Sustainability is a word tossed around a lot lately. It can mean a lot of things; some people use it as a catch-all term for doing things in a vaguely eco-friendly way; others use it to apply to how companies relate to their workers or to subcontractors, especially if those subcontractors are located in developing countries.
But at its root, removed from its ideological baggage, the word means doing things in such a way that a given activity can be engaged in long term. And that is certainly how krill harvester Aker BioMarine views the idea, as I learned while talking with company officials on Thursday and Friday at their main offices along the historic waterfront in Oslo, Norway.
To date, Aker has invested more than $400 million in developing its krill business. It has yet to see a profit from that investment, though it is edging closer to cash flow positive territory on the venture. In order to make this pay off, the company has to be able to fish krill in the Southern Ocean for at least another 30 years. At the same time, it has to work to increase the size of the markets for krill products so that sales can support the science and sustainability efforts.
Aker's sustainable partner
So early on Aker decided to team up with the Norway chapter of the World Wildlife Fund to improve their sustainability credentials. WWF Norway has an emphasis on issues relating to marine ecology, largely because of the country’s long history of fishing and seafaring. And the work it has done with Aker BioMarine has been one of WWF Norway’s big successes, according to CEO Nina Jensen.
The conservation organization pushed Aker toward allowing more monitoring of harvesting operations. Working with WWF Norway made Aker’s decision easier to pursue certification from the Marine Stewardship Council, which can be a costly and time consuming process. And the partnership was part of the reason why Aker has for the last couple of years turned over their krill harvesting vessel for a full week per year for the use of independent krill researchers, so that they can better understand what factors influence the size and health of krill populations and how those fluctuations might affect predator species like penguins and seals.
Are other krill harvesters sustainable?
Aker has also taken a lead in forming what’s called the Association of Responsible Krill Harvesting Companies, or ARK for short. WWF Norway pointed out that it might be laudable if Aker is trying to do things the right way, but it’s not all that meaningful if the other harvesters (who now are principally from South Korea and China) don’t follow suit. No other harvester is yet up to the standard that Aker has set, but the company is helping to move the needle.
Doing things this way might be hard for a company traded on one of the American stock exchanges, tied as they are to generating regular profits to plump up quarterly earning reports. If Aker had known at the outset what the krill business would entail, the company might have thought differently. “Monday morning quarterbacking,” said Hallvard Muri, Aker BioMarine president and CEO. “It’s a good term.” But now the company is in deep, and they have little choice but to plan for the long haul. In other words, to do things sustainably.