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Why Bumble Bee Tuna Should Concern You (Hint: It’s Human Rights and Destructive Fishing)

by Andy Shen

March 19, 2020

Bumble Bee Foods’ new owner shows potential connections to modern slavery and illegal fishing practices.

© Greenpeace / Merideth Tumasz

Many Americans are thinking a lot more than they’d like about canned food during this national health crisis. A new report published by Greenpeace East Asia today highlights an old concern that has taken on new relevance. The report shows how Bumble Bee, one of America’s oldest and best-known tuna brands, is potentially linked to some of the most horrific human rights and animal abuses in the world. Sadly, Americans who buy Bumble Bee tuna may have unwittingly served their children tuna caught by fishing vessels that used forced labor and cut the fins off living sharks and threw the sharks overboard to slowly starve.

Whether you eat tuna or not, we can’t allow this to happen in the American seafood industry, especially in a time of crisis when we all should be able to trust our brands and retailers. We have to shine a huge spotlight on Bumble Bee’s potential complicity in abuses. The inevitable spike in demand for canned tuna, and the potential economic downturn for the Asian tuna industry that could increase illegal behavior, brings even greater responsibility to tuna brands and retailers to ensure their seafood is not produced with forced labor or illegal fishing.

Bumble Bee is no stranger to controversy or crime.

Last December, its former CEO, Christopher Lischewski, was convicted of helping to orchestrate a price-fixing conspiracy between the three largest canned tuna brands in the US – Bumble Bee, Starkist, and Chicken of the Sea. Bumble Bee’s former CEO was also accused, though not convicted, of conspiring to limit consumer access to seafood produced without a fishing method that has long been criticized by Greenpeace as harmful to marine life.

Greenpeace’s new report is based on a 2019 investigation at one of the ports most frequented by Taiwanese vessels that supply Bumble Bee’s new owner, Fong Chun Formosa (FCF), one of the three largest global tuna traders (middlemen that sit between vessel owners and tuna processors) and a business partner of Bumble Bee for over 30 years. The investigation found suspected forced labor and shark finning on a fishing vessel that supplies FCF. The report also examines the relationship between FCF and Bumble Bee, highlighting recent court documents that show FCF supplied over 95% of Bumble Bee’s albacore and over 70% of its light meat tuna for the last ten years.

Image: Fishing Vessles - Labour and human rights abuses continue to exist in Taiwan’s distant water fishing fleets. In an investigation for the report “Choppy Waters - Forced Labour and Illegal Fishing in Taiwan's Distant Water Fisheries”, Greenpeace East Asia visited one of the ports most frequented by Taiwanese vessels and interviewed migrant fishers, all hired from Indonesia, who worked on fishing vessels flagged or otherwise linked to Taiwan; as well as analyzed the fishers’ contracts and salary slips. 此次調查中,可能涉及強迫勞動與非法漁業的臺灣籍漁船「威慶」

Labour and human rights abuses continue to exist in Taiwan’s distant water fishing fleets. In an investigation for the report “Choppy Waters – Forced Labour and Illegal Fishing in Taiwan’s Distant Water Fisheries”, Greenpeace East Asia visited one of the ports most frequented by Taiwanese vessels and interviewed migrant fishers, all hired from Indonesia, who worked on fishing vessels flagged or otherwise linked to Taiwan; as well as analyzed the fishers’ contracts and salary slips.
此次調查中,可能涉及強迫勞動與非法漁業的臺灣籍漁船「威慶」

Bumble Bee’s poor environmental record has been well documented in past Greenpeace reports, including our 2017 Tuna Shopping Guide where it was ranked an abysmal 17th out of 20 brands. But Bumble Bee has received much better attention for its human rights policies and actions. Last year it was commended as one of few canned tuna companies that have taken ‘robust action to eliminate slavery from their supply chains.’ Peering beneath the surface, however, reveals a major tuna brand that has taken some positive steps, but steps that fall far short of what is needed to really address the high risk of modern slavery in its supply chains.

Here are Bumble Bee’s 3 main shortcomings:

1) Bumble Bees’ fish caught with longline-only sourcing specification is inherently damaging to the environment and harmful to fishers

Court documents show that Bumble Bee’s product specifications require longline-caught tuna from FCF. This method of fishing, where thousands of hooks are set on lines extending over 60 miles out to sea, is one of the most damaging to the marine ecosystem, ensnaring birds, marine mammals, and juvenile fish, when there are other less harmful methods available. Longline fishing also requires backbreaking, dangerous, and relentless work around the clock and this burden often falls on poor, indebted migrant workers who are paid sub-minimum wage, if at all, and are unable to escape their tormentors because the vessels they work on stay at sea for months or even years at a time.

2) It uses transshipment at sea, a dodgy practice that enables illegal fishing, overfishing, and abuse of workers

Bumble Bee admitted that it permits transshipment at sea for its longline fishing suppliers. It claims to have strict measures in place to prevent illegalities associated with transshipment, but these measures are nowhere near enough and have many loopholes that could be exploited by unscrupulous vessel operators.

3) Its human rights policy for tuna vessels is largely inconsistent with international human rights and labor standards and it has no complaints mechanism or other measures to enable timely and accurate verification of supplier compliance

Bumble Bee’s human rights policy and processes for tuna vessels is entirely based on the vessel policy it helped develop with members of the Seafood Task Force, an industry-led, multi-stakeholder initiative based in Thailand. This policy is abysmal, with standards that offer much less protection for workers than what is expected under international law. Specific standards that are particularly weak include rest hours; discrimination against migrant workers; freedom of association; recruitment fees; and minimum wage. To make matters worse, Bumble Bee does not have a grievance mechanism for migrant workers on tuna vessels and it has no policy requiring its supplier vessels to return periodically to port for vessel audits or labor inspections. Even if Bumble Bee were to strengthen its vessel policy, it would be useless if there is no credible way to verify its suppliers are actually complying with the policy.

So what should Bumble Bee do to ensure tuna sandwich loving Americans aren’t contributing to human rights abuses and destruction of our planet?

Here are 4 important steps it should take immediately:

  • Only source from vessels where 100% independent human or effective electronic catch monitoring is taking place.

 

  • Announce a public, measurable, time-bound plan to phase out transshipment at sea.
  • Upgrade its human rights policy for tuna vessels to reflect international standards and best practice on human and labor rights, including establishing a policy on maximum time at sea and preferential sourcing from vessels subject to port State labor inspections.
  • Publicly disclose its full vessel supplier list with key details as part of its human rights due diligence plan.

 

Bumble Bee’s relationship with FCF is so close that it provides both a significant risk to retailers as well as an incredible opportunity to drive large-scale and lasting change in Taiwan’s distant water fisheries. With 25% of the US canned tuna market, Bumble Bee as the second largest tuna brand in America has the power to greatly and rapidly improve conditions for fishers, especially migrant fishers, in the Taiwanese distant water fishing fleet. American consumers who have helped Bumble Bee grow from a small cannery to the global powerhouse it is today have an important role to play in ensuring Bumble Bee and its Taiwanese owner respect the workers creating value for their business and the ocean that keeps our planet alive. No American should have to feel unease or guilt walking the aisles of their local supermarket, especially now, not knowing whether their emergency purchases are contributing to modern slavery and environmental destruction. Bumble Bee is in choppy waters again and unless it readies its sails, its future may well be in the deep.

By Andy Shen

Andy Shen is a Senior Oceans Adviser and the US project lead for Greenpeace's global tuna campaign. An international human rights lawyer, he previously worked for the International Labour Organization and the International Labor Rights Forum, and has extensive experience on human rights and labor issues in the global fishing industry.

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