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Turns Out Most of the Tuna Caught in Southeast Asia Comes With Some Pretty Messed Up Baggage

Some of the world's top tuna exporters are in Southeast Asia, where standard, and labor practices, are horrific.

by Alia Marsha
05 December 2018, 11:44am

Photo by Flickr user TheAnimalDay.org

We love eating tuna. Probably a bit too much. Human have spent a thousand dollars on a single meal of fancy sushi. Hell, we've nearly eaten the fish into extinction. But what we're really, and I mean really, bad at is catching and processing the fish, especially now since the oceans are just getting worse. And in Southeast Asia, the tuna situation is dire.

A recent report from Greenpeace found that out of 23 tuna canneries in the Philippines, Indonesia, and Thailand, only five are "green performers," meaning they meet the organization's standards for tuna sourcing practices, including sustainability and safe labor practices. The report is so damning because, together, the three countries, plus Vietnam, are among the top 10 tuna exporters of canned tuna fish in the world. Yet in Thailand, which tops the list, only one cannery made the cut.

“After three years of proactive engagement, brands and canneries in the region are now more
open and collaborative to work with Greenpeace and consumers on fixing their supply chains," said Ephraim Batungbacal, the regional oceans research coordinator for Greenpeace Southeast Asia. "But, unfortunately, they are still not transitioning swiftly enough in response to the alarming state of our oceans."


Watch: Eating Bluefin Tuna Into Extinction


So what's wrong with the majority of these canneries?

For one, a lot of the tuna that ends up on your table was caught illegally. A 2014 report says half of fish products exported to the US were sourced through illegal means. Those exporters were, of course, Indonesia, Thailand, Vietnam, and the Philippines. And now, years later, not a lot has changed. The yellow card sanction that European Union issued to Thailand in 2015 and to Vietnam in 2017 for failing to combat illegal, unreported and unregulated fishing—a practice "as problematic as trafficking in elephant tusks, rhino horns, and tiger bones," one expert wrote—still stands today.

Another issue is how the fishermen themselves are treated. Modern-day slavery still flourishes in the region's fishing industry, despite governments' efforts to tighten regulations. Many of these fishermen are victims of human trafficking, and they are forced to work long hours for very little pay. In a way, this is the reason why these countries were able to become some of the biggest players in the global tuna fishing industry in the first place.

And while tuna brings in at least $42 billion USD to the world's economy, standards vary in each country, and many of the canneries in Southeast Asia adopt a double standard where they will follow different rules according to each country their tuna sold in.

Some experts have proposed Blockchain as a solution to the industry's lack of transparency, but it's difficult to imagine that canneries, which have thrived because of their shadiness, will be open to that massive of a change fast enough to save themselves, the environment, and their workers. Either way, the tuna fishing industry has no option but to make serious changes, or there might not even be fish good enough to catch.