Tuna giant Thai Union pledges to fish more sustainably

The seafood supply chain long has been fraught with challenges for sustainability-minded stakeholders: Global fisheries are dramatically overexploited, many commercial fishing practices incur substantial environmental damage, a substantial proportion of seafood on the market is captured illegally, and the labor force often endures ghastly human rights abuses. However, the world’s largest tuna company, Thai Union, announced major improvements in its sustainability practices this month. That action may spur others to follow suit.

Peril on the high seas

As global supply chains lengthen, it becomes increasingly challenging for companies — even those with the best of intentions — to manage the risk of labor rights violations and environmental degradation several steps removed from them in remote corners of the globe. The imperative to design sustainable and ethical seafood supply chains has never been more urgent.

Global fish production is quickly approaching its sustainable limit, with about 90 percent of the world’s stocks fully exploited or overfished, and a 17 percent increase in production forecast by 2025, according to the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO).

Overexploitation of the planet’s fish has more than tripled since the 1970s, with 40 percent of popular species such as tuna being caught unsustainably, according to the U.N. FAO’s most recent State of World Fisheries and Aquaculture report (PDF). A 2006 global survey in Science estimated that seafood could vanish altogether by 2048, and data from the intervening decade offer little reason to revise that estimate much.

The Nature Conservancy estimated that half of the global seafood catch is the result of illegal, unreported and unregulated (IUU) fishing, which contributes to the rampant labor rights abuses — in some cases outright slavery — that pervade the industry. Many commercial fishing techniques yield substantial quantities of unwanted fish and other marine creatures, known as bycatch, that are discarded and wasted.

Pressure for better practices

Environmental activist group Greenpeace long has advocated for better practices in the seafood supply chain, and in 2015 launched a campaign to pressure Thai Union to eliminate labor abuse and environmentally harmful fishing practices from its operations and those of its suppliers. Why that company? Thai Union owns many of the United States’ most familiar tuna brands, including Chicken of the Sea, Mareblu and Sealect.

The Greenpeace campaign came in response to media reports in The New York Times and the Associated Press that documented grievous human trafficking and slavery among Thai Union suppliers and subsidiaries. In the face of horrific allegations that would shock the conscience of most people, Thai Union initially offered little by way of response, according to the 2015 reports. Similarly, major Thai Union clients, including Wal-Mart Stores, declined at the time to comment on the specific allegations.

However, much has changed in two years. And now, Thai Union has unveiled a series of initiatives (PDF) in an agreement with Greenpeace that aim to protect workers, reduce destructive fishing practices and support more sustainable fishing practices. Thai Union’s commitments include several technical approaches to reducing bycatch, the extension of a moratorium on practices that allow fishing vessels to stay at sea for extended periods of time — which facilitates illegal activity — the deployment of independent labor rights observers on vessels at sea, and the implementation of a comprehensive code of conduct for all vessels in its supply chain. An independent third party will conduct an audit next year to evaluate the company’s progress.

Thai Union’s commitments include several technical approaches to reducing bycatch, the extension of a moratorium on practices that allow fishing vessels to stay at sea for extended periods of time — which facilitates illegal activity —the deployment of independent labor rights observers on vessels at sea and the implementation of a comprehensive code of conduct for all vessels in its supply chain. An independent third party will conduct an audit next year to evaluate the company’s progress.

Major labor and environmental organizations welcomed Thai Union’s move, including the International Transport Workers’ Federation Fisheries Section, the Labor Rights Forum and the Center for American Progress, according to a Greenpeace press release. While this is a positive development, as Greenpeace noted, "Thai Union cannot and should not be taking this on alone. Not only will the vessels catching the fish need to fully cooperate for these commitments to turn into real action and positive change, but all major buyers and sellers of tuna need to recognize that the status quo is no longer acceptable."

Greenpeace continues to maintain its Tuna Guide, where it identifies the practices behind major tuna brands. Whole Foods’ 365 brand, for instance, receives high marks from Greenpeace. Wegmans and Kroger brands earn mixed reviews, while Target, Costco, Trader Joe’s and Wal-Mart labels fall among the worst performers on the Greenpeace list.

Meanwhile, other organizations are stepping up the pressure. On July 24, SeaChoice Canada announced its new mission to become Canada’s "leading sustainable seafood watchdog" in response to growing demand. In June, 50 major companies launched the Tuna 2020 Traceability Declaration, which aims to stop illegal tuna from coming to market. And independent research conducted on behalf of the Marine Stewardship Council last year found that consumers in 21 countries rate sustainability more highly than price and brand in their seafood purchasing decisions, with almost three-quarters agreeing that shoppers should consume seafood only from sustainable sources. 

As the tide swells for better practices, seafood producers and retailers that strengthen social and environmental standards are likely to benefit.

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