Changing Planet

The Fight to Change the Tuna Industry Is a Fight for People and Planet

By Oliver Knowles, Greenpeace Global Tuna Campaign Leader

Earlier this month, Greenpeace put Thai Union Group on notice that we’re out to change the way it does business. Thai Union is the largest canned tuna company in the world, owners of Chicken of the Sea in the U.S., John West in the UK, Sealect in Thailand, Century Tuna in China, Mareblu in Italy, Petit Navire in France, and others throughout the world. We’re demanding that the company end its use of abused and overexploited human labor and dependency on destructive fishing.

The tuna industry has consistently failed people around the world on both sustainability and human rights. As it stands, the majority of canned tuna available to consumers is not safe for seafood industry workers or our oceans. Tuna industry giants like Thai Union shoulder much of the blame.

Thai Union and many of the other large tuna companies around the world use fishing methods that result in overfishing and high levels of unintentional bycatch, including sharks, turtles and seabirds. These methods, purse seining with fish aggregating devices (FADs) and longlining, are often associated with illegal fishing and violations of workers’ rights as well. Investigations continue to connect the global tuna industry to major human rights abuses, and Thai Union has seen its seafood supply chains linked to forced labor and labor abuse in recent New York Times and Associated Press investigations.

Thai Union is one of a small handful of seafood mega-corporations emptying our oceans of fish. It inflicts huge harm on the ocean environment and on too many of the poorly paid, routinely abused and mistreated fishing crew who do it for them.

Already yielding revenues of U.S. $3.44 billion, the company has stated publicly that it plans to increase this to $8 billion by 2020, in just 5 years’ time. Its aggressive expansion policy is designed to penetrate and dominate key seafood markets around the world.

A recent paper argued that Thai Union and twelve other huge (but largely unheard of corporations) now have such an impact on the world’s oceans that they should be described as “keystone actors” in the global marine environment.  The paper argued that such keystone actors will be critical in shaping the future direction of seafood production and, as a consequence, the future of marine ecosystems. Put another way, they have to be put right, and fast.

Below the surface of the ocean things are changing dramatically. Overall, populations of tuna have declined, on average, by 60 percent over the last half century. The healthier more abundant skipjack stocks mask the serious decline of the larger, more vulnerable tuna species like Pacific bluefin and Southern bluefin which have declined by 90–95%. Some would describe this as free-fall.

If this pace of ecosystem change were taking place on land, governments would now be meeting in high level emergency summits. Hidden beneath the water it’s easier to ignore.

Empty Oceans

When we empty the oceans of fish, we don’t just lose a source of food. The more pressing point is this – empty oceans are dead oceans. And when they die, they stop providing all of the things we depend on them for – oxygen production, carbon storage, food, and the mechanisms that help regulate and stabilize our climate.

This month, the journal Nature Climate Change published a paper suggesting that the killing of ocean predators like sharks and tuna is increasing the speed of climate change and the ocean’s ability to mitigate against it. It points to a ‘trophic cascade’ as the loss of so many top predators allows for increased numbers of sea turtles, crabs, stingrays and starfish. These herbivores are rapidly eating their way through the world’s seagrass beds and digging up the ocean floor, damaging one of the world’s most important systems for storing and cycling carbon.

Out of Control

Put simply, global tuna fisheries are out of control. Poorly managed, with almost non-existent enforcement on the oceans, a vast range of complex and highly interwoven environmental, social and economic problems have been allowed to flourish while shareholders have sat back and watched the money roll in.

Human trafficking, routine abuse and even murder on board poorly regulated vessels. Fishing practices that are wasteful and destructive. Far reaching impacts on the future ability of our oceans to support life on earth. The injustice of food resources taken from poor parts of the world and sold for profits in the world’s wealthy markets while local communities go hungry. These are not fringe problems.


It doesn’t have to be this way. Already pressure from individuals has encouraged many of the world’s leading brands and retailers to make far reaching changes to their tuna and seafood supply chains that effectively rule out destructive fishing and labor abuse.

Greenpeace’s campaign to change Thai Union is not just about saving tuna. It is not simply a campaign to protect marine biodiversity, vitally important as these things are. Hidden for too long in the out of control behaviors of these global seafood mega-corporations are the costs to us all as people on a fragile planet.

We need a stronger and wider oceans movement of people standing up to these mega-corporations if we’re to successfully challenge these keystone actors, these ocean seafood majors, in the way that people have done to big oil like Shell and its pursuit of Arctic drilling. Social and community activists, consumers, fishermen’s associations, trade unions and labor rights campaigners, environmentalists and human rights activists must unite to protect the largest and most important ecosystem on earth.

No longer just about tuna, or any single species, we need a global movement to wrest back control of the oceans on which we are all dependent and reshape the way we use them in the interests of all. That starts with changing Thai Union.

Opinions expressed in blogs are those of the blogger and/or the blogger’s organization, and not necessarily those of the National Geographic Society. Bloggers and commenters are required to observe National Geographic’s community rules.

  • Katherine Short

    Great piece Oliver. These companies need to become much more transparent. One way to do that is to use best practice corporate reporting that covers their environmental, social and governance performance. This is not yet a professional norm in the seafood sector and needs to be vastly improved. Some thinking about this is here:

  • Tom

    Great that Nat Geo supports this sort of message. A contradiction and a shame though that Nat Geo also supports the glorifying of Tuna fishing in shoes like ‘Wicked Tuna’. If Nat Geo wants to truely promote conservation it should reconsider its corporate support of such programming.

  • MarkE

    Let’s not forget that National Geographic continues to air a TV program, Wicked Tuna, where the slaughter of Atlantic Bluefin tuna is elevated to a game show. Essentially, where the biggest and most tuna killed, and the money earned from their sale, decides the episodes ‘winners’. How can National Geographic endorse killing of this dwindling species in the name of entertainment, while publishing articles about their concern for their welfare.
    It’s arch hypocrisy, but there again, when you have a hit show their TV controllers are obviously prepared to look the other way.

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