Jul 5th, 2022

Working towards a sustainable ocean economy

By Tracy Murai
Responsible Sourcing Director, Europe

Working at sea is a challenging job, with long hours aboard vessels and extended periods away from shore. For companies such as Thai Union Group, this presents it’s own unique set of challenges, such as ensuring sufficient oversight and inspection of those vessels.

As one of the world’s seafood leaders, Thai Union is committed to driving continuous improvement on board the fishing vessels that we source from. Being an agent for positive change in the seafood sector is central to our corporate goal of Healthy Living, Healthy Oceans.

At the World Ocean Summit 2022, I delivered a presentation to outline the work Thai Union is doing under its global sustainability strategy, SeaChange® and its four key programs: Safe & Legal Labor, Responsible Sourcing, Responsible Operations and People & Communities.

With a focus on a sustainable ocean economy, I looked at some of the components of Thai Union’s work that are specific to the oceans and our work that is focused on delivering improvements in sustainability ‘on and in the water’.

Demonstrating reduced impact on the environment along with understanding the fragility of fish stocks and ocean health has been a concern for the seafood industry for many decades.

Over this time we have seen ever accelerating interest from campaigners, NGOs and media.

Understanding the impacts of fishing on the ocean and ways to mitigate them has been a staple of the conversations in technical working groups and committees all over the world. As a result, the questions the seafood sector has to ask ourselves include: Is the fishery rated green for impact by an NGO? What do the science organizations say about the stock levels? And what impacts is the fishing activity having on the marine ecosystem and non-target species?

For Thai Union, ensuring that the seas are sustainable now and for future generations is one of our overarching objectives. So, how can a seafood processor support improvements towards a sustainable future for the oceans?

A central part of this are our “Tuna Commitments”. Tuna is an important species for our business – we are one of the world’s largest producers of shelf-stable tuna products. So we have created a work program with measurable commitments.

One of these is a commitment to source 100 percent of our branded tuna from fisheries that meet the Marine Stewardship Council fisheries standard or from those who are working towards it.

This commitment sees us working with our suppliers, and sometimes our competitors, through a process known as a “Fishery Improvement Project” or “FIPs” for short, to achieve the MSC standard.

This work includes aspects such as implementing bycatch mitigation measures, better design of Fish Aggregating Devices and being advocates for better management of fisheries to ensure that they are sustainable.

For us, this work started in 2014 during our partnership with WWF. Since this time, we now source around 90 percent of our branded tuna from fisheries involved in FIPs or MSC.

Much of our work is delivered with partners with whom we look too to share ideas, to enhance knowledge, share resources and implement joint solutions. Some of our collaborations include the International Seafood Sustainability Foundation, Seafood Business for Ocean Stewardship (SeaBOS), The Nature Conservancy, and others.

Our partnership with TNC, started a year ago, is focused on increasing transparency at sea and technology innovation on board vessels. This will support our commitment to source from vessels which have 100 percent coverage of observers or electronic monitoring.

The work in our supply chains and responsible sourcing pillar is underpinned by our commitment to transparency and full traceability.

We are members of the Global Dialogue on Seafood Traceability and the Ocean Disclosure Project. This is a platform that shows where we source fish from. We promote this to consumers through our brands and can trackers, whereby a consumer can type information into the tracker online and find out what vessel caught the fish and from where.

Over the years, the focus of the sustainability work of the seafood industry and fishing sector has grown in scope, not losing sight of the environmental commitments but to recognise the dangerous and difficult conditions faced by fishers.

Following the development of our Business Ethics and Labor Code of Conduct, in 2017 Thai Union published its fishing Vessel Code of Conduct (VCoC) and improvement program. This was developed in collaboration with Greenpeace and the International transport workers federation.

The principles in both codes are the same, but there was a need to create clauses to reflect the unique working conditions at sea. To implement the VCoC, we commissioned independent consultants to conduct audits of the vessels that Thai Union sources from.

The result is the beginning of the next stage, which is understanding the areas for improvement that need to be addressed for the vessel to meet the code. Working with suppliers to understand the causes and the actions that could be taken to improve is a process of ongoing and continuous engagement.

To date we have completed almost 200 vessel audits and interviewed almost 900 fishers.

The work that Thai Union is doing does not replace the need to improve regulation and government inspections of fishing vessels by many countries. We believe that adoption of international measures that set clear standards for fishing vessels is an important and something that needs to happen to create lasting change.

Ratification of instruments such as the International Labour Organisation’s Convention 188 on work in fishing and the port state measures agreement will provide a framework that will support the efforts CSOs, companies, unions and many others working in this space.

We hope that the work we are doing will help to raise the standards of the vessels that we do business with, that it will demonstrate the journey of the work, and also help develop an approach to implementing changes that will meet requirements in these conventions.