Sustainable Seafood Businesses Take on Tuna

06/13/2015 04:50 am ET | Updated Jun 12, 2016

I've been thinking a lot about tuna lately.

It's an important fish in a number of ways: Canned tuna accounted for about 16 percent of all of seafood consumed by Americans in 2013, and today it's the third most popular seafood in the U.S. Tuna is critical to island economies, where it's an important source of protein and income for locals. And while the health of some tuna stocks has improved, long-term sustainability remains a challenge. That's why tuna fisheries and their supply chains are one of the focal points for this year's Fish 2.0 competition for sustainable seafood businesses. We received over 15 entries related to tuna from around the world -- more than were focused on any other single fish. These entrepreneurs are emerging due to the need for innovation and change in the sector.

On recent trips to Micronesia and Fiji for Fish 2.0 workshops, I saw some of the issues in tuna firsthand. Tuna is on the menu in Micronesia for breakfast, lunch and dinner. Yet the amount of tuna consumed there is a tiny portion of what is caught in Micronesian waters -- the bulk of the catch is shipped overseas to Japan, Thailand or the U.S. Very little of the fishery's value stays in island communities.

In Fiji, foreign vessels licensed to fish off-shore catch -- and own -- almost all the tuna pulled from Fijian waters. The fish is cleaned and cut into loins by local businesses and then shipped to the U.S. or other locales for canning. While this processing work creates much-needed jobs for Fijians, again, only a fraction of the value of Fijian tuna stays in Fiji. Tuna processors from Kiribati, Vanuatu, Tuvalu, the Marshall Islands, the Solomon Islands and Papua New Guinea tell the same story.

The rapid consolidation and vertical integration now happening in the tuna industry is exacerbating this problem. The three biggest brands -- Bumble Bee, Chicken of the Sea and Starkist -- represent about 80 percent of the U.S. tuna market. Thai Union Frozen Products, the world's biggest producer of canned tuna, already owns Chicken of the Sea. Now it's planning to acquire Bumble Bee. Starkist, meanwhile, is owned by another conglomerate. Thai Union's acquisition of Bumble Bee represents an effort to create a more efficient and controlled supply chain by owning every link -- which makes sense from the company's point of view, but has the secondary effect of reducing diversity and competition in our seafood sector. As a few giant companies take over more of these supply chains, smaller intermediary players in island communities might get cut out. We hope not.

We also hope that the sustainability of tuna fisheries will not suffer as a result of consolidation. According to a controversial Greenpeace ranking of canned tuna released in March, the three big brands are already among the worst performers on sustainability measures. If two of the big brands end up being owned by the same parent company, consumers will have even fewer options to choose from at the supermarket -- and therefore less power to influence huge corporations by purchasing their competitors' products. Bumble Bee, at least, is reportedly trying to improve its sustainability policies by making all of its canned tuna products traceable by the end of 2015, prior to its sale. Hopefully, this push toward sustainability will not be thrown off course by the acquisition process.

The deeper solution, though, is the alternative vision that the Fish 2.0 competition promotes: growing, innovative companies that can compete on sustainability, protect local livelihoods and raise the bar on fisheries management while providing consumers with a diversity of choices -- including the option of purchasing sustainably harvested tuna from companies that keep more value in the islands where the seafood is fished.

The companies competing in Fish 2.0 represent alternatives to consolidated supply chains, or propose innovative partnerships to help large corporations integrate social and environmental sustainability into their global operations.

The responsibility for sustainability lies in the hands of everyone in the supply chain: those catching the tuna; smaller brands like Wild Planet, American Tuna and Ocean Naturals that already are sustainability leaders and can light the way forward; investors around the world, who we hope will participate in Fish 2.0; regulators, who must ensure that consolidating the world's tuna supply into fewer hands does not squelch sustainability; and seafood entrepreneurs. But ultimately, it is up to consumers to consciously support companies whose practices reflect our values and hopes for a sustainable future.

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