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Going Green: Tuna tussle
Bycatch fuels ugly Greenpeace campaign against canned-tuna industry
By James Wright
October 01, 2011
Greenpeace has earned and has long relished its renegade label. Over the past decade, as environmental groups nationwide launched seafood-industry partnerships and other collaborative efforts to influence procurement policymakers, Greenpeace ramped up its fervor for fighting.
The group trod familiar antagonistic ground in August when it released an animated video that castigated the three canned tuna brands American consumers know best. It’s a cartoon, but it’s not for kids. The characters created generations ago to market Bumble Bee, StarKist and Chicken of the Sea branded tuna are depicted as savage, bloodthirsty killers chomping on tuna bones at the behest of a “Mister Shadowy Multinational Corporation,” who also makes a cameo appearance. It’s violent: The mermaid stabs an apparently drunk Charlie the Tuna with a trident — twice. All in just one minute and 45 seconds.
“The Tuna Industry’s Dirty Little Secret” seemingly holds little appeal outside of Greenpeace’s press office, despite the efforts of Pulitzer Prize-winning animator Mark Fiore. Many commenters on YouTube, even supporters of the group, said in the days after the spot’s release that it missed the mark and that its message was sacrificed for shock value. The angered tuna companies sent Greenpeace cease-and-desist letters, demanding that the video’s “false, misleading and deceptive statements” be taken off the Internet. Greenpeace declined.
“You don’t see that type of nonsense from respected organizations,” says Gavin Gibbons, spokesman for the National Fisheries Institute (NFI), to which all three tuna companies referred questions regarding the Greenpeace campaign. “But perhaps it’s just donations rather than respect Greenpeace is most interested in.”
The incendiary video failed to appeal to the group’s base audience, largely because it did not clearly vocalize Greenpeace’s major objection to the global tuna fishing industry: a high bycatch rate of juvenile tunas and unintended species like sharks, rays and triggerfish. Greenpeace claims these species are highly vulnerable to the most prevalent tuna-fishing methods.
“We believe the American public has a right to know how their tuna is caught, and of the swath of dead marine creatures, from turtles and sharks to marlin, seabirds and future breeding stock that lie behind so many of their favorite tuna products,” says Greenpeace senior campaigner Casson Trenor. A video released a week later showed real images, often grotesque, of these creatures entangled in what is allegedly tuna-fishing gear.
Behind all the very public back-and-forth sniping is the concern regarding the two fishing methods responsible for nearly all of the tuna in the ubiquitous shelf-stable cans found on supermarket shelves: purse seines and longlines. Purse seining, a fishing method in which two vessels with adjoining nets surround a school of fish, is often aided by the use of fish aggregating devices (FADs). Typically free-floating structures with radio beacons that signal their location to boats, FADs attract multiple species of fish, essentially creating mini ecosystems in the open seas.
Improvements to these fisheries’ performance are ongoing. Victor Restrepo, scientific advisory committee chairman for the International Seafood Sustainability Foundation (ISSF), says FADs enhance a tuna fleet’s efficiency, whether they are manmade structures or floating debris like driftwood. ISSF was founded in 2008 by the three major U.S. tuna canners, fishery scientists and environmental groups concerned about the future of tuna populations.
“[A FAD] makes life a lot easier for fish that are attracted to it,” Restrepo says, referring to the shelter the structures provide as well as the predatory opportunities up the food chain. “It’s a complex and interesting relationship. The ecological impacts from manmade and natural objects are virtually the same. We are working on ways to reduce the impacts of floating objects and to catch more skipjack relative to other species like bigeye. There are potential ecological solutions that depend on the behavior of the fish.”
The bycatch rates of FAD-free fisheries and those that do employ the devices are not the same, however, as Restrepo notes. Bycatch of non-tuna species is roughly double (from 2 percent to 5 percent of the average net set) in boats that employ FADs, he says, as opposed to those that target free-swimming schools. “Of that difference, more than 90 percent of it is juvenile tunas that have no conservation issues whatsoever,” says Restrepo. (Greenpeace alleges that FAD use increases bycatch by 500 to 1,000 percent.)
Gathering reliable bycatch data requires time and collaborative research, says ISSF President Susan Jackson, who adds that Greenpeace has been invited to participate in stakeholder committee meetings and has declined.
“At one point we received a written response. But their preferred method is to address the companies directly,” says Jackson, hoping the latest Greenpeace campaign might drive interest in tuna conservation. “There’s positives and negatives to every effort and campaign like this. To the extent that something is inaccurate, that’s less focus spent on actually finding and implementing solutions and correcting misperceptions, which we’d much prefer to do.”
The most critical thing Jackson would say about the “Dirty Little Secret” video is, “It doesn’t talk about science.”
With that in mind, NFI issued a video retort on a new website, Tuna For Tomorrow (tunafortomorrow.com). Along with a rash of responses to Greenpeace’s “false alarms” and “distortions,” the site includes ISSF research as well as figures from noted University of Washington fisheries scientist Raymond Hilborn, who contends that tuna populations today are comparable to levels seen 60 years ago. Skipjack tuna, which comprises 70 percent of the U.S. canned tuna supply, is healthy and abundant. “The albacore, skipjack and yellowfin tuna and swordfish on American menus are not threatened,” Hilborn wrote in a New York Times op-ed piece titled “Let Us Eat Fish” (April 14, 2011).
What Greenpeace wants — for the time being — is for the U.S. companies to commit to sourcing pole-and-line tuna, a pledge it says “every major brand in the United Kingdom has made.”
NFI says it would double the price of canned tuna, a versatile and affordable source of protein and omega-3 fatty acids that American consumers need for optimal health. “There is no canned tuna crisis,” read an Aug. 17 Tuna For Tomorrow post. “Rather, it’s a vehicle created by Greenpeace that will only drive up the price of canned tuna and make it harder to find in your local grocery store.” Email Associate Editor James Wright at email@example.com
A vehicle, it should be noted, that makes a lot of noise.