When Susan Jackson ’86 sat down at a Pittsburgh seafood restaurant and perused the menu, she was surprised to read that all the offerings were “local and sustainable.” Not convinced this was the case, she engaged the restaurant's management in a conversation about sustainable seafood practices.
It was a natural move for Jackson, who has served as president of the International Seafood Sustainability Foundation since its inception in 2009, a role that allows her to promote a healthy marine ecosystem through extensive collaboration, research, and practical initiatives.
Under her leadership, the ISSF has brought together scientists, industry professionals, environmental NGOs, and government stakeholders to promote initiatives that encourage long-term conservation and sustainable use of tuna fisheries. And Jackson has worked to dialogue with and balance the interests of all these groups to ensure that sustainability measures are enacted wisely and efficiently.
“I always say that our organization is like a water balloon,” Jackson says. “You push on one side and it comes out the other. If any one stakeholder is feeling too happy, then somebody else is about to explode. That tension is really healthy. It is that tugging and pulling between the different groups that really helps to make sure that the work we are doing is meaningful, being done as quickly as it can be, and will achieve the right results.”
Jackson got her start in the seafood world as an executive for StarKist after earning an economics degree from Notre Dame and a law degree from Duke University.
“That’s how I first got to know the tuna industry—from the legal side,” she says. “It got me exposed to the far-flung places where they had plants, and I got to visit Ghana and work with lawyers in London and Paris. I was really intrigued with the international aspect of it. Doing the contractual and compliance legal side of things was something so much more interesting because of the richness of the tuna industry.”
Jackson’s extensive and varied background at StarKist made her the perfect fit for the leadership role when the ISSF was founded. Her job requires policy, legal, and business knowledge beyond just the science, all areas of expertise for Jackson. The foundation’s goal is that all tuna stocks become capable of achieving Marine Stewardship Council certification, an international sustainability standard for seafood.
“The council has very concrete standards and metrics, a constant feedback loop with its stakeholders to improve, and it is a comprehensive, very clear scoring system against which you can benchmark fisheries,” Jackson says. “It is obviously aspirational—we’re not there yet. But it gives a clear end point.”
The ISSF’s board takes input from three other groups when making decisions about how to achieve seafood sustainability: its Scientific Advisory Committee, which is made up of leading marine and fisheries scientists; its Environmental Stakeholder Advisory Committee, which is comprised of environmental NGO representatives with a focus on seafood; and its Implementation Team, which draws from industry participants. And while the foundation primarily works with businesses and NGOs, Jackson acknowledges that consumers can play an important role in working towards a sustainable tuna industry.
“The most important thing the public can do is make it obvious that they care,” she says. “They can read, educate themselves, and ask questions when buying seafood because businesses aren’t going to care unless their customers care. People need to remember that every dollar you are spending is a vote on whether or not you care.”
Ultimately, whether she is pursuing an initiative with the foundation or conversing with a restaurateur, Jackson sees her work as an opportunity to make a difference by supporting a sustainable food source that can build opportunities for people around the world.
“One of the fun things about tuna is that it is international,” she says. “It provides food security. It provides economic security for countries. It provides jobs. It provides opportunities for women. Sustainable seafood is not just about keeping large corporations and multi-million dollar fishing boats in business. It is about keeping people fed, keeping people employed, and keeping governments solvent. No matter what your interest is in making the world better, tuna is going to touch it.”