Tesco escapes last place in new tinned tuna league table with spectacular policy u-turn

Posted by jamie — 9 January 2011 at 10:40am - Comments
Tesco was bottom of our tinned tuna league table before a nifty u-turn
All rights reserved. Credit: Cobb / Greenpeace
Tesco was bottom of our tinned tuna league table before a nifty u-turn

Update, 9 March 2011: both Princes and Asda have committed to removing tuna caught using fish aggregating devices in combination with purse seine nets from their supply chains by 2014. Read more >>

Having got wind of our new tinned tuna league table (see below) and the fact that it was going to come last, Tesco has done a spectacular u-turn. After being the subject of a Greenpeace investigation, it has radically improved its policy on the fishing methods it will permit for its own-brand tuna.

The downside is that we had an entire campaign ready to roll out today which you won't get to see now. But any frustration is easily outweighed by achieving a major victory without even going public. Perhaps the threat of a Greenpeace campaign – and the outrage of thousands of Greenpeace supporters - is enough to move huge corporations.

But anyway, the whole reason this has happened is because over the last few months we've been producing a new league table and report to show how supermarkets (along with key brands Princes and John West) rate in terms of sustainability on their tinned tuna. A lot has happened since the last one we compiled in 2008, and with Channel 4's Big Fish Fight season in the offing, the time was ripe for a new version.

Questionnaires were sent out to the various companies and their policies on key issues were assessed, including: how their tuna is caught; which species of tuna they stock; the labelling on their tins; and any public statements made about supporting the creation of marine reserves – including the Pacific Commons.

The results showed that all the companies we surveyed have made positive steps in the last couple of years, but some far more than others. Sainsbury's, Marks & Spencer and Waitrose took the top three places thanks to stocking only tuna caught by pole and line. Tesco, however, came last as most of its tuna is caught using Fads (fish aggregating devices) alongside purse seine nets which for the sharks, rays and juvenile tuna caught up in them are little more than deathtraps.

In terms of protecting marine life from the ravages of the fishing industry, dolphin-friendly labels on tins of tuna just isn't enough.

At least that was how things were on Friday afternoon, until we heard from Tesco that it was going to be stocking 100 per cent pole and line-caught tuna by the end of 2012. (Only a month ago in response to our survey it said it was only prepared to source 25 per cent in the same manner and even then, only as a trial.) The phrase "if possible" was also used, and there's still no word on public support for  marine reserves, but that move alone was enough to move them up into fifth place.

The scale of this shouldn't be underplayed either. Here in the UK, we are the second most eager eaters of tinned tuna behind the US and Tesco sells the most tins in this country, so the impact on the global market is significant to say the least. With 1kg of bycatch in every 10kg of tuna caught with Fads and purse seine nets, that's going to be good news for all the sharks and other marine life out there.

Of course, someone has to come in bottom place and the dubious honour has now gone to Princes. Most of its tuna is caught alongside large quantities of bycatch and it also sells bigeye tuna, which is described as vulnerable on the IUCN red list, as well as yellowfin tuna. It also doesn't mention on the label how the tuna was caught or even which species it is, and the claim that "Princes is fully committed to fishing methods which protect the marine environment and marine life", which appears on its tins, rings hollow. We're planning on making a complaint to the Office of Fair Trading about this next week.

So thanks to some nifty footwork, Tesco escapes and Princes becomes the worst major tinned tuna brand. You'll appreciate that, given the sudden turn of events, our campaign plans are changing rapidly, but we'll be talking tinned tuna again very soon.

In the meantime, don't miss Hugh's Fish Fight starting on Channel 4 this Tuesday at 9pm. In episodes two and three (shown on Wednesday and Thursday) you'll get to see some of the investigative work done last year by our researchers to help bring about this sea change in Tesco's policy.

There are several species of tuna: some, like bluefin and bigeye, are being overfished and at risk; others, like skipjack, currently aren't. That's why saying which species is in the tin is so important.

I wouldn't want to comment on the internal reasons for Tesco having made the change, but some supermarkets definitely have more environmental issues as part of their core values, while others don't to the same extent. It's still part of their drive to make a profit and there are huge problems with the supermarket system in general, but there definitely ones that make more of an effort.

Thanks for the kind words and welcome the site.

We won't be focusing on wholesalers or small retailers as that section of the market is extremely fragmented compared with the supermarkets and top brands. But between them, Princes and John West have around 70 per cent of the UK tinned tuna market, so if both those company improve their practices (and Princes have already committed to doing so), then the bulk of the tinned tuna going through wholesalers and corner shops will be covered.

And some supermarkets certainly do become advocates for improved sustainability once they're aware of the issues and figure out how to tackle them, but others are less vocal in their support.

No legislation specifically on fish aggregating devices in the pipeline as far as I'm aware, but the Common Fisheries Policy is up for reform and - while it wouldn't deal with this precise issue and presents a whole host of other problems - getting it right will do much to sort out the state of our seas.

About Jamie

I'm a forests campaigner working mainly on Indonesia. My personal mumblings can be found @shrinkydinky.

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