FCF says tuna volumes dropping with its increased sustainability focus

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Republished from Under Current News

The volumes traded by Taiwanese tuna giant Fong Chun Formosa Fishery Company (FCF) are dropping, as the company places a stronger focus on sustainability and corporate social responsibility (CSR), said the new FCF president, as he responded to a recent damning Greenpeace report.

Max Chou, who assumed the FCF president role at the start of May, told Undercurrent News the recent Greenpeace report, report, titled “Misery at sea”, is “misleading” and based on “old information”.

However, Chou, in an interview with Undercurrent, was willing to accept more work needs to be done. Also, he said FCF is pushing hard on making sure illegal, unreported and unregulated (IUU) fish does not make its way into its supply chain, as well as focusing on social issues in the sector.

“We have reduced supply because of our internal control system. Because of the focus on IUU and social accountability, the volume we deal with has gone down,” Chou said.

“The initial [Greenpeace] report said we traded 700,000 metric tons, which we corrected them on. We have come down from around 700,000t to 500,000t, over time. This is as a result of being more discerning on the type of fish we deal with. Anything questionable, it’s better to be safe than sorry now,” he said.

Greenpeace put a lot of focus on the conditions on some vessels, which Chou said is an area of the industry that needs work.

“I do feel it’s hard on the boats. That’s probably a fair point that Greenpeace brings up. The Taiwanese government and the industry are looking to try and change that,” said Chou.

According to Chou, this is one of the improvements in the industry the Seafood Task Force — a group of big seafood suppliers, NGOs, and retailers — is trying to make, he said.

Also, the purse seine fleet is ahead of the curve compared to the longliners, said Chou. “So, what we are doing on the purse seine that we think is successful, we are moving to the longliners. We’re doing more audits and trying to find ways and methods where if there is a complaint, there are ways to protect them, the crew. We need to make sure the crew can have a voice and it’s heard. On purse seiners in the western Pacific, it’s 100% observers. It’s lower on longliners.”

As there are more longliners, it’s difficult to have as many observers, he said.

“I think it’ll take time to get more on longliners and it’s a high cost. With purse seiners, they are bigger vessels and the catch rate is much higher. A lot has to do with cost,” he said.

After the interview with Undercurrent, Chou’s company announced a major sustainability development. On June 22, a purse seine tuna fishery in the western and central Pacific shared by the US, China, and Taiwan — and supplying FCF — achieved Marine Stewardship Council (MSC) certification.

The South Pacific Tuna Corporation, in conjunction with FCF and the Western Pacific Sustainable Tuna Alliance, announced the central Pacific skipjack and yellowfin free-school purse seine fishery had achieved and received the MSC standard.

Not just Taiwan
Although he accepted some points of the Greenpeace report, he resents the focus on FCF.

“If you read the Greenpeace report, it’s as if all Taiwan vessels went through FCF,” said Chou.

“Actually, only 25% or our business is from Taiwanese boats. We are dealing with a lot of vessels, such as Chinese, Korean, and Philippines boats,” Chou said.

“When I talk to my staff, I tell them I want to set the bar so high above the legal and acceptable level, that in case we fall, we are still above it. We are a lot more careful with what we do. We have a tracking system where we check the catches, look at whether the licenses are valid, and if the vessel has crew contracts. For some boats, we have their VMS [vessel monitoring systems], but, for some, we won’t,” he said.

“It’s very hard for illegal fish to come into our system, now. I’m not saying it’s impossible, but it’s very, very hard. If it does and we find out, there has to be some fraudulent misinformation given to us for it to come into the system,” said Chou.

“In our system, with all these checks, you can’t input fish that does not have all this proper documentation, as it hits a red flag and gets rejected. We have tried to set it up so there is no human error in the system and no one could go in and do something to harm the company’s reputation,” he said.

Greenpeace’s focus on Giant Ocean, Tunago
In the report, the NGO claims to have linked FCF to both of the two main incidents it cites.

Greenpeace cites links between FCF and an incident in September 2016, when the crew of the longliner Tunago No. 61, owned by Tunago Fishing Company, murdered their captain who, it later transpired, was likely abusing them.

Then, Greenpeace mentions a link between FCF and Giant Ocean International Fishery, a recruitment agency operated by Taiwanese nationals in Cambodia with strong ties back to Taiwan.

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“We have found vessels that supplied tuna to FCF connected to the Giant Ocean human trafficking case, and to the Tunago No. 61 murder case, where there are also concerns around the exploitation and abuse of crew,” said Greenpeace.

The description given of both the Giant Ocean and Tunago No. 61 incidents make disturbing reading, but Chou said Greenpeace heavily overplays the FCF links.

According to the report, the Giant Ocean case goes back to 2011, when the United Nations, NGOs and the Cambodian authorities became aware of a human trafficking ring operating in the country.

In May 2013, the Cambodian government arrested a Taiwanese national, Lin Yu Shin, a Giant Ocean employee who was responsible for the recruitment of labor.

Five more shareholders and directors of Giant Ocean were also charged: Lu Tien-Te; Chen Chun Mu; Wu Fu Tsang; Huang Chun Fa; and Tsai His Hu.

In April 2014, Lin Yu Shin and the five directors and shareholders were found guilty, with each sentenced to ten years in prison. Lin was tried in person, while the others were tried in absentia, according to Greenpeace.

The five directors and shareholders are considered fugitives in Cambodia.

“In December 2017, Greenpeace identified new evidence revealing that the five convicted human traffickers were living openly in Taiwan while fugitives from Cambodian justice,” the NGO said. “On top of this, two of them had officially sanctioned roles working in the recruitment of migrant crew onto Taiwanese fishing vessels, and two others appeared to be involved in recruiting for fishing vessels in Taiwan.”

Lu Tien Te is listed as the contact person for the Kaohsiung Fishing Vessel Crew Services Association, which holds a license to hire 700.

Also, Chen Chun Mu is now a director with Yu Chun Enterprises, which is currently registered by the fisheries agency to employ 399.

“Greenpeace is concerned the convicted traffickers pose an ongoing risk to migrant fishers. It is difficult to understand how, when authorities in Taiwan have not reached a substantive position on the guilt or innocence of the Giant Ocean directors and shareholders, they are able to continue to ply their trade restriction unabated. Greenpeace believes Taiwan has an obligation to ensure the convicted human traffickers are not allowed to work, in any way, with migrant workers who are vulnerable to trafficking, forced labor, and exploitation,” the NGO said.

“Greenpeace does try to bring focus on areas that need attention. I think that’s a good thing. I am not sure I always agree with the way they do it. The incidents they use are a number of years old. The conditions and awareness in this area has changed quite a bit. Take the cases that they try to link with FCF as an example,” said Chou.

Chou said FCF has worked with Giant Ocean, but a long time ago.

“After we did an internal investigation, we are now finding out one of the vessels that supplied to us used Giant Ocean as an agent seven or eight years ago. We spoke to the vessel owner and they tried using Cambodian crew twice in their history and both times the number of crews could not adapt to living on the vessel, and were repatriated before their contract ended at the owner’s cost,” he told Undercurrent.

“After these two experiences, the company decided not to use Cambodian crew. They never received any complaints or any outstanding issues from this crew. These are cases that happened in 2010-2011,” he said.

FCF had come across Giant Ocean before the Greenpeace report, Chou claimed.

“For two of the guys in Giant Ocean, we found out about them before the Greenpeace report. When we joined the Seafood Task Force and started doing more social accountability work, we were then trying to find out about the manning agents. One of them [Giant Ocean] is the association secretary general for the manning agents in Taiwan. That is when my staff had their first meeting with them. We had to go in and find out about the whole process and how it worked,” he said.

“We knew about him and one other fellow [from Giant Ocean] due to our own research into manning agents and helping the vessels that sell to us to have a code of conduct in line with what the Seafood Task Force and FCF are doing,” Chou said.

In the Seafood Task Force, FCF is involved in the tuna working group and a manning agents and workers group. “The latter is looking at hours for workers, repatriation, and if they have a complaint, making sure there are ways they can submit this so they are not punished.”

Chou feels FCF is “one of the guys who are ahead rather than the guys who are getting pulled”, hence his frustration with the Greenpeace report. “We want to be responsible and we are doing what needs to be done.”

However, sustainability, traceability, and welfare on vessels have to be practical and possible to carry out on vessels, said Chou.

“We realize the industry is changing and we need to be at a level where the buyers, retailers, the end consumers, feel comfortable what is coming onto their table,” he said.

“But, if you have regulations and rules that are so hard to achieve, it’s useless. They [the vessels] will either not sign it, or they sign it and fail the task force or our audits. Then, we stop buying from them and they go out and sell to someone who does not have such high standards as us. Then, we are not helping the whole industry,” he told Undercurrent.

‘No free pass’ for Thai Union
The most recent incident cited in the report is the 2016 murder of the skipper of a vessel owned by Tunago Fishery, which Greenpeace then claims to link to FCF.

The murder of Xie Dingrong, the skipper of longliner Tunago No. 61, is one of the main examples cited by the NGO in the report on alleged labor abuses on Taiwanese vessels. Just days before the captain’s death, Tunago No. 61 transshipped with a Shin Ho Chun No. 102, a Panamanian flagged, Taiwanese-owned, fish carrier.

“Greenpeace have sighted records that confirm FCF has traded with both Shin Ho Chun No. 102, and its sister vessel, Shin Ho Chun No. 101,” the NGO states, in the report. “FCF have acknowledged to Greenpeace that they trade with both vessels, confirming FCF’s link to this tragic case.”

However, according to one tuna sector source familiar with the companies, Tunago is Taiwanese-owned, but “not even affiliated” to FCF.

“Tunago was, at one time, the Fortuna fleet out of Samoa and Fiji where they delivered to StarKist and then also to Bumble Bee Foods. I understand they changed their operation and transship to their own carrier, the Shin Ho Chun, and take it directly to Bangkok to Thai Union,” he told Undercurrent. “Most of the claims from Greenpeace were before 2015, except this one from Tunago, it’s just strange. Why are they hiding the Thai Union connection?”

FCF’s Chou confirmed he still does business with Tunago.

“We still deal with them from time-to-time. It’s unfortunate, what happened, they are a good company. We don’t know the background of the whole thing and it happened over two years ago,” he said.

“When we bought the fish, we did not know what had happened. When I read this [the report], I felt we were guilty by association. We were on a plane and a crime was committed by a passenger on that plane. Then, everyone on that plane is also guilty because of that. That’s how I felt about this whole thing. If someone in my family did a crime, is the whole family guilty?”

The Greenpeace report also makes little mention of Thai Union.

The report mentions Thai Union once, to state, “We encourage governments, regulators and companies to look at commitments made by Thai Union in 2017 to address such issues in their supply chains”. The report came out the week after one published by Thai Union and Greenpeace on the progress made under the agreement signed by the two last year.

As Undercurrent has recently reported, Thai Union is also a customer of Tunago.

Lik FCF, Thai Union makes no secret of dealing with Tunago. Darian McBain, the company’s director of sustainability, said Tunago is a very “proactive supplier” that is trialing electronic monitoring on its vessels.

“We were not aware of this incident in 2016, and are thankful that Tunago dealt with this criminal investigation professionally and in collaboration with the relevant authorities,” McBain told Undercurrent.

Contact the author tom.seaman@undercurrentnews.com