purseseineIn 2011, Greenpeace celebrated the public commitments made by the UK’s two biggest tuna fish brands, Princes and John West, to phase out the use of their purse seine nets in their commercial fishing practices. This week, however, the Guardian reports that leaked documents from the companies reveal Princes will likely miss its phase-out date and John West may drop the commitment entirely. 

Purse seine nets are a type of fish aggregation device (FAD), and purse-seining refers to the act of unspooling a circular wall of net around a school of fish and then sealing up the bottom to capture them. In a 2010 blog post, Greenpeace UK writes that it’s not against FADs when they’re used on fish that can be “cleanly” purse-seined, such as herring or mackerel. On the other hand, “where purse-seining is a bad idea is when targeting fish that a) also involves the bycatch of non-target species, and b) simply can’t take the fishing pressure on their populations.”

For example, purse-seining is used in the Indian and Pacific oceans to capture skipjack tuna. This in itself is not so bad, but skipjacks tend to shoal with young yellowfin tuna. When FADs are employed, the yellowfin are also scooped up – as well as sharks, rays, turtles and other species.

“The Atlantic bluefin population simply can’t take fishing at this level,” Greenpeace writes. “It is this fishing method, and the associated ranching, all in turn driven by a new-found appetite for bluefin sushi around the world (and especially Japan) that have caused Atlantic bluefin numbers to plummet.”

And “plummet” is an understatement. In 2013, an international assessment found that stocks of bluefin tuna have decreased by 96 percent due to overfishing.

That’s why Greenpeace lobbied so hard to get big tuna brands to drop the practice. As the organization wrote in a 2011 blog post, “Tuna instinctively gather around FADs, but these oceanic minefields also attract the whole cast of Finding Nemo, including a host of species at risk of extinction.”

By using FADs, “the tuna industry kills enough bycatch to fill a billion tins every year. It’s the equivalent of every tenth tuna tin on supermarket shelves containing shark or other bycatch instead of tuna.”

The commitments to alternative methods of fishing by Princes and John West could have reduced bycatch by up to 90 percent, Greenpeace wrote.

But those promises are swiftly melting away. Princes had promised to phase out all its FADs by the end of 2014. According to the Guardian, with only two months left in the year, less than a quarter of the company’s tuna is currently fished with non-FAD methods.

John West promised a phase-out by 2016, but leaked documents indicate it wants to revise its commitment and continue using FADs.

“John West and Princes are the two largest suppliers to the UK market, but their tuna is some of the least sustainable,” Sarah North, an oceans campaigner at Greenpeace, told the Guardian. “Despite making commitments to go FAD-free, neither has made much progress and now it looks like they’re both trying to wriggle out of their promises.

“But that’s unacceptable because purse seine fishing using FADs is a truly devastating method of catching tuna and UK consumers expect better than that. It catches a huge array of non-target species, including sharks, rays and turtles.”

In response to Guardian inquiries, John West issued the following statement:

“We are a responsible business whose core principles focus on a holistic approach to fishing sustainably. We must recognize that fishing gear and fishing methodologies are important, but only part of the solution to ensuring the sustainability of stocks.

“It is true to say that we do have a concern for future availability of resources. Any business which relies fundamentally on the earth’s natural resources should be concerned about sustainability. This is why we are developing methods to implement sustainable business solutions to ensure we can continue to offer nutritious fish for generations to come.”

Those “sustainable business solutions” include FAD alternatives like “eco-FADs,” which prevent sea life from gathering around the nets but do not prevent bycatch from being swept up inside of them.

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