the protection racket

December 7, 2015, 9:47 am

“It’s become a protection racket,” said Ray Hilborn, speaking from his Seattle home.

That’s the take of Hilborn -- professor at the School of Aquatic and Fishery Sciences, University of Washington -- on environmental non-governmental organizations (NGOs), which he believes are holding increasing sway over the seafood industry.

“Some would call it naked extortion, especially for retailers,” he explained. “You need to pay the likes of the WWF [World Wide Fund for Nature] and then follow their advice, just to keep Greenpeace away from your door. Because, if you don’t, Greenpeace will be picketing your store.”

“This is a worrying trend,” he added.

While not explicit, Hilborn -- who is also founder of the CFOOD initiative, aimed at gathering global data to maintain fisheries databases, while also promoting accurate seafood sustainability dialogue in the media – was most likely referring to Greenpeace’s ongoing boycott of Thai Union brands.

Thai Union, the world’s largest tuna company, remains under fire from the NGO for perceived harmful fishing practices, as well as links to human trafficking, as reported by New York Times in the summer.

On Oct. 28, Greenpeace coordinated a global day of protests, which included a rally in front of Chicken of the Sea’s San Diego headquarters, and, more bizarrely, the erection of a giant effigy in the shape of a tuna fin outside John West’s base in Liverpool, UK.

“Greenpeace stopped being an environmental organization a long time ago,” said Hilborn. “Today, it’s an anti-corporate organization, which is also a very selective user of science. I’d say they are the worst of the NGOs, in terms of having no use for science in their campaigns. Their campaigns, instead, are driven by money.”

Hilborn’s views invoke similar comments made last month in Bangkok, Thailand, at Friend of the Sea’s (FoS) One to One Meeting conference, in which industry players rounded on Greenpeace’s crusade against the use of fish aggregation devices (FADs) as unscientific.

“NGOs such as Greenpeace should stop these campaigns, as they aren’t justifiable from a scientific point of view,” said Paolo Bray, FoS founder and chief executive director of Friend of the Sea (FoS).

“Purse seiners don’t touch the seabed -- which is part of FoS’s sustainable fisheries criteria -- and perform well in terms of environmental impact, as they require less fuel. What people don’t realize is that the bycatch is down to entangling nets, more than anything else, which we are against.”

Chanintr Chalisarapong, president of Thai Tuna Industry Association, agreed, alluding to the ongoing impasse between Thai Union and the NGO.

“If they come to the Thai tuna industry, I will defend the industry and the companies it is accusing,” he said. “We need solutions based on scientific data, which can be provided to the public. One NGO attacking us all the time could be really harmful for the industry.”

Hilborn believes the original definition of sustainability has become obfuscated in recent years, at the hands of NGOs, whose advice and guidelines are based on subjective value judgments, rather than science, which he claimed back in October has been trumped by financial incentives.

“That’s another worrying trend,” he said. “If you go back to the original scientific literature on sustainability and sustainable development, it’s all about the ability of the world to keep producing the goods and services that humans want. It’s not about protecting the environment, except in the sense that you have to have ecosystems to produce the goods and services.”

“So you’ve got NGOs -- and even the MSC [Marine Stewardship Council] telling fisheries they need to adhere to their definitions. Take the Monterey Bay Aquarium, which says that yellowfin and skipjack tuna caught by purse seiners is not sustainable because of bycatch; but using hook and line, or pole and line methods has a larger carbon footprint.”

“Is bycatch a more important issue than carbon footprint? These are value trends; it’s not science, which has largely faded into the background. The scientific question is this: can we keep on catching yellow fin and skipjack tuna? The answer is, yes we can,” said Hilborn.

Doesn’t this make for conflicting messages for consumers? As highlighted in a recent survey carried out by the MSC in the UK, more than one in three adults (35%) admitted they didn’t know if cod from the North Sea is sustainable or not, and whether they should or should not be eating it.

Hilborn agreed, citing another example -- Bering Sea pollock.

“It’s the example I always use. Bering Sea pollock is MSC-certified, but it’s on Greenpeace’s red list and Monterey Bay Aquarium’s yellow list,” he said. “But I maintain that out of everyone, it’s most confusing for retailers. They’re the ones that have to make the choices, and face Greenpeace picketing their stores.”

The MSC itself has come in for some unfavorable scrutiny of late, too.

Speaking at the Conxemar exhibition, held in Vigo, Spain, in October, Susan Marks, sustainability officer at the Alaska Seafood Marketing Institute (ASMI) claimed alternative public sector certifications -- ASMI’s Responsible Fisheries Management program probably being the most famous case – had an opportunity to steal a march on MSC.

That view was supported by John Sackton, publisher of, who said some seafood players had become increasingly wary of the MSC’s perceived inclination towards brand and logo.

“Auditing and certification are important functions, but they are not brands,” he said. “Any NGO which puts too much focus on building brands will always put it at odds with the sustainability development of global fisheries.”

Speaking to Undercurrent News at last month’s Taiwan International Fisheries & Seafood Show 2015 in Kaohsiung, Steven Shyu, president of the Taiwan Fishery Economic Development Association, had even stronger words to level at the MSC.

“MSC doesn’t work here [Taiwan],” he stated bluntly. “It is essentially a marketing tool for larger export-driven nations. For small seafood companies, in a small country like ours, which doesn’t have a great international reach, MSC is utterly pointless. We can’t wait for people, or the government, to help with this either. That’s why we need to develop our own system.”

For this reason, Shyu is imploring Taiwanese seafood companies to get behind and sign up to the Responsible Fisheries Index (RFI), an independent sustainability standard that his organization is spearheading.

Conceived three years ago, Shyu is hopeful RFI will become Taiwan’s official certification system in 2017.

Hilborn said he has “a lot of respect for MSC, but, yes, it is a business, money-driven and dependent on budget, which comes from licensing fees”.

“So, for the smaller fisheries in the world, like Taiwan, they are never going to be able to afford the costs of certification and meet those standards, which are getting tougher and tougher.”