Blog

The Hidden Costs of Canned Tuna

Created on Tuesday, 24 November 2015

The Western and Central Pacific region is home to the most productive tuna stock on the planet, providing half of the global tuna supply. It’s an expansive area comprised of small island nations, many of them lacking a navy or air force to monitor and patrol their surrounding waters. The Western and Central Pacific Fisheries Commission has various monitoring and surveillance programs in the region, but their efforts are exhausted in an area that covers nearly 20 percent of the Earth’s surface. Combine low levels of monitoring and enforcement with a high value and high demand commodity like tuna, and unsustainable practices such as illegal, unreported, and unregulated (IUU) fishing and forced labor aboard vessels often arise.

The estimated total value of the Pacific tuna catch is $2.4 billion U.S. dollars, of which only $260 million goes to the Pacific island nations from whose waters these tuna are taken. The pressure to minimize costs and maximize profit can lead to forced labor and other human rights violations aboard tuna fishing vessels. Foreign crew can be brought on board under false pretenses to find that they are living in inhumane conditions, given little or no money for their work, and kept at sea for months or years at a time, completely cut off from their friends and family. Poor communication and chain-of-command orders between the captain and foreign crew has been linked to multiple crew injuries and deaths. Many of these illegally operating vessels hide these incidences and their practices by transshipping their tuna catch to smaller boats that then take the catch to port, allowing these large vessels to stay hidden at sea for extended periods of time. This lack of visibility has helped keep the Western and Central Pacific tuna fishery out of previous media exposes on the egregious human rights abuses occurring in the global fishing industry, but recent reports have begun to reveal the brutal practices that can occur aboard these tuna vessels.

Worldwide attempts to keep up with the global demand for tuna have left 35% of tuna stocks overfished and 13% at risk from overfishing. Commonly used gears to catch tuna include purse seines, longlines, and free-floating rafts known as fish aggregating devices, or FADS. These catch methods generally have greater impact on tuna stocks and ocean ecosystems than the more selective methods like troll and pole and line. Approximately half of the global tuna catch comes from FAD fisheries and an estimated 30,000 to 50,000 are placed into the Western and Central Pacific Ocean every year. FADs are highly effective at luring the target species of skipjack tuna, but unfortunately also attract endangered turtles, rays, sharks, and juvenile yellowfin and bigeye tuna whose populations are overfished and declining.

Some companies are aware of the environmental, traceability, and human rights risks of current tuna sourcing practices and are taking the steps to provide more sustainable options for their customers. These include FishWise’s retail partners who carry sustainably sourced private brands of canned tuna such as Albertson’s Safeway Kitchens, Target’s Simply Balanced, and Hy-Vee’s Select. To learn more about popular brands of canned tuna on supermarket shelves and which ones are leaders in sustainable and ethical tuna sourcing, read Greenpeace’s Tuna Shopping Guide.

(Photo credit: NOAA)