If it’s true that change starts at the top, then efforts to clean up the global fishing industry may be in for a boost. In a joint statement issued last week, CEOs from the world’s eight largest seafood companies committed to leading the fight against IUU fishing and slavery on the oceans while contributing to sustainability solutions.
The first of ten points outlined in their agreement is to:
Improve transparency and traceability in our own operations, and work together to share information and best practices.
According to the Stockholm Resilience Centre (SRC) which brought the CEOs together with scientists to facilitate a dialogue, this agreement differs significantly from all previous agreements to improve transparency and reduce illegal and unsustainable practices. Unlike previous efforts, which have been initiated by specific industry segments such as tuna or salmon, the new agreement originated with scientific research and invited the participation of business leaders from across multiple sectors. Fisheries corporations, seafood suppliers, distributors, aquaculture companies and aquafeed companies are all among the signatories to the agreement. Together they have established a new initiative they are calling Seafood Businesses for Ocean Stewardship.
Central to the initiative is that it involves “keystone actors,” a concept borrowed from ecology’s “keystone species” premise, which demonstrates that the roles attributed to certain species in an ecosystem give them a disproportionately high level of influence over the whole system. In the seafood industry, keystone actors dominate global production, connect various ecosystems through a network of global subsidiaries and influence the way their industry is governed.
The report states:
[We] recognize that together we represent a global force, not only in the operation of the seafood industry, but also in contributing to a resilient planet with marine ecosystems continuing to produce food of high quality for present and future generations.”
The influence of these eight companies is not total, however, because there are other actors on the stage that have not signed the agreement. In 2015, SRC identified 13 transnational corporations as keystone actors. Together they control up to 40 percent of the largest and most valuable wild-caught fish stocks. Five of the 13 have not participated in the agreement process. What’s more, SRC reports that researchers were not able to include large Chinese and Russian companies in their industry assessment because those companies do not report data such as profit.
None-the-less, the hope is that those who have signed the agreement will have the power to influence operations throughout the industry and lead the transformation towards transparency and sustainability. The road won’t be easy for them because the seafood supply chain is convoluted and complex. In the wild-caught industry, catch is handled by multiple companies from multiple countries with varying levels of regulation and enforcement before it arrives in the consumer market.
Two of the companies participating in the agreement, Thai Union and Maruha Nichiro’s US Kingfisher Holdings, were both witnessed unwittingly purchasing IUU fish associated with slavery and illegal transshipment during an Associated Press investigation in 2015. Thai Union is Thailand’s largest seafood company. US Kingfisher Holdings is a major supplier to American seafood companies, including businesses that sell to Sysco, the US’s largest food distributor.
The other two signatories involved in the wild-catch trade also bring questionable pasts to the table. Japanese Nippon Suisan Kaisha was fined for fishing illegally in the Falkland Islands, and Dongwon Industries which owns the biggest US tuna brand, StarKist, is ranked at the bottom of Greenpeace’s sustainable tuna guide. Its history of illegal activity includes defrauding authorities to obtain U.S. vessel documentation and tuna licenses.
Despite these challenges and apparent contradictions, the language put forth in the agreement is unambiguous:
We fully support and endorse the UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) as a new framework for economic and social development operating within the capacity of the biosphere and its ocean. Not only do we urge all governments to implement the SDGs, we also encourage businesses to integrate them in their strategies.
The agreement goes on to state:
Efforts by governments are critical, but the industry has an equally important role to play in developing and implementing solutions. Leadership in corporate sustainability is a priority for us.
Among the other points addressed in the agreement are antibiotic use in aquaculture, greenhouse gas emissions and plastic pollution.
The companies are planning a meeting in Stockholm, Sweden in 2017 to identify concrete steps and joint actions that will lead to tangible results.