Blue Marine Foundation has today published the results of a six-month investigation, undertaken with French NGO BLOOM Association and Greenpeace UK, into the canned tuna sold by UK retailers. The report, titled “The UK’s Tuna Blind Spot”, has found huge disparities between the sourcing policies that cover most UK retailers’ ‘own-label’ canned tuna and the brand-name tuna that they sell alongside it. Only one of the UK’s top ten supermarkets – Marks & Spencer – was able to demonstrate that none of the canned tuna sold in its stores is caught using massively harmful drifting fish aggregating devices (FADs) – a type of fishing gear used by purse seine fleets to attract tuna which overwhelmingly catches juveniles before they have had a chance to breed. This comes amid an overfishing crisis unfolding in the Indian Ocean, where two out of three tropical tuna stocks are overfished.
Several other retailers including the Co-op, Waitrose, Sainsbury’s and Morrisons all have tuna sourcing policies that clearly prohibit the use of drifting FADs. However, this concern for sustainability extends only as far as their own-label products and no further, with all four supermarkets also found to be selling brand-name tuna like John West (owned by Thai Union) and Princes (owned by the Mitsubishi Corporation) which source tuna from fleets that use drifting FADs in the Indian Ocean.
The report found that Iceland has the worst canned tuna sourcing policy of all, by virtue of it only selling this same brand-name tuna. Several other retailers, including market leaders Tesco and Aldi, reference the Marine Stewardship Council (MSC) in their own-label sourcing policy. However, far from guaranteeing that this means no drifting FADs are used, a recent report found that more than half of the tuna certified as sustainable by the MSC comes from fisheries that rely on FADs[i].
Drifting FADs – which generally consist of a floating raft, a submerged “tail”, and a satellite buoy that allows fishing vessels to track and monitor the FADs from afar – are allowed to drift freely around the ocean for months – often through marine protected areas and other countries’ exclusive economic zones – gathering tuna beneath them. Not only are they lost or discarded in their thousands[ii], resulting in plastic pollution and damage to sensitive marine habitats, but countless endangered, threatened and protected species also fall victim to drifting FADs, either as bycatch or through entanglement[iii].
Non-entangling and biodegradable drifting FADs have been put forward as possible solutions to these issues. However, these alternatives do not solve the most pressing environmental problems associated with drifting FADs. Drifting FADs are responsible for the mass capture of juvenile bigeye and yellowfin tuna. This is of particular concern in the Indian Ocean where both species are overfished and where 97% of the yellowfin tuna caught around drifting FADs by purse seine vessels are juveniles[iv].
Our three organisations are calling on UK retailers to stop selling tropical tuna caught around drifting FADs in the Indian Ocean by not entering into any new supply agreements for tuna caught in this way. This policy should extend to both own-label tuna and brand-name tuna products. This message was communicated to all ten UK retailers in August. Currently, only Marks & Spencer is compliant with the call to action.
Jess Rattle, Head of Investigations at Blue Marine Foundation and the author of the report, said: “Drifting FADs are a scourge that do untold damage to fragile marine habitats and important tuna stocks. UK retailers are well aware of this – many of them acknowledge how harmful drifting FADs are in their own-label sourcing policies, but then turn a blind eye to the tins of brand-name, FAD-caught tuna on their shelves. UK consumers deserve better, and we call on retailers to stop selling tuna caught using drifting FADs by not entering into any new supply agreements for tuna caught in this way. This is especially urgent in the Indian Ocean where governments representing commercial fleets choose to object to drifting FAD management measures put in place to protect overfished stocks”.
In addition to highlighting the issues associated with drifting FADs and the double standards exhibited by most UK retailers in their sourcing of canned tuna, the report also details the reckless and irresponsible actions of the European Commission, representing the Spanish and French purse seine industries, which has objected to an important conservation and management measure in the Indian Ocean. The new measure would have prohibited the use of drifting FADs for a 72-day period each year, allowing tuna stocks a chance to recover. However, the EU’s objection exempts Spain and France’s commercial tuna fishing fleets from abiding by it, despite the EU supporting similar measures in other oceans where its fleet does not fish as much.
The publication of Blue Marine’s report coincides with the publication of a complementary report by BLOOM titled “Wilful Ignorance”, ranking 36 European retailers on their sourcing policies.
Pauline Bricault, Markets campaign manager at BLOOM said: “Our evaluation shows that all EU retailers’ policies fall far short of the mark when it comes to tropical tuna. One element that stood out was the absence of measures preventing overfished tuna caught with destructive industrial gears making it onto their shelves. Even worse, we found that some of these products were even misleadingly labelled as ‘responsible fishing’!”
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[i] BLOOM Association (2023). The Death Label: The MSC’s fake sustainability but true destruction of tuna populations. https://bloomassociation.org/wp-content/uploads/2023/09/msc-tuna-fisheries.pdf
[ii] In some regions, the retrieval rate of drifting FADs is less than 10% (Escalle, B Muller, T Vidal, S Hare, P Hamer & the PNA Office (2021). Report on analyses of the 2016/2021 PNA FAD Tracking Programme. https://meetings.wcpfc.int/node/12589)
[iii] A recent study estimated that at least 100,000 silky sharks end up as bycatch in the Indian Ocean purse seine industry alone each year (I Ziegler (2022). Assessing the impact of drifting FADs on silky shark mortality in the Indian Ocean. https://iotc.org/documents/WGFAD/03/10)
[iv] Global Tuna Alliance (2021). Sustainability of yellowfin tuna (Thunnus albacares) fisheries in the Indian Ocean, with a special focus on juvenile catches. Available: https://www.globaltunaalliance.com/wp-content/uploads/2022/03/Naunet-Fisheries.2021.V3-new.pdf