Conservation news

Tuna supply chains under scrutiny as Bumble Bee brand changes hands

  • Last month, Taiwan-based Fong Chun Formosa Fishery Company (FCF), one of the top three global tuna traders, bought U.S. canned-tuna brand Bumble Bee Foods for $928 million.
  • The acquisition will significantly boost FCF’s economic clout and give it a public face through the sale of Bumble Bee products.
  • FCF president Max Chou emphasized the companies’ mutual “commitment to sustainability and global fisheries conservation.”
  • But differing definitions of what constitutes sustainability in the complex tuna industry, as well as concerns over workers’ rights, suggest there’s work to do to build confidence in the environmental and ethical pedigree of the cutely cartooned tuna cans on supermarket shelves.

On Jan. 31, Taiwan-based Fong Chun Formosa Fishery Company (FCF), one of the top three global tuna traders, bought U.S. canned-tuna brand Bumble Bee Foods for $928 million.

Bumble Bee, a 120-year-old business that holds a 22% share of the U.S.’s shelf-stable seafood market, declared bankruptcy late last year after pleading guilty to price-fixing alongside two other canned-tuna giants, StarKist and Chicken of the Sea.

FCF has supplied Bumble Bee with tuna for the past three decades. The acquisition will significantly boost the company’s economic clout, and will also give it a public face through the sale of Bumble Bee products.

In a statement following the sale, FCF president Max Chou emphasized the companies’ mutual “commitment to sustainability and global fisheries conservation.” But differing definitions of what constitutes sustainability in the complex tuna industry, as well as concerns over workers’ rights on distant-water fishing vessels, suggest there’s work to do to build confidence in the environmental and ethical pedigree of the cutely cartooned tuna cans on supermarket shelves.

What does responsibility look like?

Global tuna supply chains can be difficult to unravel: there are “a lot of layers of complexity” to the industry, Chris Anderson, a fisheries economist at the University of Washington, told Mongabay. Tuna are highly migratory, deep-ocean fish, “so there’s no one country that can possibly be in charge of ensuring [their] sustainability, because the individual animals swim throughout large regions of the ocean, and enter into the EEZ [exclusive economic zone] of many countries, and spend a lot of time where in fact nobody’s in charge,” he said. “So that makes it difficult on the regulatory side. It can also make them difficult to count.”

In recent years, governments and industry and civil society groups have made concerted efforts to improve how they manage the world’s tuna stocks. Many canned-tuna brands now offer nods to sustainability on their packaging, though their claims often require scrutiny: “wild-caught,” for instance, means little in an industry in which very few fish are actually farmed.

At face value, Bumble Bee’s sustainability credentials look robust. There’s a “Trace My Catch” page on its website, where customers can track the origin of every can of tuna, including the species, region, vessel and fishing technique used. The company is also a founding member of the International Seafood Sustainability Foundation (ISSF), a global partnership between scientists, tuna processors and the international conservation NGO WWF.

Even so, the NGO Greenpeace’s 2017 Tuna Shopping Guide gave Bumble Bee a failing grade for its sustainability and ethics, ranking the company 17th out of 20 well-known brands in the U.S. market. While it lauded Bumble Bee for its transparency via its catch-tracing website and its creation of a separate sustainable brand called Wild Selections, it criticized the company’s failure to provide any “responsibly caught” options under its flagship brand. Greenpeace defines “responsibly caught” as using methods that target mature tuna and limit bycatch, such as pole-and-line and trolling.

Phillipine purse seine fishing. Image courtesy of Greenpeace.

Bumble Bee gets its skipjack tuna (Katsuwonus pelamis) from purse seiners, which enclose all the fish in an area in a large net that’s drawn tight at the top and bottom. When used in conjunction with fish-aggregating devices (FADs), the nets catch large numbers of juvenile fish and considerable bycatch of other species. The company’s albacore tuna (Thunnus alalunga) comes from longliners, which also yield a lot of bycatch, including seabirds, sharks, turtles and dolphins. In fact, U.S. consumers last year brought lawsuits against Bumble Bee, StarKist and Chicken of the Sea for falsely labeling their products as “Dolphin Safe” despite using the above techniques, which are known to harm and kill dolphins.

Greenpeace has also critiqued the validity of the ISSF as an industry front designed to protect companies from criticism on environmental and employment issues. However, Anderson said the ISSF has “done a pretty good job of … providing some industry pressure to do good science-based management of the stocks that they depend on. These people have plants that cost tens of millions of dollars to build, and they’ve got boats that are worth tens of millions of dollars — they want to be able to use these to make money catching and selling fish for the long term.”

Anderson also said the skipjack and albacore stocks that Bumble Bee sources its fish from “are in good shape.”. He added that while FADs accumulate a higher proportion of bycatch than other methods, they make fishing trips very efficient. “The tradeoff presented by FADs is that you catch some other stuff, because there’s no single-species fish-attracting device,” he said, “but it saves a lot of fuel.”

Anderson also said that the environmental impacts of tuna harvest are relatively low compared with many other protein sources. “If somebody is concerned about sustainability, and they’re looking at a can of tuna or a hamburger, there’s a very clear environmental choice, right?” he said. “The way that most of the tuna is caught, the fish stocks are sustainable and the carbon footprints are pretty low; it’s really among the more environmentally sustainable choices you can make.”

Doubts over data

Lisa Tsai, the East Asia lead for Greenpeace’s ocean campaign, told Mongabay the general lack of transparency in the industry calls into question the idea that tuna — and bycatch — is actually being taken out of the ocean at sustainable levels. She said Greenpeace has been pushing FCF and other tuna traders to make their catch and bycatch data public, “so that not only the authorities but also the academics will be able to do more studies to assess this situation.”

Tsai also said that longliners benefit from monitoring loopholes. While all purse seiners in the Pacific are required to carry observers who check compliance with sustainability requirements, only 5% of longliners are required to do so. Longliners are also allowed to offload their catch to other vessels at sea, a practice known as transshipment, rather than returning to port to do so. “So it’s really hard to monitor what’s happening,” she said. “We should either increase observer coverage efficiently, or limit the time of these fishing vessels at sea, or ban transhipment at sea.”

Greenpeace is not the only organization concerned about the lack of monitoring. In a June 2019 statement, 13 environmental NGOs, including Greenpeace and the ISSF, called for the world’s regional fisheries management organizations, international bodies that manage fish stocks in particular areas, to require observer coverage on all industrial tuna-fishing vessels.

Bumble Bee and FCF are currently involved in a fishery improvement project (FIP) — a multi-stakeholder effort to improve the sustainability of a fishery — for longliners in the western and central Pacific Ocean. The project aims to increase observer coverage to 100% in five years’ time. FCF offers two FAD-free tuna programs, one of which is also certified by the Marine Stewardship Council (MSC). The company also has a sustainability policy that emphasizes traceability and meeting international standards, though it’s somewhat light on specifics.

Frozen albacore tuna (Thunnus alalonga) on fishing boat in Pacific Ocean. Image courtesy of Greenpeace.

Human rights on the high seas

Tsai said she’s concerned that the FIP is too slow-moving, and that while observers will be tasked with monitoring fishing data and illegal, unreported and unregulated fishing, they won’t track labor conditions. In December 2019, a Greenpeace report exposed inhumane conditions for migrant workers on distant-water fishing vessels operating out of Taiwan — including some that supply FCF.

Taiwan has different labor regulations for inshore and distant-water vessels. Many workers on distant-water vessels are migrants, and the regulation to protect them “is relatively weak,” Tsai said. The report authors found that agents who recruit workers often took large cuts of the wages they’d promised, and sometimes the money disappeared entirely. Once at sea, many workers reported being subjected to abuse, neglect, overwork, and denial of access to urgent medical care, which has resulted in a number of deaths.

An FCF spokesperson declined to comment on questions from Mongabay. In a statement responding to an earlier (2018) Greenpeace report on the issue, FCF president Chou said that the human rights abuses referred to had already been addressed and that the company requires its fleet to meet social responsibility requirements and is committed to “ensuring respect for all fishing laborers.” However, he also acknowledged “considerable challenges related to our supply chains and eclectic providers.”

Given FCF’s long-standing supplier relationship with Bumble Bee, and the monitoring challenges she outlined, Tsai said there’s a good chance that Bumble Bee consumers have already unwittingly consumed tuna that’s been caught using forced labor — thus contravening U.S. import laws. “These seafood giants like FCF and Thai Union need to have clear policies to deter these practices,” she said. “And that should apply to their whole supply chain.”

Shoaling skipjack tuna (Katsuwonus pelamis). Image by Tomas Kotouc.

Monica Evans is a freelance writer based in Aotearoa, New Zealand, who specializes in environmental and community development issues. She has a master’s degree in development studies from Victoria University of Wellington. Find her at monicaevans.org.

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