New reformist role for Thai Union

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Thai Union Group, the world’s largest canned tuna company, is considering changes to its supply chains that could transform the seafood industry forever. Having been a target of investigation over coerced labour in its supply chains, the company is yet to take the significant steps needed to ensure its suppliers refrain from human rights abuses and destruction of the ocean.

Thai Union can show its commitment to leading by immediately addressing transshipment at sea — a shifty practice that is often associated with illegal fishing and human rights abuse.

It has been almost two years since the European Union (EU) gave Thailand a “yellow card” for its failure to prevent illegal and unregulated fishing in the country’s supply chains of seafood that eventually end up as exports to Europe. That warning continues today, as the Thai government has not taken decisive actions needed to eliminate illegal, unreported and unregulated (IUU) fishing or address the concerns on compliance with international rules on seafood supply.

Thai Union should not wait for the government to step up but should commit to transformative changes. One way for the company to show its leadership is to end transshipment at sea in its supply chains. In doing so, Thai Union can send a message to both the Thai government and the seafood industry as a whole that any practices associated with human rights abuses and illegal fishing should not and must not be tolerated.

Global Fishing Watch, an non-profit organisation that tracks commercial fishing activities worldwide, recently released a groundbreaking report on transshipment worldwide, observing 90% of the world’s reefer fleets over a four year time frame. The report finds 86,490 instances of potential transshipment. Over 40% of the transshipment incidents happened on the high seas, away from regulations and inspections, and appeared to be associated with patterns of IUU fishing.

Companies that are complicit in abuses of workers in their supply chains also often engage in destructive or illegal fishing, and have little regard for fishery management regulations.

As a direct result of overfishing, many coastal stocks are depleted and vessels must travel further into the high seas to fish. Rather than losing precious fishing time and incurring increased costs of returning to port, the industry increasingly relies on transshipment at sea — where smaller boats refuel, restock, and transfer catch onto larger cargo vessels. This practice turns fishing boats into floating prisons, and enables vessels to hide illegally-caught fish and mistreat crew members. Many trafficked and abused workers are forced to remain at sea with no means of escape for months or even years.

Recently, there have been attempts to remove the worst offenders from the water, which would have a positive effect on the ocean and people. In February 2017, Thailand’s Department of Fisheries (DoF) announced “the strengthening of transshipment control measures”. The announcement requires all Thai distant water fishing vessels to return back to port within 90 days and to ensure that there is no transshipment at sea involved while returning from the Indian ocean.

Thai Union can make a difference. By taking specific and practical steps to reform its operations, the company can be a driving force in continuing the modernisation of the fisheries sector in Thailand and reforming the seafood industry at large.

According to Greenpeace’s 2016 Southeast Asia canned tuna ranking, all tuna brands, including Thai Union, are still falling short on both sustainability and social responsibility issues.

If Thai Union continues to rely on transshipment at sea to operate, then it is reasonable to be concerned about all of its supply chains. Tuna can be commingled from several different sources with relative ease, obfuscating the supply chain and erasing the detection of tuna caught in an illegal or unethical manner.

Recently Mars and Nestle committed to making changes to help ensure their pet food supply chains operate in a manner that does not harm our oceans and does not abuse workers. The companies will address transshipment at sea throughout their pet food supply chains, which puts pressure on Thai Union, a supplier for both companies, to do the same thing.

If Thai Union commits to end at-sea transshipment in its supply chains until the associated problems are addressed, it can help lead the change for the entire industry.

Greenpeace believes a moratorium on transshipment at sea is needed until new standards are agreed upon by the industry and regulators and are demonstrably met using third-party auditors.

It is time for accountability in the global seafood industry, and that can begin with Thai Union.

Tara Buakamsri is Thailand Country Director of Greenpeace Southeast Asia.

Government must leave no room for dirty fishing

OpEd published in Bangkokpost, 20 December 2016, Tara Buakamsri – Thailand Country Director of Greenpeace Southeast Asia.

Thailand is holding its breath awaiting the European Union’s (EU) re-assessment of the country’s notorious fishing industry.

As the world’s fourth-largest seafood exporter, Thailand earns annual revenue of over US$6.5 billion (233 billion baht) from its fishing business. But in recent years, the country’s distant water fishing has been under the spotlight after a stream of reports exposed shocking human rights abuses linked to the supply chains of major global seafood producers. Despite recent reforms to Thailand’s anti-trafficking laws that came late last year, and the introduction of a vessel tracking system to curb illegal, unreported and unregulated fishing (IUU) along with human rights abuses on ships in remote, unpoliced waters continue.

In order to avoid crackdowns in Indonesia and Papua New Guinea, rogue Thai fishing vessels have shifted to operate in the environmentally fragile Saya de Malha Bank off the coast of East Africa in the Indian Ocean since late last year, according to a new report by Greenpeace Southeast Asia which tracked fleet movements between 2014 and 2016. In this area, these Thai fleets continue to fish and transship catches at sea without authorisation, deploy catastrophically unsustainable fishing methods, and crew vessels with victims of trafficking and forced labour in deplorable working conditions.

Of the 15 survivors interviewed by Greenpeace, half of them experienced physical abuses while working on board the vessels. They were kicked or hit by ship captains. In some cases, the abusers used weapons like wooden bats and knife-sharpening stones to beat them. One of the main reasons for beatings was illness, especially when there was insufficient food on board and exhausted crew members would sneak off to rest.

Poor nutrition, coupled with extreme physical labour, led to reported outbreaks of Beriberi disease, with six reported fatalities. At the heart of this tragedy lies a complex web of ownership structures within the Thai distant water fishing and seafood processing sectors.

In migrating to the Saya de Malha Bank, the Thai fleets have shifted to an ecologically rich and sensitive area essentially devoid of effective management and controls on bottom fishing.

Transshipment at sea is central to the current Thai business model, and maintaining fishing fleets in the distant Saya de Malha Bank requires routine journeys by reefer of over 7,000km to deliver supplies (and sometimes trafficked workers) and pick up fish, that has been reported to include a 50% by-catch of sharks. Transshipments at sea also make it possible for fishing vessels to stay out in the ocean indefinitely, out of sight and out of reach of enforcement.

Greenpeace investigations into nefarious activities aboard fishing vessels operating in the Saya de Malha Bank revealed that trafficking, exploitation, abuse, negligence and IUU fishing have remained central to the operations of some Thai overseas fishing companies. With the return of reefer-assisted Thai overseas fishing, it is arguably only a matter of time before dirty and scandalous business models are exported again elsewhere.

Seafood from the Saya de Malha Bank has continued to flow into the supply chains of major Thai companies producing for global export markets. The entry of seafood tainted by human rights abuses and IUU fishing into the supply chains of companies — including major global brands — that distribute products around the world, highlights the need for stronger traceability systems and greater transparency in procurement practices.

With the yellow card status given by the European Union, still haunting Thailand, and an inspection under way, the government cannot afford to lose face again. It needs to come up with a resolution to monitor and keep its rebellious fishing industry in check, and turn the tide to eradicate destructive and exploitative fishing for good.

Inspections are an integral part of Thailand’s ongoing efforts to tackle human rights abuses and IUU fishing. But to weed out the bad operators, the government should improve inspection frameworks and intelligence-sharing efforts with other countries and civil society.

In the case of the fleets at the Saya de Malha Bank, Thailand’s temporary controls on overseas transshipment at sea are far from enough. These controls should be permanent, with additional scrutiny applied to transshipments at sea, and policies that move towards eliminating the practice altogether. The government must meanwhile fulfil its responsibilities as a flag state and ensure that appropriate management and conservation measures are in place and applied to fishing operators in the Saya de Malha Bank.

With increasing dependence on migrant workers at home, and negative press about human rights violations by international watchdogs, Thailand needs policies that ensure foreign workers are always treated with dignity. Such safeguards are necessary to protect workers on board fishing vessels.

Producers, buyers, industry associations and consumers have the power to squeeze the tainted fish out of the market. Responsibility ultimately, however, rests with the industry. The fact that fish caught by exhausted men (potentially victims of forced labour) dying of archaic diseases still have a high chance of entering some of the globe’s best-known cat food brands underscores the need for improved traceability systems.

Thailand is entering a new chapter as a nation. It is on the threshold of making real progress toward the elimination of dirty fishing and human rights abuses from its seafood supply chains. But, without sustained scrutiny, resolute controls, and true accountability within the Thai overseas fishing sector, hard-won reform risks sliding into irrelevance. Private, public and third sector stakeholders, both inside and outside of Thailand, all have a responsibility to work together to ensure only sustainably and ethically produced Thai seafood reaches shelves, freezers, sushi bars and cat bowls around the world.