And then there were none: John West changes its tuna to drop FADs

Posted by simon clydesdale — 26 July 2011 at 12:00am - Comments

You did it! Today John West, the last of the major UK players to resist a shift to sustainable tuna, finally committed to change their tuna. After more than 51,000 emails, a lot of negotiation, some interesting stickering initiatives, and becoming utterly isolated amongst the UK industry, John West have changed their policies.

In this blog:
Why the fuss around FADs?
John West: international implications
How the UK inspired global change
The future of tinned tuna

This is a big deal, John West produce one-third of all tuna tins sold in the UK – which as a result of this campaign is now clearly the most sustainable tuna market in the world.

John West’s commitment to shift to pole and line, plus FAD-free fishing for all of their tuna means everybody in the Greenpeace Tinned Tuna League Table launched in January is now committed to ultimately stop using FADs (Fish Aggregation Devices) with purse seine nets, a combination responsible for needless levels of destruction in the world’s oceans.

Why the fuss around FADs?

Tuna instinctively gather around FADs, but these oceanic minefields also attract the whole cast of Finding Nemo, including a host of species at risk of extinction such as threatened sharks, bigeye tuna, juvenile tuna and even turtles. Known collectively as bycatch, all of these creatures are then scooped up by the purse seine nets

Using these indiscriminate FAD deathtraps the tuna industry kills enough bycatch to fill a billion tins every year. It’s the equivalent of every tenth tuna tin on supermarket shelves containing shark or other bycatch instead of tuna. By switching to FAD-free or pole and line fishing, as all major UK players have now committed to, bycatch from tuna fishing can be reduced by up to 90%.

Sainsbury’s, Marks & Spencer and Waitrose have lead the way in sustainable tinned tuna, having sourced their tuna from pole and line before Greenpeace launched our new 2011 league table. Just days before the launch Tesco promised to follow suit after pressure from Greenpeace and chef Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall in his BAFTA-winning Fish Fight series, now scheduled for a follow-up programme in early August. Co-op, Princes, Asda and Morrisons followed, with John West being the final company to move.

John West:  international implications

The discussions with John West have at times felt like trying to nail a jellyfish to the wall – not something that an ocean campaigner likes to do at any time if we can avoid it – but change has now been achieved. Incidentally, unless we manage our oceans and atmosphere far better than we are currently doing, jellyfish may well become an omnipresent marine presence - and their rise won’t just impact ocean ecosystems, they may nobble discredited energy systems.

But back to more solid matter(s). John West’s journey may just be the start of a longer odyssey for their parent company. They are run by MW Brands who sell a number of big tuna brands throughout much of Europe, with John West having strong presence in Ireland and the Netherlands, plus Petite Navire in France and Mareblu in Italy.

If they are serious about making their business truly sustainable then the UK commitment to move to FAD-free and pole and line fishing should be rolled out across all brands in their stable. Migratory tuna stocks don’t respect national boundaries, likewise MW Brands’ policies should apply across all their markets.

In turn, this should be taken up by MW Brands’ owners Thai Union, the world’s biggest seafood company, who also own other tuna and seafood brands. This is big business. Thai Union turnover is forecast to rise from less than $3billion now to $4billion by 2015, with MW Brands driving much of this increase.

How the UK inspired global change

The recent UK market transformation, in the 2nd largest tinned tuna market in the world, proves that large-scale change is possible by multinational corporations in this sector: Princes, the UK’s largest tuna brand, are owned by the massive Japanese conglomerate Mitsubishi; Asda are owned by Walmart, the world’s largest retailer; whilst Tesco is the 3rd largest retailer globally.

These momentous shifts in the UK are very timely, as new scientific assessments show that many tuna stocks are judged to be at risk of extinction under extreme pressure from needlessly destructive fishing methods and overfishing. The International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) scientists recently assessed five of the eight species of tuna to be in the Threatened or Near Threatened IUCN Red List Categories. These include: Southern Bluefin - Critically Endangered; Atlantic Bluefin - Endangered; Bigeye - Vulnerable; Yellowfin and Albacore – both Near Threatened.

These categorisations can seem a little insipid from a distance. Vulnerable doesn’t mean ‘needs a hand crossing the road’ or ‘liable to weep softly in the presence of puppies’, it is defined as ‘facing a high risk of extinction in the wild’ whilst Near Threatened means ‘does not qualify for Critically Endangered, Endangered or Vulnerable [the three ‘Threatened’ categories] now, but is close to qualifying for or is likely to qualify for a Threatened category in the near future’.

The other categories speak for themselves. Bluefin is too expensive to find its way into tins, so skipjack is the tuna species most commonly tinned for the UK. But FADs have been negatively impacting Bigeye and Yellowfin tuna stocks, particularly juveniles before they have had a chance to breed, contributing to their rating in these stark new assessments.

In addition, the tuna campaign has gained a consensus among UK major supermarkets and tuna brands to support the creation of the Pacific Commons Marine Reserves with commitments not to source tuna from these waters. The benefits offered by marine reserves in the Pacific and beyond means with their establishment we can start to restore the health of these valuable stocks and ecosystems for future generations.

The future of tinned tuna

Ultimately, what we have in our hands right now from most of these companies are effectively just words on a piece of paper, but as Neville Chamberlain would attest, it’s deeds not words that count when it comes to paper commitments. But we are dealing with large, often multinational, corporations who have made clear, public commitments to change their tuna sourcing to sustainable methods, and we believe they have made them in good faith.

Our focus will now move on from the tinned tuna league table to holding them to account on delivering these commitments, seeing change out in the oceans. We will be keeping you informed and asking for your help.

We hope you will support us with this next stage of the campaign as it unfolds: achieving change in the water that helps improve the health of tuna stocks, and the ecosystems they are an important part of. As John West’s own tuna conference tagline stated earlier this year ‘Action Today for Sustainable Tuna Tomorrow’. 

70 years ago this month in July 1941 Winston Churchill launched his ‘V for Victory’ campaign. It is tempting to crack open some Churchillian cigars to mark this moment, but the fight to protect the oceans and tuna stocks continues. Deeds not words.

The tuna army marches on, join us at

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