In 2015, a group of Associated Press reporters wrote a series of stories that blew the lid off a horrific scandal plaguing the seafood industry: slavery. Men, women and children, mainly from Southeast Asian countries, kept locked away, forced to work brutal hours, fed next to nothing, paid even less, and held sometimes for decades at a time. And much of that seafood was being exported to the U.S. The thought of slave-caught fish landing on American plates—or any plates, for that matter—was a galvanizing moment for Julie Packard. She's been promoting the health of our oceans since the 1970s when she helped found California's Monterey Bay Aquarium, widely regarded as one of the leading conservation organizations in the world. To her, protecting the people working on our waters was no different than protecting the fish swimming in them. "I felt it was imperative that we include human rights issues in our definition of sustainable, because sustainable isn't just about the environment," she says. "It's about the broader social impact. And the seafood industry is rife with problems in that area."
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Packard teamed up with the advocacy groups Liberty Asia and the Sustainable Fisheries Partnership to develop a Seafood Slavery Risk Tool, which launched in February. It's a searchable online database that allows restaurants and other buyers to see if the seafood they're sourcing is coming from an area or fishery where forced labor, human trafficking or child labor may be occurring. Packard says avoiding questionable suppliers is the most effective way to pressure those fishing operations to change their practices.
The Slavery Risk Tool is the newest facet of the Monterey Bay Aquarium's wildly successful Seafood Watch program, which promotes sustainable choices—and has revolutionized the way we buy fish and shellfish today. Nearly 60 million consumer guides have been distributed since the program began in 1999, and 2 million people downloaded the app in the past year alone. "Julie Packard has been the single most effective person in raising public awareness about seafood sustainability," says renowned marine conservationist Carl Safina, Ph.D. "Before the first guide, there was really no discussion about it at all."
Packard hopes to integrate the two programs so the general public can make sure their seafood is both sustainable and slavery-free, but this crucial first step of providing the database to purveyors and restaurants put her on our radar this year—and speaks to her stalwart commitment to conserving our waters. "More than 90 percent of the places on earth where life can exist are actually in the sea, so the ocean has a huge impact on everything from being a source of food security to producing half of the air we breathe," she says. "There are so many reasons we need to protect it. Our lives depend on it."
Julie's food hero: "Being a native Californian, I would have to say Alice Waters. I admire her focus on farm-to-table, fresh, simple foods and her work to bring healthy food to our school system."
What motivates her work: "Nature. It brings me a lot of joy and is so foundational in our lives."
Surprising fact: A species of deep-sea coral is named after her: Gersemia juliepackardae.