UK oceans campaigner Willie MacKenzie - tells us why we need to be picky when it comes to buying tuna.

There’s a well-known model of how dodgy big business deals with campaigns against them. To summarise, it goes a bit like this:

Company X gets some bad press for doing something wrong, especially bad press if it kills lots of charismatic megafauna.

Company X initially retaliates saying ‘it’s all lies, honest’.

Company X then admits it isn’t all lies, but comes up with some way of kicking the issue into the long grass, usually some Commission, or Foundation (ideally with a word like ‘conservation’ or ‘sustainable’ in its title) or some interminable period of gathering research… in the hope it all blows over and people forget what they were upset about.

Step forward Princes, Bumble Bee and the other big tinned tuna brands as well as lesser-known entities such as Trimarine - a major trader of tuna. As a result of Greenpeace’s shaming of the tinned tuna industry’s record on bycatch, and destructive fishing methods, a huge ‘industry NGO’ was formed. It’s called the International Seafood Sustainability Foundation (ISSF). Over 60% of the worlds' tinned tuna is sold by ISSF members.

Obviously bringing together that much of the world’s tinned tuna trade under one umbrella has huge potential for good. And unsurprisingly, the ISSF (which focuses on tuna, despite the broader remit suggested by its title) has been making some positive noises. They have said some encouraging things in particular about some threatened tuna stocks. The ISSF is also funding some much-needed scientific research, which everyone welcomes.

But the sad truth is, this in itself doesn’t amount to much. Even the best scientific research is not useful if it is used as an excuse to delay action to deal with obvious problems that we already know about. Above all, what ISSF is not tackling yet is the problem of FAD use leading to shameful amount of bycatch of sharks, turtles, rays, juvenile tuna and other fish.

The ISSF’s raison d’etre should be cleaning up the industry, not encouraging the status quo. At a recent meeting with ISSF they told us that they were “not an organisation that is out to radically change the industry” but that they “feel it’s important to show progress”… so it seems pretty clear then, ISSF is about generating good PR (they have been ‘outreaching aggressively’ to key journalists, apparently), and industry joining up to take on its critics? They tried desperately to explain that they were moving forward with things, but gave lots of reasons why things had to progress very slowly.

At the same time we see some nefarious defenders of FAD-focussed tuna fishing doing their best to undermine progressive alternatives like pole-and-line fishing. Nice to see their efforts are being targeted positively, then.

But it doesn’t have to be this way, some companies take the criticisms on the chin, engage in dialogue with NGOs like Greenpeace and actually start to change things for the better. MW Brands trading as John West in the UK and Nirsa SA from Ecuador for example.

MW Brands and Nirsa SA are members of ISSF of course, but clearly not all members of the ISSF are moving at the same speed. Others, like Princes, seem to see ISSF as a protective cloak, which absolves them of taking any action, or any difficult decisions, themselves.

18 months after Greenpeace UK launched a tinned tuna report, and despite repeated meetings and communications with Princes, they have yet to even come forward with a policy on the sustainable sourcing of skipjack tuna, let alone any other seafood. Heck, it still doesn’t even say on their tins if it is skipjack tuna!

It seems that you, dear consumer, are supposed to believe that Princes being part of ISSF, and ISSF doing its best to maintain business as usual (but hey, they have the word ‘Sustainability’ in their name!) is good enough.

Meanwhile thousands of sharks, rays, and non-target fish are being killed in tuna nets. And endangered species of turtles, sharks and tuna are caught up in them too

Luckily, YOU have a choice, pretty much wherever you shop. If you are going to buy tinned tuna – go for pole-and-line in the can, if you can. Whatever you do, avoid Princes, until they start taking your concerns seriously.

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