Existential threat of biodiversity loss compels Thai Union to make new fisheries commitments
Building on its larger seafood sustainability efforts established over the past seven years, Thai Union Group has rolled out new details about its upcoming SeaChange 2030 strategy and commitments for its fisheries, the group announced in March 2023.
By 2030, all vessels supplying Thai Union will be required to implement best practices for securing endangered, threatened, and protected (ETP) species from bycatch, the company said. It also reaffirmed its commitment to achieving 100 percent observer coverage (human or electronic) on tuna vessels by 2025 through direct work with suppliers and service providers.
These pledges were informed by a number of factors, Thai Union said, including recent research from the Sustainable Fisheries Partnership (SFP) outlining the risks posed to sharks, seabirds, turtles, and other marine wildlife by the fisheries that supply the company. The pledges also demonstrate credible progress against Thai Union’s commitment to the SeaBOS Endangered Species Strategy.
The influential report from SFP explored the impacts on ETP species by commercial tuna longline fishing in the Western Central Pacific Ocean and uncovered a profound loss of nature and the decline of an estimated 70 percent of several species of shark, seabird, and sea turtle populations.
“Environmental organizations are pointing to the biodiversity and species loss crisis that the planet is facing. The report by SFP notes the significant loss of ETP species in the Western Central Pacific Ocean region,” Thai Union Group Director of Sustainability Adam Brennan said. “We want to do more to ensure that we are sourcing from vessels that are doing everything they can to avoid and reduce bycatch.”
The Western Central Pacific Ocean region “provides more than 50 percent of the world’s tuna production, most going to North America and Japan,” Brennan explained.
“As a result, tuna buyers are well-positioned to drive improvements to restore nature loss and rebuild populations of vulnerable marine wildlife, particularly sharks and seabirds,” he added.
That’s why Thai Union underwent a “bycatch audit” as part of SFP’s Protecting Ocean Wildlife initiative, an international, industry-led effort to address marine wildlife bycatch, Brennan said. SFP, with Birdlife International and the Whale and Dolphin Conservation, conducted a review and assessment of the company’s source fisheries using existing sustainability data to determine risks, overlaps with the group’s key products, and where the most impacts can be made to reduce ocean wildlife bycatch.
“The organizations reviewed Thai Union’s source fisheries and identified fisheries with the highest risk of interactions with ETP species like seabirds, sea turtles, and sharks, and provided recommendations for how to reduce those impacts,” SFP Biodiversity and Nature Director Kathryn Novak said, noting that Thai Union is the first mid-supply-chain company to carry out an ETP bycatch audit.
With its concerted moves to help secure ETP species, Novak said that Thai Union is setting a powerful example for the industry.
“Biodiversity loss is the greatest threat to fisheries sustainability,” Novak said. “Thai Union is setting new expectations for the seafood industry to protect endangered, protected, and threatened species by looking at their supply chains and only sourcing from vessels actively working to address bycatch.”
Ultimately, SFP’s audit and research identified tuna longline fisheries as high-risk for sharks, seabirds, and sea turtles, and recommended implementing more gear modifications to reduce the interaction rate and mortality risks associated with these fisheries, according to Novak. Moreover, SFP identified insufficient observer coverage in Pacific Ocean fisheries, which underlines Thai Union’s commitment for 100 percent observer coverage in its tuna fisheries, Novak added.
An analysis by Key Traceability also proved crucial in the establishment of Thai Union’s updated sustainability commitments, Brennan said. Key Traceability assessed the company’s tuna fishery improvement projects (FIPs), examining if best practices to reduce bycatch were being implemented by FIP-affiliated vessels.
“The analysis found that many of these fisheries have documented actions around ETP management,” Key Traceability Director Iain Pollard said.
Pollard added that the “main area for improvement concerns electronic monitoring and observer coverage, which should be increased to 100 percent.”
“The next step is ongoing monitoring and verification of the ETP bycatch mitigation techniques and commitments. This will require analyzing observer data before and after the strategies were implemented and conducting annual reviews,” Pollard said.
Brennan said Thai Union will continue to analyze and improve when it comes to bycatch and biodiversity, expanding on its larger seafood sustainability efforts over the past seven years.
“Biodiversity is emerging from the shadows of climate change as its own existential crisis,” Brennan said. “While there is this renewed global focus on biodiversity, this is not a new topic for Thai Union. For the last seven years, we have been focused on tuna fisheries and ensuring that our suppliers we source from are either MSC [Marine Stewardship Council] certified or in a FIP, and both frameworks address elements of bycatch and ETP. But we think that we still need to do more, we want to ensure that we are sourcing from fishing vessels which are doing everything they could to prevent ETP interaction.”
Brennan urged the seafood industry “to understand the impacts the fisheries are having on ETP and ensure you have the right insights on how these impacts can be mitigated.”