Greenpeace fumbles Bumble Bee alert

Once again, nonprofit environmental activist group Greenpeace is working overtime against the fishing industry, now using cherry-picked evidence to talk investors out of buying Bumble Bee Foods, which the group argues is destroying the oceans with environmentally harmful fishing practices.

The company, based in San Diego in the United States, is best known for providing mass-market canned and pouched tuna. According to a report surfacing in June by Reuters citing unnamed sources, Bumble Bee’s owner, U.K.-based investment firm Lion Capital, is putting the company up for sale for USD 1.5 billion (EUR 1.2 billion).

Since then, rumors have been flying over who may be interested in buying, including unconfirmed speculation that even Thai Union may by exploring the idea, but Greenpeace unveiled an open letter last week to potential investors urging them not to buy. The letter reads like a short report on Bumble Bee’s operations and the company’s impact on tuna stocks and other species.

At a glance, the report seems fairly legitimate — all of Greenpeace’s claims are documented, with links provided to multiple sources that appear to back everything Greenpeace says is wrong with Bumble Bee’s practices.

But independent research of some of the group’s key claims reveals contradictory information, some of it from the very sources Greenpeace cites.

Greenpeace starts its diatribe with a pronouncement that basically says nobody eats tuna anymore. As proof, the group alleges “U.S. canned tuna consumption has dropped 40 percent in 25 years,” and cites data from the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. The data shows that per capita consumption was recorded at 4 pounds in 1990 and 2.4 pounds in 2012.

Even if the data shows a 40 percent drop, anyone who thinks people aren’t eating canned tuna in the United States anymore only needs to look at the National Fisheries Institute’s Top 10 list. An annual assessment of seafood consumption in America based on data from NMFS, the list has shown that canned tuna has been the second most-consumed seafood product in America for at least the past decade (shrimp is No. 1). Only in the most recent version of the report has tuna slipped to the third position, overcome by salmon, but even that could be more the result of record Alaska salmon runs in 2013.

The other big issue is the stock of albacore tuna. Greenpeace cites data from a June 2014 report from the Scientific Committee of the Western and Central Pacific Fisheries Commission (WCPFC) which “raised concern” about the sustainability of albacore tuna stocks.

The report, “Trends in the South Pacific albacore longline and troll fisheries,” does note a potential long-term problem with albacore stocks, but the key phrase here is “long-term.” The report’s summary indicates “more than a 30 percent chance” stocks will fall to unacceptable levels by 2030, so we won’t be hitting that crisis level for another 15 years. Hardly cause to push the panic button.

But again, the WCPFC has more to say on the issue that Greenpeace has conveniently left out of its advisory to investors. In September, the International Seafood Sustainability Foundation (ISSF) produced its annual tuna stock status update. It cites WCPFC data, and notes South Pacific albacore “extends beyond the WCPFC Convention Area,” and only discusses areas within the council’s purview, which suggests that even the WCPFC’s perspective, by its own admission, isn’t perfect. The ISSF report acknowledges once again that while longlining could cause stock problems in the future, as of now, “overfishing is not occurring.”

For the North Pacific, the situation is better. Granted, it may not be as important an area, but it should be noted that the ISSF’s report clearly states “The stock is not in an overfished state.” It shows that fishermen still use longlines, but only for 40 percent of the fishing, the rest covered by trolling and pole-and-line fishing, and the use of longlining in the region for albacore has “shown a decreasing trend since 1997.”

So while Greenpeace may have accurate citations for its data, the group is ignoring other data from the same sources in its key arguments, data that at the very least muddies the waters and takes some wind out of Greenpeace’s sails. Greenpeace couches its report as a guide to potential investors, and documents its assertions with credible sources, but an environmentalist NGO out to eliminate longline fishing dispensing investment advice regarding a tuna company makes as much sense as animal welfare activist group PETA writing a guide to grilling short ribs.

It’s doubtful that a more rounded study of the facts is missing from this letter by accident — it’s too well written and well documented for mistakes like this to have slipped through. More likely, the additional facts cited here didn’t do much to support Greenpeace’s cause, so they decided it best to simply pretend those facts don’t exist.

Monitoring stocks is a good idea, as is researching more environmentally friendly fishing gear, but Greenpeace is out of line trying to derail a potential sale of a tuna company. If no one buys Bumble Bee, and Lion Capital really doesn’t want to run it anymore, the company’s future will be in jeopardy. Maybe that’s what Greenpeace wants, but the industry and the environment will be better served keeping the company alive and working with it to find practical and more eco-friendly business practices everyone can learn from.


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