South Pacific Tuna Corporation executive director criticizes global tuna trade

J. Douglas Hines, until recently one of the owners of the fleet operated by the South Pacific Tuna Corporation, said he exited the business because he believes the U.S. tuna-fishing fleet has to “play to a different standard.”

Hines, who has since branched into vegan seafood alternatives, formerly worked as the chief operating officer and board director of canned tuna firm Bumble Bee Foods and held executive positions at Chicken of the Sea and Mitsui before building a fleet of tuna-fishing vessels operating in the Western Pacific Ocean. He sold his ownership stake of the vessels to one of the company’s U.S.-based partners in 2018, but will stay on as executive director and board member with the South Pacific Tuna Company through 2019, he told SeafoodSource.

Hines cited overlapping and unfair standards for the U.S. fleet as the primary reason for his decision last year to sell off his investment in the fleet of 14 purse-seiners, saying current norms in the industry are not sustainable.

“If you look at the oceans, between the pollution and overfishing, they’re a mess,” he said. “The high seas are particularly troublesome – there’s no law there. And you can walk over the ocean on the back of all the Chinese vessels that are out there.”

In the year since his April 2018 announcement, South Pacific Tuna Corporation has sold two boats in its fleet, with more for sale. The vessels are “still in great shape,” but apparently are “not overly in demand.”

“To want to buy the boats, you have to have access to the fishery. And to have that access, you have to buy fishing days. What has happened is over recent years, the cost of those days has gone through the roof, to the point where it is USD 600 to 700 [EUR  535 to 625] per ton of fish. That’s quite prohibitive,” he said.

The Parties to the Nauru Agreement (PNA) has been a strong force in optimizing the value of their marine resources and at bringing more money to the eight island nations that belong to the organization.

“But they have made it more challenging for the U.S. fleet to fish there,” Hines said.

Adding to that challenge is the decision by the U.S. government to withdraw from the South Pacific Tuna Treaty in 2016. The agreement allowed for U.S. purse seine vessels to fish in the exclusive economic zones of 16 Pacific island countries in exchange for payments for fishing days.

“It’s sitting on a desk. Nothing is moving through the U.S. Congress now,” he said. “I believe the U.S. will not renew the treaty. If that’s the case, I believe the U.S. fleet will go a different direction.”

That may already be happening, he acknowledged, as fleets belonging to the countries of the Western Pacific – or those with close partnerships, such as companies with joint ventures – have a significant advantage in the tuna-fishing game in the Western Pacific, Hines said.

“All the U.S.-flagged fleets operate the same as they would in-shore. Other fleets don’t have the same regulatory compliance,” he said. “U.S.-flagged fleet has to – and wants to – observe FAD closures. But all these Chinese and Korean companies with joint ventures with local companies, they can fly a Kiribati flag and fish FADs in the archipelagic waters during the FAD shutdown. It has opened up the fishery to abuse.”

Hines said he’s not surprised to hear that Renato Curto, the owner of U.S. tuna-fishing company Tri Marine, is seeking an exit from the business.

“It’s time. I’ve known those guys [at Tri Marine] too many years… They were always strong because led by strong people. But we’re all getting older. It’s just a good fit longer term for Renato and his group of guys transition out that way,” he said. “There’s less demand for a traditional global-type trader – at least on this side of the pond. The traders are all getting bought by processors – there’s lots of integration going on. [Tri Marine] doesn’t have the supply or market they once had, because nowadays, the fishing fleets are direct or integrated into a supply chain, either owned by European Union- or Asia-based conglomerates. 

The tuna industry has always been “a difficult business at best,” Hines said, but now it’s nearly impossible to make ends meet.

“Every day, something else illegal is going on out there. It’s going to take a lot of effort to clean the mess up,” he said. “I’ve fought for years to improve the fishery. I pushed for [Marine Stewardship Council] certification, Fair Trade certification, ensuring there were fair labor practices on board our boats. But other distant-water flags don’t have those like concerns or oversight, and the U.S. government agencies don’t have like concern to work with its fleets. I realized a long time ago that I was fighting an uphill battle. But only recently did I acknowledge that I wasn’t going to win.”


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