"I grew up on a small island on the Chesapeake Bay in Maryland and saw firsthand the decline of the oyster, crab and fish resources. ... I vowed not to let [Asia's blue swimming crab] experience the same fate."
Steve Phillips, President & CEO of Phillips Foods, Inc & Seafood Restaurants, often says he has saltwater in his veins because he loves to be on the water and comes from a family who has made their living from the sea for generations. SeaWeb's Seafood Choices spoke with him about his conservation philosophy, shortly after he was awarded the 2011 Seafood Champion award.
SeaWeb: What does being a Seafood Champion mean to you?
Steve Phillips: It is a great honor to be recognized as a Seafood Champion. My work to move the blue swimming crab industry toward sustainability is driven by my passion for the people and the industry in South East Asia. This award affirms the importance of this work.
SW: How did you get interested in the issue of sustainable seafood?
SP: I grew up on a small island on the Chesapeake Bay in Maryland and saw firsthand the decline of the oyster, crab and fish resources. When I went to Asia about 20 years ago and pioneered the export industry for blue swimming crab, I vowed not to let this resource experience the same fate. For the crab fishery and for the communities that depend on it we need to make sure that this resource is there for generations to come.
SW: How would you describe your philosophy on ocean conservation?
SP: Our seafood businesses depend on sustainable fisheries and increasingly on sustainable aquaculture. In order to meet the increasing world-wide demand for seafood production, fisheries need to operate at the highest possible sustainable fishing rate and we need to expand aquaculture production in a responsible manner. I believe that the seafood industry is the key here, and needs to invest in both. When we see that source fisheries need improvement and where we are significant players, our policy is to invest in those fisheries and put them on a pathway to sustainability. That is also the socially responsible thing to do since so many fishermen and their families depend on the resource.
SW: How has your philosophy changed what products you sell?
SP: My company has always had a focus on conservation. Back in the early days in Asia we called good fishing practices "conservation" and taught fishermen to return berried female crabs to the water and avoid the harvest of crabs below the reproductive size. That changed over the years as competition grew and now requires a new way of addressing and improving the crab fisheries. For the non-crab products we sell, our philosophy is to source from sustainable fisheries or from fisheries on a pathway to sustainability.
SW: Have your customers noticed?
SP: Yes, we have made a point to let our customers know what we are doing to further crab sustainability in Asia, and they are asking us more questions every day to get a better understanding of our efforts. In most cases our customers recognize that responsible sourcing includes purchasing products that are recognized as sustainable, but also purchasing products based on fisheries that are tracking towards sustainability.
SW: Do you feel it limits what you can offer?
SP: Not yet, but it will in the future. If our source fisheries cannot demonstrate that they are sustainable and we find resistance to implementing fisheries improvements, we are prepared to drop products.
SW: What’s the most popular seafood item you offer?
SP: Blue swimming crab.
SW: What trends have you noticed in seafood in the past 10 years?
SP: Some of the obvious ones: more farmed seafood to meet growing demand, interest in consumers to see more value added seafood products in retail, emphasis on quality products from chefs, interest on the part of chefs in knowing details about sourcing and sustainability.
SW: What is your favorite seafood?
SP: Fresh blue crab.
Steve Phillips is responsible for growing Phillips Seafood Restaurants into a successful chain. With their impressive more than 50 years in business, several of the locations are recognized as part of the top 100 highest grossing restaurants in the country. In the early 1990s, he started Phillips Foods, which launched the Asian blue swimming crab industry. His most recent focus is leading crab sustainability across Asia. Steve is a Maryland native who is passionate about travel and experiencing cultures around the world.