research (one or a few researchers examining a particular culture or social phenomenon through extended field stays) with large-scale projects focusing on entire industries (multiple research teams examining different industry sectors), and link the benefits of the latter to the cross-pollination of perspectives critical for successful social entrepreneurship. This includes a consideration of the challenges of managing and coordinating the diverse perspectives and disciplinary biases of these research teams. In the end, we argue that the tenets of anthropology can drive solutions inspired not by institutional priorities, but by the naturally occurring behaviors, priorities, and motivations in the everyday lives of those for whom solutions are intended to work. We conclude by considering how anthropology is uniquely situated to identify principles of change by offering culturally focused methods for understanding complex problems, and guiding solution sets built on those understandings that are as diverse as the lives of those who inspired them. <a href="#"></a>The Hook

Where does the fish we buy come from? I was off to China to find out. When I (Charley) stepped off the plane in Haikou, China, on the tropical southern island of Hainan, it was almost midnight local time, but it was more than 24 hours since I had left New York City. I was there to meet a fish buyer, whose company sells to a major American grocery wholesaler, and a research colleague with a background in journalism and a wealth of experience in social entrepreneurship. The buyer was coming from Vancouver and the journalist from San Francisco; so, in part for logistical ease and in part because we had never met one another in person, we planned our flights to arrive at around the same time. As luck would have it, I was the first to arrive. Speaking neither Cantonese nor Mandarin, I was pleased to find a sign with my name written on it, and delighted to find it being held by a woman who turned out to be our translator. The time flew by while I peppered her with a million annoying anthropological questions, about food, migration, identity, labor, and fishing most of all, until my field partners eventually arrived.

The next morning we were bumping along a dirt road in a Jeep on our way to visit a giant open-air tilapia aquaculture operation. Although there is no current sustainability rating for aquaculture, tilapia has become a “fish farm” favorite because of its adaptability, its middling position in the fish food chain as a herbivorous but high-protein fish, 1 and its universal generic white fish quality. From an aquaculture standpoint, the main advantages of tilapia are the combination of the prolific breeding, the speed with which they reach maturity, hardy resistance to disease, and ability to live in fresh or salt water. Originally from North Africa and the Levant, tilapia are now the third most farmed fish in the world, after salmon and carp. The tilapia industry came to Hainan just over 10 years ago as part of the vision of a farsighted Chinese entrepreneur. The tropical climate was ideal for them, and they’re now a major industry on the island and an important source of tilapia for the North American market.

We jumped out of the Jeep and watched as a fish bell was rung and then food dumped into the water. Who knew fish came when you rang the dinner bell? (Figure 25.1). Our guide then threw out a net to catch some of the greediest fish to show to our buyer. Later that day these same tilapia would become our lunch. From the farm we went to a giant processing plant, where we donned sterile suits and rubber boots to watch an army of color-coded jumpsuit–clad workers bleed, gut, and fillet the fish by hand. The final product is then seal-packed and frozen solid in less than an hour before being stacked in cold storage rooms until the full order is assembled for shipping (Figures 25.2 and 25.3). Figure 25.1 Fish dinner bell, Hainan, China. Photo courtesy of Charley Scull. Figure 25.2 Dressed for the occasion, Hainan, China. Photo courtesy of Charley Scull. Figure 25.3 Fish processing plant, Hainan, China. Photo courtesy of Charley Scull.

Our buyer opened several random boxes to do some quality control checks, weighing and visually inspecting sample packets, before being whisked off to a long and elaborate lunch: sand worm soup, anyone? Business cards were exchanged and strategic meetings were held. In the meetings, our buyer showed his high-quality packaging and spoke passionately about his vision for the company and the role that the quality of the product played in that vision, and the supplier continuously brought the conversation back to price point. Of course, all of this happened through a translator, who I suspect may have been more savvy about the fish trade than she was about translating.

And so this pattern, of visiting farms, touring processing plants, and sitting through long formal lunches that were deemed so important in the courtship of our high-powered buyer by the Chinese processors, but which the buyer secretly found to be the height of tedium (as a teetotaling vegetarian), continued over the next few days as we criss-crossed the island in a blur of business cards.

Confusing and interesting as this all was, and made more confusing still by difficulties of language and inadequate sleep, the question of how it might all relate to the challenges of sustainability in the global fishing industry remained. However, as the anthropologist and lead researcher on the Hainan field team, I was still just in the research phase of aggregating vast quantities of information, from the minutiae of the fish lunch bell to the global network of trade partners, with all of it run through the filter of local culture and custom; prior experience had taught me not to panic and to just embrace this early ambiguity. At this stage I just wanted to take it all in as I had no idea yet which observations or insights might prove most useful when my research team gathered with the other field team for the collaborative storytelling and synthesis sessions.

The Plate

What does a sustainable fish look like when it hits the plate? Surprisingly familiar. For one restaurateur in Portland, Oregon, it looks like a very nice sushi restaurant. When I (Jay) first walked in to Kristofor Lofgren’s Bamboo Sushi, 2 I was struck first by how much thought and care had gone into the interior, and how subtle he and his staff are with placing educational materials at various places around the restaurant. Small wallet-sized lists of sustainable species are at each table, and certifications that the restaurant has earned for adhering to sustainable purchasing practices are displayed near the entrance next to food reviews. Other than that, Kristofor relies primarily on a well-informed staff to convey messages about sustainable fishing to guests, but usually only when they ask. More often the staff emphasizes new menu choices and high quality, although their background in sustainability is surprisingly deep. During my visit, I had the opportunity to join Kristofor while he interviewed a potential new server. The conversation focused almost entirely on the job candidate’s passions, personal growth, and interest in sustainability. Kristofor and his staff’s holistic approach illustrates the ways in which ecological sustainability, business interests, and the larger social good can mesh seamlessly. Check out more from an interview with Kristofor Lofgren, 3 CEO of Bamboo Sushi. 4

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