How Greenpeace and Thai Union Turned up the Heat on the Tuna Industry

The environmental group and the world’s biggest tuna producer are collaborating to improve working conditions and environmental practices. Now other seafood companies need to join a global effort to make tuna fishing sustainable.

Written by Oliver Knowles Published on Read time Approx. 5 minutes
Fish is unloaded from a boat operated at Baan Nam Khem pier in Phang Nga, Thailand.IOM/Thierry Falise/LightRocket via Getty Images

This week the global tuna industry meets in Bangkok at its biennial conference for seafood businesses, regulators, NGOs and commentators. Set to the sumptuous backdrop of the Shangri-La hotel, the event is a Who’s Who of tuna industry grandees who will spend their days deep in discussion, analyzing emerging trends, sharing ideas and making deals.

Two years ago, Greenpeace addressed the conference plenary with the first instalment of a powerful story. Thai Union, well known to the assembled delegates as the biggest tuna company in the world but largely unheard of by consumers, was harming the oceans and its workers. Its tainted tuna was ending up in the cans of well-known, trusted brands and retailers around the world. Urgent change was needed.

As part of a long-running global campaign to create sustainable tuna fisheries and to protect our oceans from overfishing, Greenpeace was at that time running a high-profile global project aimed at encouraging Thai Union to eliminate these environmental and social problems from its supply chains. At the 2016 Bangkok conference, and having already heard from many hundreds of thousands of our supporters and concerned consumers around the world, Thai Union agreed to enter into a negotiation with Greenpeace on a far-reaching program of reform.

Ten months of discussion and negotiation followed. What emerged would be considered by many to be a landmark set of commitments from the world’s largest tuna company.

This week in Bangkok we’ll deliver the next instalment of this story. We’ll explain the commitments made by Thai Union, cover some of the progress that’s been made in delivering them and challenge other major players in the industry to respond. It’s already clear that Thai Union has been working hard to deliver on the commitments secured through our negotiation with them.

Fish congregate around a Fish Aggregating Device. (Will Rose/Greenpeace)

At the start of this year, Thai Union launched its groundbreaking Vessel Code of Conduct, designed to provide workers on every vessel in its supply chains with greater protection. Thai Union doesn’t own its own vessels, so this has meant working with suppliers who source from different fishing fleets to ensure the new standards are met. The code covers the recruitment and treatment of workers by stipulating protocols on employee welfare, benefits, wages, age, the right to freedom of association, the right to collective bargaining and non-negotiable frameworks for health and safety.

Every one of Thai Union’s existing and new suppliers now has to sign on to the code before it can conduct business with the company and agree to inspections and third-party audits to ensure compliance. This doesn’t in itself end the problem of abuse of hugely vulnerable and often trafficked immigrants working in the seafood industry, but it is a strong step forward. It can be strengthened only if other companies now step up and agree to the same high standards for the treatment of their workers at sea.

Another of Thai Union’s commitments recognizes the industry-wide problem of transparency and the observation of at-sea operations, with implications for both the treatment of workers and the implementation of good practices that protect marine life and the oceans. Thai Union has committed to ensuring 100 percent observer coverage of its long-line fleets by the end of 2020, using a combination of human and electronic observation, and is already rolling out pilot programs to deliver this and improved digital traceability. These and other measures start to take the huge strides needed to make the previously remote and precarious existence of workers at sea more visible by providing them with a voice while they are at sea.

A long-standing concern of Greenpeace has been the unregulated use of fish aggregating devices or FADs. These are satellite-tagged floating rafts around which tuna and other marine life gather, enabling purse seining vessels to take huge catches. The problem is they don’t just catch the target adult fish, they take huge numbers of juvenile tuna, sharks, turtles and even cetaceans. FAD use has increased rapidly across the Indian, Pacific and other oceans and with that growth has come a huge but hidden catching capacity that is putting heavily exploited tuna stocks under ever-greater pressure.

A Greenpeace team remove a FAD from the Indian Ocean in 2016. (Will Rose/Greenpeace)

As a result of our negotiation with them, Thai Union agreed to begin the process of reducing the number of FADs it will allow vessels supplying it to use. This is a turning point in the history of FAD use and should mark the moment when FAD use begins to decline. Already, Thai Union has informed the fleets it buys from that it expects FAD numbers to be reduced, setting reduction targets that must be met if the vessels are to continue supplying the company after 2020. At the same time, the company has agreed to increase the amount of FAD-free tuna that it will sell in key markets. This is progress, but other companies must now follow suit if we are to see the reduction in FAD numbers that almost all – including many in the industry – agree must happen to protect tuna stocks and other marine species.

There is much work still to do, but Thai Union is making progress on its commitments and reporting that progress publically. Very soon, we won’t need to take their word for it. As part of their package of commitments, the company agreed to an independent third-party audit at the end of this year to report on the progress made in the first 18 months of the agreement. This will be an important moment for Thai Union, but if good progress has been made, it will also be a critical moment for other major tuna and seafood companies because it will bring their own efforts to reform into focus.

Action, or a lack of it, from other tuna and seafood processors, brands, retailers and others will make up the third part of this story when we all meet again in Bangkok in 2020. For all its size and influence, Thai Union can’t deliver sustainable global tuna fisheries by itself. The week ahead offers many of the biggest tuna and seafood companies an opportunity to describe their own plans to reform in response to Thai Union’s improved standards. Those that stay in the sidelines or offer very little will become conspicuous by their inaction.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Oceans Deeply.

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