Grupomar’s Alfonso Rosiñol De Vecchi on how Mexican tuna companies continue to reinvent themselves

"We are always looking at what can be done better and what can be improved from what we're doing now."
Grupomar Manager for Institutional Relationships Alfonso Rosiñol De Vecchi
Grupomar Manager for Institutional Relationships Alfonso Rosiñol De Vecchi | Photo courtesy of Alfonso Rosiñol De Vecchi/LinkedIn
8 Min

In 1990, the U.S. government imposed an embargo on yellowfin tuna imports harvested with purse-seine netting in the Eastern Tropical Pacific Ocean because those harvests did not comply with the Marine Mammal Protection Act. The embargo significantly impacted the Mexican tuna industry and required years of readjustment to manage.

Alfonso Rosiñol De Vecchi is the manager for institutional relationships at Mexican seafood manufacturer Grupomar, a role that includes engagement with state, local, and federal governments, as well as with ConaPesca, the Mexican federal agency that oversees the country’s fisheries and management. He is also vice president of the National Fishing and Aquaculture Chamber in Mexico, which represents over 450 seafood companies, and works with civil society group COMEPESCA to increase consumption of all Mexican fishing and aquaculture products.

SeafoodSource spoke with Rosiñol De Vecchi to discuss how the Mexican tuna industry is working to build markets and recognition for Mexican tuna almost a quarter-century after the embargo.

SeafoodSource: Has the development of Grupomar aligned with the development of the Mexican tuna industry post-embargo?

Rosiñol De Vecchi: We were a company that started off mostly fishing and selling to U.S. canneries, along with a little bit of work at the Manzanillo plant where we are based. Once the embargo came in, we had to reinvent everything. Everybody in [the industry in] Mexico had to reinvent themselves. We started to concentrate much more in processing tuna and [marketing toward] local Mexican consumption. There was also a big push with the Mexican government to help the tuna industry out, including a big consumer campaign which is very well-known with people about 30 years old and older that helped the industry survive.

Now we're a very big company, employing about 3,000 employees, of which close to 55 percent are women working directly in Mexico. Approximately 2,000 of our employees work directly at the plant or in the fishing-related parts of the business. We have a very big tuna brand called Tuny, which is very well known here in Mexico and Central America.

We are an innovative company in both fishing and products. We maintain the youngest tuna fleet in Latin America; out of a total of six boats, one was constructed last year and three others are less than 10 years old. For products, we were the first company to develop tuna salad already in a can in Mexico. We have also tried to innovate within product categories we are already participating in, such as canned tuna, pouches, and frozen products where we have developed an individually vacuum-packed tuna hamburger.

SeafoodSource: Can you provide an overview of the Mexican tuna industry?

Rosiñol De Vecchi: Most of the Mexican companies are fishing for yellowfin tuna. That's our main goal, and that's by far our main catch. There's also a little bit of skipjack and other smaller species, but that's a very small percentage of what we catch. We basically don't catch bigeye – less than 1 percent – and because of regulations, we don't normally focus on fishing for bluefin tuna. If we do, Mexican boats are on a very regulated quota to comply with Inter-American Tropical Tuna Commission [IATTC] regulations. Most of our fishing is done in waters from Mexico to Ecuador in the south and as far away as Hawaii to the west, with a lot of fishing happening inside Mexican national waters.

As an industry and as a company, we are very focused on sustainability issues. We comply 100 percent with the observer program of the IATTC that requires us to always have an observer on board, and we follow the regulations regarding how to set nets and how to retrieve them, helping dolphins escape in the process. We abide by them, and as an industry, we have had very good results. With the implementation of regulations and new methods, dolphin mortality rates fell 95 percent between 1985 and 1997, and in the latest IATTC meeting, it was confirmed that dolphin deaths were just 16 percent of the scientifically allowed quota. What many people don’t understand is that dolphins are actually helpful for us to find tuna, so it is in our best interest to have a healthy dolphin population.

SeafoodSource: What is the status of Marine Stewardship Council certification for Mexican yellowfin?

Rosiñol De Vecchi: We had MSC certification, with 36 of the 48 Mexican boats under the certification via the Pacific Alliance for Sustainable Tuna an alliance of Mexico’s leading yellowfin and skipjack fishing companies – and in 2017, we achieved MSC certification. Right now, the certification is on hold because to comply with MSC standards, certain conditions must be met, and one of them was to comply by conducting a biomass estimate study of two types of dolphins that are most related to our catch.

We have put in hundreds of hours and significant resources into trying to resolve this, and we were able to do a trial study that lasted 15 days, with drones and a boat from the Mexican Fishing and Aquaculture Institute, to understand how we could carry out the study. There are still significant issues with trying to do that study in this manner; our estimate is that its very high cost makes it financially prohibitive. 

In May 2024, we'll have a scientific conference in Mexico City where we will look at other ways of doing this biomass estimate; it might be photographic, or it might be genealogy-based. We're looking at those other ways of being able to do the survey to get the certificate out of the suspension. We are doing everything we did previously when we had the certificate, and now we keep working like that even though we don't have the certificate in place. We still work on sustainability practices constantly because we are convinced that this is the path forward, and we're committed to it with the official certificate or not.

We are always looking at what can be done better and what can be improved from what we're doing now. It's something that the whole Mexican fishing industry is very mindful of. We're a country that has about 25 percent of our fisheries certified in some way, which is a lot more than most other countries, because the Mexican fishermen as a whole understand that taking care of the resource is something that's going to help us fish more in the future. As an industry, and particularly as a company, we're very committed to always finding better ways of doing things.

SeafoodSource: You are working with the government, regional fishery management organizations, and NGOs to promote more responsible tuna fishing and management. Why are you investing significant resources in sustainability while continuing to fish in a way that still has NGO detractors? Are you shooting for long-term assured supply, meeting consumer demand, or just being a responsible company?  

Rosiñol De Vecchi: It's a little bit of everything, and this comes from our founder and president, Don Antonio Suarez, that we're doing the right thing. So it's that conviction that it's the correct thing we have to do for this world and we want to do what's right while still providing food for our customers while we're taking care of nature.

Certainly, long-term assured supply is very important to us. Everything that we're investing in as a company – new processing machinery, new boats, and new product innovations – are long term, high-priced investments that don’t pay off in the short term. These investments are based on the belief that we're going to be able to fish for tuna for a long time into the future.

We recognize that there's a growing part of the consumer base who is a little bit more involved with sustainability, and we feel that it's important to support them and their preferences. Certification helps with that. That's why we're still striving for MSC; even though we keep working as a sustainable company, we're looking for that certificate so that the consumer can very easily know we're doing the right thing without having to do a such a deep dive into our company or the fishery.

SeafoodSource: How do you see markets buying Mexican tuna changing in the near future?

Rosiñol De Vecchi: We invest a lot in making innovative products and new types of presentations because that helps us keep growing. We know that our products are very nutritious and much more affordably priced than other proteins. So, if we're innovative and doing new things – not just having the typical tuna in water or tuna in oil – that helps us keep growing. The Mexican market is a very interesting market for us. It's grown exponentially in the years since the embargo, and there's still growth to be had. But there is also a lot of competition out there.

We at Grupomar have been working to satisfy as many potential existing markets as we can; we have both halal and kosher certificates. 

The U.S. market is certainly a very interesting market as well. From what I see visiting U.S. supermarkets, the Mexican tuna industry has been much more innovative and has a much bigger variety in products compared to what is sold in the U.S. I think that there is potential in the U.S. market, but there is a barrier because the NGOs there do not like the way we catch tuna. That’s a difficult dilemma we face. Yes, we do set our nets in areas with dolphins because they help us find the tuna a lot more easily, which lowers our cost and helps us maintain a lower cost for our products.

As a company, we take a lot of care and effort to reduce mortality during those sets. Other ways of fishing tuna that do not involve the dolphin set is fish-aggregating devices (FADs). What we've seen is that those types of sets normally capture a smaller-sized tuna that might not have been mature enough to reproduce. That doesn't help us in the future, and there's also a large bycatch of other species in those FAD sets. So, even though we have work to be done so that dolphins do not die in our sets, we feel it's much more sustainable. This is the part that we're trying to help the consumer understand, which would energize our growth in the U.S. market.

SeafoodSource: It sounds like the Mexican government has been very supportive of promoting the tuna industry, but has it also been supportive in terms of stock assessments or the management oversight you need to ensure long-term supply?

Rosiñol De Vecchi: The Mexican government throughout the years has worked with us and supported the tuna industry in different ways. They helped us 25 to 30 years ago with the campaign to encourage Mexicans to consume more tuna but also in getting scientific information to the IATTC so that tuna stock assessments can be done on a yearly basis. The Mexican government also worked with us looking at how to do the stock assessment for the aforementioned dolphin survey for the MSC. It was a Mexican government scientific boat that worked with us to do the trial run. So, they've been very involved.

Of course, there are more things to be done. On the consumption side, there are fewer resources aimed at campaigns to help us get more products to consumers, and I'm not talking just for the tuna industry here; I'm talking about the whole fishing industry. The resources for those kinds of campaigns have gone down significantly. That's an area where I know we can work more with the Mexican government. Overall, we have a very good working relationship, and they have been very helpful in the stock assessment, which is one of the most recent things we've done with them.

SeafoodSource: What do you see as the biggest threat to the Mexican tuna sector?

Rosiñol De Vecchi: As a tuna industry, I think the biggest threat is probably the expansion or creation of new reserve marine areas that are being proposed, where they do not want anybody fishing. It is a threat because these are large areas and very difficult to manage and enforce laws since very few resources are allocated; thus, you have very little surveillance. The legal, established industry respects the law; it stays out of marine reserves, and we have our satellite localization in real time so we don't go into those areas. What we end up seeing is that vessels engaging in IUU fishing have an easy run at the fish, and nobody sees them. Nobody does an inspection, so it can end up being worse because the reserve could get overfished because there are no legal fishermen for surveillance or to discourage IUU vessels.

What we've told the NGOs is don't take us out. Let's find a way to work together. Let us be the eyes of what's going on and not have these illegal fishing vessels here.

I don’t think reserves are bad, but the money needed to properly fund their oversight is not there. If the NGOs and the properly established companies work together, there might be other solutions that are more beneficial to everyone. In tuna, of course, there is some IUU and overfishing going on. One way of combating that is having a legal fleet that's conscientious of what needs to be done that helps everybody else comply. If these new areas are established, we might need to go further out to fish, which might make it more expensive to catch and then to sell to the customer. We also might have a bigger carbon footprint since we're going further out to catch it.

That's what I would call the biggest threat – not because we don't want to conserve the fish but because I don't think that's the proper way of looking at it. Those big protected areas might help when we're talking about mining and other types of conservation and protection, but for fishing, I don't think it's the right course to take.

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