Greenpeace and Thai Union reach ceasefire on sustainable tuna

After two years of heated campaigning and butting heads, Greenpeace and seafood giant Thai Union have reached a joint agreement on how to drive sustainable change in the company’s operations and the rest of the seafood industry.

tuna ocean mexico
A school of tuna in the ocean off Mexico. Image: Vlad Karpinskly, CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

The world’s largest tuna company Thai Union and environmental campaigners Greenpeace on Tuesday called a ceasefire on their acrimonious and long-running conflict to launch a joint agreement on tackling unsustainable and exploitative practices in the seafood giant’s operations, as well as the wider fishing industry.

After almost two years of high-profile clashes, the two organisations presented—in a joint press release— a set of new commitments that Thai Union will undertake to address challenges such as indiscriminate fishing methods, labour and human rights violations, and the abuse of a practice known as transshipment.

In the context of the seafood industry, transshipment refers to the practice of transferring catch from large ships at sea to smaller boats which then bring the products to shore, and unload them at ports.

Transshipment is a commonplace and legal practice in the seafood and other shipping-related sectors, and can have logistical benefits such as delivering cargo to ports that are too small for large vessels to dock at, allowing companies to deliver cargo that is customized to the needs of specific locations, and getting supplies to a higher number of destinations.

But the practice can also be abused. For instance, large vessels that remain at sea for long stretches of time can avoid avoid scrutiny at ports and customs authorities, and if workers on board large vessels are being exploited, they are unable to seek recourse with authorities on land. If supply chains logs are not properly maintained, it can also make it difficult to determine whether the tuna arriving at port is legally caught or illegally done.

To tackle these issues, Thai Union has adopted a set of more than 20 commitments to reform its operations.

Two key fishing practices that Thai Union has committed to reducing are the use of fish aggregation devices (FADs) and longline fishing.

FADs are devices used to lure fish to a specific location in the ocean. One form they can take is a floating structure with ropes dangling into the water. Small marine plants and crustaceans gather on these lines, which in turn attract fish. When enough fish have gathered, they are commonly harvested by dropping a large net known as a purse seine into the ocean, which scoops up all the fish.

While effective for fish-catching, green groups and government agencies alike have warned that FADs pose a risk to sea turtles and marine mammals, which can get entangled in the FAD’s ropes. To minimise the risk of this, global non-profit International Seafood Sustainability Foundation recommends measures such as not using mesh in the FAD and constructing the devices out of natural materials.

Longline fishing, meanwhile, is the practice of stringing out a fishing line which is as long as 150 kilometres and has thousands of hooks along it. It is a labour-intensive practice that could be linked to worker exploitation, and can also result in the unintentional capture of sharks, seabirds, and sea turtles.

Thai Union’s new sustainability plan includes a commitment to slashing FAD use by half by 2020, while doubling the amount of FAD-free fish in the market over the same period. It will also ensure that independent observers are present on all its longline vessels to ensure there are no labour abuses, and prioritise a more pole-and-line fishing technique for its North American market.

To verify that its labour practices are free of exploitation or abuse, Thai Union will develop an auditable code of conduct for vessels across its global supply chain by next January. It will also develop a plan to get its labour issues audited by a third party, and share these results publicly.

As for transshipment, Thai Union already has a moratorium on buying from transhipping vessels, unless they can prove they comply with certain conditions. But it will now extend this to its entire tuna longline supply chain. It will only buy tuna from longline vessels that have human observers on board to assure the company that no environmental, labour, so social abuses have taken place.

The company will also source only from vessels that have spent a maximum of nine months at sea before docking at a port, so that its crew can access port services. These commitments are in addition to Thai Union’s ongoing SeaChange sustainability strategy.

Thiraphong Chansiri, chief executive officer, Thai Union, said in a statement that the company “has fully embraced its role as a leader for positive change as one of the largest seafood companies in the world.”

Thai Union and Greenpeace will meet every six months to assess progress and implementation, and conduct a third-party review at the end of next year.

Sarah King, oceans strategist, Greenpeace Canada, told Eco-Business that it decided to pause hostilities against Thai Union because of the company’s commitment to achieving reform throughout its global supply chain.

“Thai Union’s commitments are a result of talks with Greenpeace based on our requests to companies to ensure their supply chains are more sustainable and socially responsible,” she noted, adding that Greenpeace’s multi-year, global campaign against Thai Union and its brands also led to this move.

The campaign has included actions such as having Greenpeace’s Esperanza ship chase a Thai Union supplier’s boat to deliver a cease and desist letter; removing the company’s John West brand canned tuna from supermarket shelves in London, and a public petition signed by more than 700,000 people.

While the campaign was ongoing, Thai Union dismissed these claims as lacking evidence, and said that it was a “nice target for Greenpeace to have” due to its international reach.

Greenpeace’s King acknowledged the latter point, saying that “Thai Union is a keystone actor in terms of the impact of its business on ocean ecosystems”. Other players in the industry, from fisheries to retailers, and food service companies, need to make similar commitments to responsible sourcing, she added. 

Bunny McDiarmid, executive director of Greenpeace International, noted that Thai Union’s commitment represented “huge progress for our oceans and marine life, and for the rights of people working in the seafood industry”.

“If Thai Union implements these reforms, it will pressure other industry players to show the same level of ambition and drive much needed change,” she said.

This article has been updated to amend the definitions of transshipment and FADs. 

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