The Italian Job: reeling in the Italian tuna industry

Posted by simon clydesdale — 9 March 2012 at 1:56pm - Comments
Tuna and bycatch caught in the east Pacific
All rights reserved. Credit: Alex Hofford/Greenpeace
Tuna and bycatch caught in the east Pacific

The sands in the tuna campaign have shifted again, and the oceans and tuna will ultimately be better off for it. Our Italian colleagues have just announced that the local tinned tuna brand Mareblu has committed to stop using Fads (fish aggregation devices) - the destructive marine minefields that have been blighting the oceans for decades.

Fads help boats catch tuna, but in the process they kill juvenile tuna and tuna species at risk of extinction, as well as sharks, rays and other marine life. Picture a billion tins of needless bycatch every year.

By the end of 2016, all Mareblu’s tuna will instead be caught using either pole and line, or purse seine nets without Fads. They will also support the Pacific Commons marine reserves, which are areas vital to the long term health of tuna populations.

Despite this great progress, the campaign in Italy won’t be resting on its laurels, with promising but unsubstantiated noises coming from the giant European tuna brand Bolton. Also coming soon is a new Italian tinned tuna league table.

This success has its roots in the UK campaign we ran last year, which won commitments from all major players to completely clean up tinned tuna in this country, the world’s second largest market. The final part of the jigsaw clicked into place when John West committed to dumping Fads. John West is one of a trio of tuna brands in the MW Brands stable, along with Italy's Mareblu and Petit Navire in France. In turn, MW Brands is owned by Thai Union, the world’s largest seafood company.

The Mareblu shift is very welcome and means MW Brands is now beginning to address the glaring double standards within its brands and markets, whereby John West had committed to clean up its act but their other brands had not. The only logical and consistent step now is for MW Brands to clean up its house completely and ensure its French tuna brand Petit Navire shakes off its Fad addiction too.

Petit Navire sticks out like a sore thumb now for MW Brands. Latest figures show that close to half of MWBrand’s turnover comes from France, with Petit Navire responsible for nearly one-third of overall tuna sales.

It’s a no-brainer. The French are certainly familiar with change, so why deny the French consumer the sustainable tuna offered to the British and Italians?

But the story goes far beyond Europe: as is always the case with tuna, it's a truly global resource. Thai Union also owns a major US brand – Chicken of the Sea. (Yes, I know. Don’t even ask). Thai Union is a massive company, with ambitious plans for expansion. Their history of acquisitions and wheeler-dealing suggest they know a thing or two about staying ahead of the curve. But at present the company is somewhat schizophrenic: MW Brands (which has ambitious expansion plans for new European markets) is converting two of its three tuna brands to sustainable fishing methods, yet in the States Chicken of the Sea remains wedded to Fads and all the destruction they entail.

So one side of the business – MW Brands – now gets it, and is changing to create a sustainable platform for commercial success where profit co-exists with, and is reinforced by, protection for tuna stocks, ocean ecosystems and important marine areas. This is not a zero-sum game but try telling Chicken of the Sea that. The US side of the business is sticking its fingers in its ears shouting la-la-la-can’t-hear-you-la-la-la. Not a great backdrop for prospective investors. Time for some sound business sense to be imported from Bangkok methinks.

So to conclude: a great chapter in Italy, but this story has some way to go yet. The global tuna industry is beginning to take its head out of the sand as it slowly wakes up to the new reality that Fad-caught tuna is no longer acceptable. There’s simply no future for businesses that knowingly use unnecessarily destructive methods, destroying marine life as well as their own reputations. It’s time to sink or swim.

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