Ordering a tuna lunch is rarely an emotive experience, but it might be, were more people aware of the injustices and the ecological dangers presented by the modern fishing trade.Ordering a tuna lunch is rarely an emotive experience, but it might be, were more people aware of the injustices and the ecological dangers presented by the modern fishing trade.
The fact that this surprisingly large, incredibly fast and agile saltwater fish will end in a sandwich thousands of miles away seems unlikely enough – a miracle of the modern global economy. But making sure it and all other marine species, do so in a way that is fair, ethical and sustainable is very much work-in-progress. Change is afoot.
Thailand is home to one of the world’s largest food processing industries and a major exporter of seafood to the EU and the US. Since 2015, the government has overhauled its regulatory framework, given tough new enforcement powers to the Royal Thai Navy, The Royal Thai Police, Department for Fisheries, and has poured resource into its judiciary to expedite any infringements on illegal fishing or destructive fishing techniques. The goal is to ensure the annual catch from Thailand’s fishing fleet adheres to the maximum sustainable yield, as calculated by environmental scientists. The result has been immediate and drastic, with the number of fishing vessels in operation today less than half that of 2015.
In addition, the Thai government has introduced a dedicated programme to clamp down on foreign, as well as domestic, illegal fishing in its waters. The initiative, “Port State Measures to Prevent, Deter and Eliminate Illegal, Unreported and Unregulated Fishing” (PMSA) insures the country does not inadvertently import illegal fishery products.
Since the implementation of PMSA in 2016, processes within the Thai Department of Fisheries have continued to improve and develop as an integral component of the traceability system for imported aquatic products. This includes an Import Control Scheme to cover all fisheries-related imports, linking all agencies workflows, IT systems and data.
But reforming the seafood industry is not just about preventing marine catastrophe, but also human tragedy. In many parts of the world, slavery is rife among fishing fleets, with forced and trafficked labour all too common across much of Asia.
So far, regional governments have been slow to combat the problem, although notably Thailand has ratified the International Labour Organization’s P29 protocol on forced labour. The Thai government has also introduced stringent measures to protect the rights of workers, including the registration of migrant workers, biometric technology such as iris, facial and fingerprint scanning, payments through bank transfer, as well as stricter labour inspections on-board vessels.
As a consequence of these and other measures, the United States has upgraded in its ‘Trafficking in Persons’ report, from the lowest ranking of Tier 3, to its Tier 2 Watchlist. This puts Thailand above neighbouring countries such as Malaysia and Laos. The Thai government’s efforts have been further enhanced by collaboration with the business sector, helped by the emergence of large brand owners in the region seeking to protect their ethical corporate credentials.
One example is Thai Union, a large listed seafood supplier, which recently launched SeaChange, a sustainability strategy that seeks to ensure safe and legal labour, as well as responsible sourcing and operations. In effect, the company is using its commercial clout to force its supply chain to clean up its act. To this end, it is working on full traceability of its products across its supply chain.
The SeaChange project is also tied into the broader UN Sustainable Development Goals, in particular contributing to broader societal change in areas that the company can have direct influence. It also includes a specific ‘Tuna Commitment’, tying the company to sourcing 100% of its branded tuna from fisheries that are either Marine Stewardship Council certified or engaged in Fishery Improvement Projects that move them towards such certification.
Thai Union is part of the Bali Process Government and Business Forum, a platform to enable public and private sector leaders across the Indo-Pacific region to learn from one another’s experience of stamping out of unethical practices, including slavery and child labour.
Under-pinning these are a raft of tangible measures, including verifications and audits by third parties to promote standard labour practices, and a sponsored joint labour empowerment programme with the Migrant Workers Rights Network, to educate workers about their basic rights, Thai labour law and welfare regulations.
Since 2015, the company has operated a Business Ethics and Labour Code of Conduct that applied across its supply chain, which included good practice around welfare, benefits and wages, as well as mandatory standards around health and safety. Marine sustainability and human rights are huge and complex topics and will not be resolved overnight. They require co-ordination between governments, corporations, social institutions and citizens. The fact that such collaboration is increasingly evident is, in itself, cause for optimism.
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