Nov 22nd, 2022

Thai Union’s first at-sea assessment strengthens improvements for fisher’s work and welfare

Between 15th April and 18th May 2022, Thai Union commissioned the first consultant to spend a period of weeks working on board a carrier vessel to assess working conditions and welfare of the crew working on longline vessels. This was part of Thai Union’s efforts to bring even more transparency to its supply chains. This was in addition to the in-port audits the company has been conducting with the fleet since 2018 which covers the content of Thai Union’s Vessel Code of Conduct (VCoC) and the first at-sea assessment of its kind conducted anywhere. 

We contracted MRAG Europe, an independent fisheries and aquatic resourcing company, to carry out the project on a Malaysian flagged carrier vessel operating in the Indian Ocean and which is part of the Indian Ocean Longline Fishery Improvement Project. 

The aim of the project was to explore if this type of assessment can complement existing satellite and electronic monitoring as well as in port inspections and add value to assessing conformance with the Fisher Work and Welfare Program (FWW). The FWW Program applies globally to the fishing vessels that supply Thai Union with fish and other seafood. 

MRAG is experienced in sending observers and assessors on board fishing and carrier vessels. The consultant selected to complete the trip had already worked on the same carrier vessel previously. During his 34 days at sea, he was able to assess 19 longline vessels. All fishing vessel owners had signed a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) committing their consent to the inspection taking place, and their cooperation with the consultant. There were some instances where the inspection could not go ahead due to poor weather conditions. In these cases, the consultant used footage from electronic monitoring cameras instead. 

MRAG’s consultant said about his at-sea work: “It was a priceless experience to board the longline vessels within a program which was implemented to improve the health, safety and living conditions of the fishers. In my 13 years of field experience, this was the first time that I saw that fishers felt cared for and not alone and have a voice. The at-sea assessment program for labor conditions could be the most effective way to provide this worldwide. It is a highly valuable bridge between the fishers and their human rights that needs to be implemented regularly.” 

Caption: This year, Thai Union commissioned the first consultant to assess working conditions and welfare of the crew on longline vessels. 


Dangerous job – invaluable insights 

In this blog, I want to highlight that these types of inspections at sea are not without their risks and that we did not take the decision to conduct this project lightly. Fishery observers working at sea can be subject to harassment, intimidation, or, in worst cases, death. According to the Association of Professional Observers (APO), there were one or two deaths per year between 2015 and 2020. It was therefore critical that Thai Union worked closely with a highly capable partner who could advise us and ensure the safety of the consultant. 

The project provided invaluable insight into what could be gained during an at-sea assessment and the processes involved compared to an in-port audit. Ultimately, it found that both types play a role in providing a more holistic view of fishing activity. For example: 

 Other impacts of the project include that additional checks have been added, providing more information into the existing improvement program with the fleet, developing more robust corrective action plans and continuing engagement with the supplier.   

The Covid-19 pandemic made the process more challenging, delaying the project by almost two years and requiring extra protocols to be followed, such as quarantining in a hotel in Mauritius and doing multiple tests before and during the embarkment. 

Caption: The consultant was at sea for 34 days and assessed 19 longline vessels. 

The future of at-sea assessments 

After completing this project, we will be able to build on the experience gained and include this into our Fisher Work and Welfare program, sharing with our customers, stakeholders and suppliers on the understanding we have gained, and any corrective actions to be taken. This will not only support the work in this fleet but will help us with all the other long-line fleets that we are working with through the FWW Program. We want to help create protocols around what should be covered in an at-sea assessment versus an in-port audit, not just in our program but any of the other programs and initiatives that are aiming to drive continuous improvement in the fishing sector. We are also planning to conduct further assessments at-sea in other FIPs and where it is safe to deepen our knowledge about the operations of other fleets that we source from.  

Thai Union is committed to making operations in fishing more transparent – an ambition that can only be achieved by deepening relationships with suppliers, demonstrating accountability and supporting suppliers on their improvement journey. 

Caption: Thai Union is committed to making operations in fishing more transparent.