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Seafood Giant Tests Technology to Prevent Illegal Fishing, Worker Abuse

Thai Union, one of the world’s largest seafood companies, is exploring if digital logs and satellite connectivity on fishing boats could help prevent human rights abuses and illegal fishing. Darian McBain, global director for sustainability, says results look promising.

Written by Ian Evans Published on Read time Approx. 6 minutes
A fisher holding his phone on a dock in southern Thailand, where Thai Union and Mars Petcare are implementing a digital traceability pilot program.Courtesy of Thai Union

If you aren’t familiar with Thai Union Group, you have likely heard of some of the company’s many brands: Chicken of the Sea, John West and Petit Navire, to name a few. Headquartered in Thailand, it supplies and processes seafood around the world and is one of the largest canned tuna manufacturing companies.

But over the last few years, Thai Union became known for something else, as well. Illegal fishing is a growing issue in developing nations, making the company the target of a Greenpeace campaign, while in 2015 the New York Times also showed how Thai Union was acquiring seafood from vessels that used slave labor or violated human rights.

Last July, in an agreement Thai Union announced with Greenpeace, the company said it would create a “vessel code of conduct” to prevent labor violations, which will be the basis of ongoing audits starting this year. The company said that by 2020 it will have human or electronic observers on board all of the long-line fishing vessels from which it sources seafood. (The company doesn’t operate fishing vessels.) However, a January 2018 Human Rights Watch report said that human rights abuses in the Thai fishing industry in general remain widespread, indicating that companies that operate in the region still have a long way to go in ensuring they are not complicit in violations.

Recently, Thai Union tested out new technology that it hopes will play a role in addressing these issues. In a small pilot study, in cooperation with one of its major customers, Mars Petcare, and with help from the United States Agency for International Development (USAID), about 50 Thai fishers on four vessels were trained in how to log their seafood catches digitally on an electronic tablet.

Each boat was outfitted with a satellite transmitter to relay this e-logbook information back to land in real time. Darian McBain, Thai Union’s global director for sustainable development, says this will help verify which fish are being caught where. That connectivity also allows crew members to connect with people back on land, she said, reducing the chances of human rights abuses by making ships less isolated while out at sea.

The pilot study has just ended, and McBain and USAID have not yet made the results public, but McBain says they are looking at how to work with the Thai government to improve transparency and traceability of Thai Union products and use more digital data. Oceans Deeply spoke with McBain about the project.

Oceans Deeply: What are you trying to accomplish with this initiative?

Darian McBain: You might have heard about many of the issues that have come up about the seafood sector, ranging from IUU [illegal, unreported and unregulated] fishing, to overfishing, to human rights abuses, to lack of transparency and traceability.

We [Thai Union] are a processor. We don’t own vessels, we don’t own farms, but we see that we have a vital role to play. When we started setting up this trial, we were looking at, “How can we encourage captains to have digital recording of their catch documentation?”

For most regulatory systems and countries, receiving fish will have a regulatory system for catch documentation. For Thailand, it’s called Marine Catch Purchase Documentation. You have to have it verified at various points along the supply chain, and it is literally pieces of paper. Part of what this trial was doing was seeing if we can verify the data in a verifiable electronic database, that could perhaps at some point in the future replace the paper-based system.

When we started to look at the options for the e-logbook, we realized that we needed to have satellite connectivity to make it happen in real time. That’s when we started looking at different providers of satellite technology that would give you a strong enough signal to send the information back to land in real time. Once we had that, then we started thinking about, well, if you have that satellite connectivity and essentially something that is acting like a Wi-Fi router, let’s link the workers into that program so that they can then connect back to land. A lot of the challenges in human rights at sea happen because when a vessel as out at sea there is no connectivity – people can’t call back to land.

Oceans Deeply: How has the trial gone, and how have the captains taken to using this equipment?

McBain: The initial feedback has been very positive. The captains responded really well to entering the data electronically and found that it took less time than using the paper-based system. The workers were very happy with being able to contact loved ones back on land, so worker satisfaction was very high with the project.

I think that the next step that we need to look at is being able to link up with the Royal Thai Government system, making sure that you really can link in electronically to government records.

We will present that to the department of fisheries, who have been watching this trial all along, and other regulators in the region. I hope that, working with USAID, we can progress this agenda.

Oceans Deeply: If they are still entering this data by hand, even if it is into an electronic device, the potential economic incentives to enter incorrect information or not report human rights violations would still be there. How do you plan on addressing that?

McBain: I don’t think that it is any worse using the electronic system, and I think that it has largely improved. With the paper-based system, there are no checks and balances in place – it’s what the captain records and writes down, and the captain is able to do that at any point. It could be as the seafood is caught, or it could be as they’re coming into port at a later date.

With the real-time data capture, you do at least have some verification of where the fish were caught with the geolocation, so you can see much more easily if it is going to be IUU fish because you’ll be able to see if they’re fishing in the correct zone or not. Depending on which features you enable, you could also have electronic verification of that data with the observer programs – we’re going to be trialing those later this year.

Oceans Deeply: How would technology help with an observer program?

McBain: It hasn’t been started yet, but with machine learning and A.I. you can have observer programs now that recognize certain events. Many of the large vessels have a camera on board. The difficulty is that that’s a lot of data. That would mean that someone would have to watch weeks and weeks and weeks of videos and try to identify the points that would be of concern.

With machine learning, you can now have observer programs that only kick into recording when certain events happen, for example when fish are brought on to the deck. And it can recognize different species, or you can have it set to perhaps recognize species that shouldn’t be caught. You can have different levels of monitoring of people – so are individuals getting rest breaks? Is everyone remaining on board? There are all different levels that you can have set and really the key to this is the machine learning for recognition of different events.

Oceans Deeply: Would you characterize this pilot program as a response to past accusations of human rights abuse and slave labor?

McBain: It’s not entirely a response to that. A lot of the work is to improve traceability in IUU fishing, but, when we’re talking about the need for satellite connectivity back to land, we realized that we had a great opportunity to elevate workers’ voices, which would address some of the concerns around human rights.

Oceans Deeply: There was a report that came out in January by Human Rights Watch that says that human rights abuse and slave labor in Thailand’s fishing industry is still very widespread. Why is this the case in Thailand specifically?What is your reaction to it?

McBain: The Human Rights Watch report was first presented to the European Parliament as lobbying against the parliament for them not to change the status of Thailand’s yellow card for IUU fishing. A lot of their information and interviews were from previous years, so there was relatively little recognition of the changes in regulation that the Royal Thai Government had made, and also relatively little recognition of changes that have been done through the private sector.

So I think that there are definitely still issues to address in Thailand and the broader seafood sector. I don’t think that the issues are unique to Thailand. There is work to be done to share some of the good examples from Thailand with the rest of the world, and I think that there needs to be a lot more focus on constructive comments and what has been done, what’s worked well and how do we scale up those solutions.

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