Environmental leader provides sustainable solutions for seafood sourcing

Farm and Food

To Adriana Sanchez, responsible seafood sourcing means taking care of the environment, as well as taking care of people.

Globally, millions of people depend on seafood for their livelihoods. And, in many cases, it’s their only significant source of animal protein.

“As a source of food, seafood is a reminder that we don’t live in a vacuum,” Adriana said. “Food feeds people and it helps us create shared experiences that not only nourish our bodies but also our souls. It’s in the times we savor a meal with loved ones that we create these moments that unknowingly link us to those who harvest and produce our food.”

Founder of Seafood Ninja, in Sunrise, Florida, Adriana says one of the reasons she loves the work is because it’s ultimately about people and supporting communities that are leading the way to make sure our oceans are a little healthier.

Adriana uses her skills to support companies seeking to advance their sustainable seafood sourcing, with strong ties to Central and South American fisheries.

“My hope is to continue to work with purpose and supporting our industry so that we can all continue to enjoy seafood in the future and enjoy the health benefits that increasing seafood in our diet provide,” Adriana said.

Because of her passion for the environment and drive to teach others how to use and protect what nature offers, Adriana received the 2022 Environmental Leader Award sponsored by the Center for Rural Affairs and the Walton Family Foundation.

The award honors accomplished leaders in the field of environmental stewardship, and recognizes individuals with a proven track record and promise of future advancement in the field. The awards are an independent project administratively supported by the Center and made possible by the Walton Family Foundation.

Adriana grew up in Venezuela, and lived in Colombia and Mexico because of her stepfather’s work.  In the 1990s, her father started a seafood company in Florida in the 1990s and she was able to finish her senior year of high school in Florida.

While she was working at the University of Florida International Center during college, Adriana’s father reached out to see if she would be interested in working for him.

“The role was to work with suppliers and their shipments and tackle ‘this new thing about sustainability,’” she said. “My dad had come back from the Global Seafood Expo in Brussels and sustainability was the new buzz word, so he wanted to make sure that they were prepared. It was supposed to be 20% sustainability work and then it turned into a full-time role. I became the sustainability director at Sea Delight, and I’ve been working in seafood sustainability ever since.”

In 2016, Adriana ventured out on her own, and what started as her personal blog turned into Seafood Ninja Inc., which officially incorporated on Aug. 2, 2017.

“Our company continues to grow and learn about what seafood sustainability means to the seafood industry and how we can continue to help companies achieve their goals regardless of their size and financial resources,” said Adriana. “Seafood Ninja is a platform of sustainable seafood strategists that help companies start their sustainability programs. We are a network built by over 13 years of professional experience in the seafood industry.”

The company mostly works with mid-supply chain seafood importers and distributors. With all of them having different needs and being in different places in their journeys toward sustainability, Adriana’s role is to get all of their initiatives and sourcing organized. This ensures they are meeting existing customers’ requirements and are able to grow their businesses while improving their sourcing and market access.

“I help bridge the gap between what NGOs (non-governmental organizations)/retailers are asking them to do, and their understanding of what they actually need to do to move forward,” she said. “It’s like translating NGO talk into industry talk so they know what is the ‘ask’ and how they can be strategic about their next steps so it can be cost effective.”

During this process, Adriana does a little bit of everything. She helps them create their commitment roadmaps, supports quality control, answers customer’s questions, provides strategic guidance on how to improve sourcing, and most importantly, she says, improves communications.

“How they communicate all their efforts to their customers is key in showing up as leaders in our industry and for their customers to feel like their environmental and social responsibility values are aligned,” said Adriana. “I also work on projects to support NGOs in their outreach and understanding of our industry so they can best create tools and programs that support the greater industry efforts toward a more sustainable future.”

By keeping its fees manageable, Seafood Ninja’s clients are able to have a seat at the “sustainable seafood” table and feel represented in this space. Adriana also helps advocate, inform, and better prepare clients for the next “asks” of improvements.

“For example, retailers and food service are starting to ask companies about their climate strategy in addition to their environmental sustainability and social responsibility requirements,” she said. “Seafood Ninja does the work to stay informed about these changes so that we can help our clients adapt and connect them with the companies that can help them further advance their goals. We facilitate these conversations and help manage these programs.”

Although she takes on many responsibilities in her role, Adriana says that, in general, she doesn’t focus on challenges; she sees everything as an opportunity, and that mindset is what drives her success.

“I don’t think about specifically being a ‘woman-owned business’ or even a ‘minority-owned business’ because somehow it inherently means that it will be harder or more challenging and I didn’t want this thought to mess with my vibe, " she said. “I felt ready to go for it and took an inspired action to be all in.”

Adriana admires the work of Julie Kuchepatov’s organization Seafood and Gender Equality and their program, The Bloom. Seeing others work toward similar goals as hers helps Adriana stay motivated to continue her own work.

“This community of women and genderqueer people in the seafood sector provides opportunities to discuss some of these challenges and connect folks to mentorship and access to capital investment, and more,” she said.

Her family also inspires and motivates Adriana to keep pushing in her field.

“As a mother of four, this work has a whole new meaning,” she said. “I want to leave a legacy, a better planet for my children and grandchildren. I want them to enjoy and experience all our oceans can provide and continue to be environmental stewards after I’m gone. I love watching them care about our oceans and wanting to protect it.”

Receiving the Environmental Leader Award has been a great accomplishment for Adriana, and she takes pride in the work she and her team have done at Seafood Ninja.

“I work to provide cost-effective solutions to our industry and a seat on the sustainability table for my amazing clients,” she said “But I’m most proud of following my dream and turning a blog into an actual company. I bet on myself and made it happen. That’s my biggest success.”

Adriana thanks the Walton Family Foundation and the Center for Rural Affairs for creating and funding the award, as she feels it’s a great honor to be recognized for the work she does.

“I know we don’t do this work for fame or glory, but it still feels nice to be rewarded for our hard work and sacrifice,” Adriana said. “And as it always happens, when you receive an award and recognition, the universe opens new doors and there's an abundance and more resources to share. My heart is full, and it allows me to keep giving it all and not burn out.”

The Environmental Leader Award provides more than recognition, she said. It offers a chance at a better future for other women and their families.

“Receiving this award is proof that when you invest in women, it does not only have a positive impact on their families but it continues to have a ripple effect in their communities and in their future,” she said. “It brought new energy to continue to be inspired to work in global fisheries' improvements and creating programs that have a positive impact on the communities that depend on these resources.”

Editor's note: This is the first of a series of blogs featuring the 2022 Environmental Leader awards. Photos were submitted by the awardee.