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How Some Top Tuna Players Get Organized on Sustainability

Chris Lischewski – CEO of Bumble Bee Foods/ Clover Leaf Seafood - is one of the founders and Chairman of the ISSF board. In this interview for Atuna.com he explains the formation process of ISSF and its aspirations of expansion for the future.

A few weeks after its official launch, the International Seafood Sustainability Foundation (ISSF) has published conservation resolutions and statements towards tuna stocks and its undertaking actions and meetings to expand its coverage worldwide.

The founders of ISSF are Bolton Alimentari; Bumble Bee Foods, LLC / Clover Leaf Seafoods; MW Brands; Princes Ltd.; Sea Value Co., Ltd.; StarKist Co.; Thai Union Manufacturing Co. Ltd / Chicken of the Sea Intl.; TriMarine International; and WWF, the global conservation organization.

Atuna: Could you tell us about how the ISSF got started ?

Chris Lischewski: Bumble Bee started working closely to Dr. James Joseph and also talking to Tri-Marine, which is the major tuna supplier in Europe; we realized they wanted to go towards the same direction as Bumble Bee. We both knew that price, marketing, new products are competitive factors, but realized that sustainability was something that could affect the entire tuna industry. Therefore, we started talking and found out that we had the same objectives to accomplish, and then we were like “hey, let’s talk to our other competitors”. In the U.S, Starkist and Chicken of the Sea are members with Bumble Bee of the U.S Tuna Foundation, and in one of the meetings I asked some time in the agenda to discuss the subject and I think the European companies did the same. After that, we decided that even though the major players in Europe and the U.S. were a good foundation to our organization we needed to have an Asian representation, which is home of the greatest packers of tuna. Since Chicken of the Sea was involved on the western discussions they approached their parent company – Thai Union – and we reached out to Sea Value. In fact, the latter were interested in submitting the entire Thai Tuna Packers Association to be members of ISSF and at that point we said “why don’t we limit to the eight big tuna processors right now”, not because we don’t want the others to participate but because it’s easier to generate consensus among eight or nine people. At that point we all talked – we had our first meeting about a year ago in Washington D.C. with all the potential members – and made the decision that we all had a common objective and decided to move forward with the Foundation.

What about the NGOs?

We recognized that it would be less effective if we were just processors and traders, so we also reached out the environmental community such as the World Wildlife Fund (WWF), which joined us, and also Dr. James Joseph, who was very interested  in propagating tuna conservation based on science. Basically we put everything together in order to assure the health of tuna fisheries, which are multinationals fisheries.

We also recognized that for the past 5 to 10 years the RFMOs have become more and more dysfunctional and that science committees kept on putting their findings in precautionary approaches, but that the RFMOs couldn’t reach a decision based on that. What they had was a negotiated decision that didn’t always respect the scientific recommendations.

Our objective is really to support the RFMOs and their scientific committees’ recommendations. The ability to bring these organizations together and to reach an agreement about so many common items so quickly was something I was not expecting.

Were the Spanish processors approached?

They were not approached initially. What we tried to do was to get together companies with very large markets. In Europe we have MW Brands, which is represented in many countries there. We did not mean to exclude the Spanish, but again we were afraid to get bigger and bigger and not being able to reach consensus. Of course we are looking forward to expand the membership. At our next meeting, in Brussels, we want to outline the membership requirements, since we’ve been contacted by processors, boat owners, etc. And again, our objective is not to keep the membership from anyone, as long as they follow our principles.

Most of the members of ISSF don’t represent a great part of the world tuna fishing fleet. Why is that?

This is going to be a challenge for us. First thing we want to do is to bring together tuna processors. Nevertheless, we realize that boat owners have been part of the RFMO process for many years. They are the ones helping their government to develop policies taken to the RFMOs level. In the formation of ISSF we decided not to have their participation for their lower representation – they are usually small companies – but that was just initially. We want to expand our members including to the retailer level. In addition, to fish for tuna you have to be part of an RFMO, so by working with those organizations we will be reaching the boat owners as well.

Do you have any thoughts in how the ISSF will address overcapacity?

In our last meeting we already started the discussion about overcapacity and in our next meeting in Brussels we will continue that. I don’t speak for ISSF at this point, but personally I think overcapacity is our biggest challenge. The management programs currently addressing the issue are not being enough and it gets really complicated because people have the right to build boats. However, the fishing boats are owned by individuals and not by countries and since overcapacity has been proved, if someone wants to put a new boat out there, it has to retire an old one. Hopefully the RFMOs will be able to manage capacity to a stable level soon.

How is ISSF making sure all the members are complying with its resolutions?

In general, in the event that some of the ISSF members have been reported on violating its principles, then he would respond to a disciplinary committee. We don’t have a standing disciplinary committee because someone from it could be representing the violating company. Of course the company will have the right to defend itself, if the issue is resolved in a way that the violation is proved, that member will be out of our organization and won’t be able to apply for membership for the next two years.

Will all the member companies be as active as Bumble Bee, for example? Or will they just comply with ISSF resolutions?

If you really look at it, the sustainability actions are more concentrated in North America and Europe. The ISSF member will probably be more focused on reaching to our customers, to educate them on the process we’re really driving forward. To our Asian members, sustainability is not a big issue out there yet, I think we’re going to find the very supportive members – I think we all understand the necessity in working on conservation – but clearly the Europeans and North American will probably be a little bit more aggressive and pushing the benefits by ISSF initially with the Asians. What we are very comfortable with is Thai Union and Sea Value’s commitment to help us in driving our principles throughout Asia.