US tuna fleet faces tenuous future

Published on
August 1, 2019

Obscured by the size and impact of the mega-deal announced earlier this month that placed American seafood giant Tri Marine under the control the even-larger conglomerate Bolton Group International was an intriguing footnote: Tri Marine owner Renato Curto would retain ownership of the company’s U.S. fleet.

Brie Adderley, a spokesperson for Curto, acknowledged the challenge Curto took on by retaining the fleet, in comments to SeafoodSource. She said Curto kept the fleet “In spite of the fact that the fishing business is increasingly costly and challenging, especially for fleets focused on quality and compliance, and with the ever-increasing number of regulations and restrictions.”

The decision contrasted sharply with the recent actions of fellow tuna magnate J. Douglas Hines, whose company, the South Pacific Tuna Corporation, just sold eight of its 14 U.S.-flagged tuna purse-seiners, with plans to discharge the remainder of its fleet as soon as it can find a buyer.

In an email to SeafoodSource, Hines said the buyers of the vessels included companies from South Korea, China, The Philippines, and South Pacific island nations. 

“Personally, for me to see the industry coming to an end as well as the U.S. position in the Pacific is saddening, but I guess part of our world today,” he said. “It could sound like sour grapes, but we are forced to liquidate out of the investment and fisheries and we have to deal with the human side of these matters.”

The tuna industry has always been “a difficult business at best,” Hines said, but now it’s nearly impossible to make ends meet. Rising costs for fishing days sold by the Parties to the Nauru Agreement, stringent regulation by U.S. authorities, and lower standards and Hines’ belief that vessels from other countries are more willing to behave unethically or even illegally led him to his decision to sell.

“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.”

Hines isn’t the only American tuna-boat owner divesting from the sector, according to American Tunaboat Association (ATA) Executive Director Brian Hallman. In 2016, in testimony to a U.S. Congressional committee, Hallman said the U.S. purse-seine fleet consisted of 40 vessels. Just three years later, the fleet is down to 24 boats.

While American holdings in the tuna sector have decreased, Hallman estimates the total number of purse-seiners operating in the Western Pacific has increased to around 250. The ATA represents all of the large U.S. flag purse-seine vessels fishing in the Pacific Ocean, 

“We’re one of the high-cost operators,” Hallman told SeafoodSource. “For various reasons, some of which would not surprise you, we’re seeing the reduction of the fleet because of these high costs. Part of them are regulatory by the U.S. government, and part of that is the high cost of access demanded by Pacific island countries. It’s sad but not surprising to someone like me, who’s been around this industry a long time.”

Hallman lists safety standards, minimum wage rules, and forced compliance with conservation mandates as the primary regulatory costs the U.S. fleet faces.

“We’re not against those at all, but other countries like China don’t necessarily do any of that,” he said.

Hallman would like to see consistent regulation of the tuna fishery by the three regional fishery management organizations (RFMOs), which he said is being held up by member-states of the Western and Central Pacific Fisheries Commission (WCPFC), 

“The U.S. purse seine fleet is in fierce competition with fleets from China, Japan, Korea, the Philippines, and Taiwan, as well as with others. And yet, in the nearly 12-year existence of the WCPFC, it is only the U.S. fleet that has reported any cases of vessels not complying with a WCPFC management measure. This is incredible but true. Why? Because the WCPFC does not have a robust compliance regime,” Hallman said in his testimony to Congress. “Compliance is the Achilles heel of all five of the tuna regional fisheries management organizations. It is very difficult to achieve effective compliance in these organizations because of the essential truth that compliance is the responsibility of the flag state, and most flag states, for reasons of culture and resources, do not pay close attention to compliance. The U.S. government does – hence a playing field which is not level.”

Hallman points to the shrinking of the American fleet as evidence that the U.S. government is not doing enough to help and defend it on the international stage. Besides putting greater pressure on the WCPFC and other RFMOs, such as the Inter-American Tropical Tuna Commission (IATTC), to enact and equally enforce science-based rules, Hallman said the government could do a better job in negotiating fishing treaties, such as the South Pacific Tuna Treaty, to ensure the U.S. fleet’s access to the most bountiful fishing areas.

“The U.S. needs to get its fair share in order to maintain a fleet,” he said. “The government is the one that negotiates on behalf of the fleet. We need the government to help us if we’re going to survive.”

In the abence of that forceful presence on the international stage, Hallman said he expects a continued takeover of the Pacific tuna fishery by vessels flagged to Pacific island nations, the majority of which are owned and operated by Chinese and Korean companies.

“The U.S. doesn’t really do that with its boats. We either sell them or run them. But some of these other countries are doing that type of flag-swapping arrangement,” he said.

The result of that will not only hurt U.S. boat owners, but also the thousands of cannery workers in American Samoa, as well as American consumers, who will not have access to U.S.-caught and -produced tuna.

“A lot more product is going to go to canneries in Thailand, Vietnam, and China,” he said. “There is one American cannery there now, operated by StarKist in American Samoa, and it is vitally important to the economy there. When I think about the changeover in the fleet, I also think about that and those jobs there, as a lot of the U.S.-caught fish in the Western Pacific goes to Western Samoa for processing now.”

Facing unfair competition in the Western Pacific, many of the remaining U.S.-flagged tuna vessels are now going back to the Eastern Pacific, which they haven’t fished since the 1980s, or are fishing on the high seas, where they don’t have to buy expensive licenses to fish. Hallman described the move as an act of desperation and ingenuity on behalf of the remaining American tuna-boat owners.

Based in San Diego, California, Hallman said it’s a matter of both local and national pride that the United States continue to support its tuna fleet. Historically, the port of San Diego was the world capital of tuna fishing, and not so long ago, there were more than 100 tuna boats in the local commercial fleet. The purse-seine method of fishing originated out of San Diego, and that history is still an important part of the local culture in the city, Hallman said.

“Tuna fishing has always been a big deal in San Diego, but it’s a real question whether the tradition will continue. It is too bad. But sometimes I wonder how much people in this country really care,” he said. “I love that people care about conservation and sustainability, and I’m all for that. But to achieve that, and to ensure success for the U.S. fleet, we need much more effort to be put into the implementation of science-based measures and the creation of an equal playing field. Those are the two things we’re trying to achieve. Hopefully we can make some headway on these areas and continue to have a viable U.S. fleet.”

Photo courtesy of Tri Marine

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