The major supplier of tuna products to New Zealand has announced a new commitment to reduce slavery and illegal fishing in its supply chain.
Thai Union, one of the world's biggest fishing companies, has agreed reforms including halving by 2020 the number of fish aggregating devices used, extending its ban on transhipment across its global supply chain and ensuring all tuna longline vessels have human or electronic monitoring.
Fish aggregating devices float in the ocean, with GPS devices attached, creating their own eco-systems. Harvesting them results in unintended catches including turtles and sharks, while transhipment of catches at sea enables vessels to continue fishing for months or years.
Today's joint announcement by Thai Union and Greenpeace follows a global campaign by the environmental lobby group.
The agreement was described as "huge progress", by Bunny McDiarmid, Greenpeace International executive director.
"If Thai Union implements these reforms, it will pressure other industry players to show the same level of ambition and drive much needed change," McDiarmid said. "Now is the time for other companies to step up and show similar leadership."
Thai Union's head, Thiraphong Chansiri, said the joint agreement was part of the company drive for positive change under its Seachange sustainability strategy.
Other steps include:
• Developing a code of conduct for all vessels in its supply chain, "to help ensure workers at sea are being treated fairly and humanely".
• Reducing the proportion of tuna caught by longline fishing, a method which brings a high proportion of bi-catch of non-target species.
• Implementing digital tracking from the can on the shelf to the vessel the fish was caught by and the method used.
The company has agreed to an independent review of progress at the end of next year.
Thai Union Group is a producer of seafood-based food products that operates worldwide.
Its business includes tuna, shrimp, sardines, salmon, pet food, and prepared foods. It owns prominent tuna brands Chicken of the Sea, John West, Mareblu and Sealect.
About 500 tons of Thai Union products come into New Zealand each year, according to Customs data released to Greenpeace. This includes raw fish used in pet food brands such as Whiskas and Iams.
Greenpeace claimed in 2015 that the tuna industry was out of control and that its biggest operator, Thai Union, was implicated in exploiting workers, over-fishing and killing other marine life.
Nearly 700,000 people signed a petition organised by Greenpeace calling on Thai Union to commit to selling canned tuna that is caught in a more sustainable and ethical way.
This coincided with the release of findings from a year-long study of the Thai shrimp industry, commissioned by Nestle, which found "indicators of forced labour, trafficking, and child labour to be present among sea-based and land-based workers".
That year Thai Union announced a sustainability strategy, SeaChange, aimed at making it the world's most trusted seafood company as well as the industry's leading agent of change.
Last December it said it was investing US$90 million ($124.3m) in a drive to boost the proportion of its branded tuna that is sustainably caught to 75 per cent by 2020.
The company defined sustainably sourced tuna as tuna from fisheries that are either already certified according to the standards of the Marine Stewardship Council or from 11 new Fishery Improvement Projects around the world.
It was among eight of the world's largest seafood companies that committed to action on ocean stewardship after the first "keystone dialogue" between scientists and fishing business leaders. The companies committed to improving transparency and traceability, and reducing illegal, unreported, and unregulated fishing in their supply chains.
Greenpeace NZ has complained to the Ombudsman about the refusal by Customs to release details of New Zealand companies that import Thai Union products.
The environmental organisation said its investigations showed the office of Customs Minister Nicky Wagner expressed concern to Customs about the release of the same importer information to Greenpeace.
"It appears Customs and the minister placed the interests of companies ahead of the public interest in products potentially tainted by slavery and human rights abuses being sold by retailers in NZ," said the Greenpeace research and investigation manager, Tim McKinnel.