Fishy Sustainability

Dear Wild Planet,

I’m unsure what to make of this: your sardines are “sustainably caught” off the California coast, then shipped to a cannery in Vietnam?

Vietnam! I didn’t find that interesting little fact anywhere on the Wild Planet package, and it’s nowhere on the web page you have devoted to “sustainable fishing methods.” It is, however, stamped on the cardboard cartons in which the tins of your sardines are packed for shipping, and just last week I had to lift about ten of these cartons during my shift at the Food Coop.

(All members of the Food Coop have to work a few hours each month; mine is an early Friday morning shift. I work at what’s called “the top of the belt,” unloading groceries from big palettes brought in by trucks, and sending them down the conveyer belt to the basement. I might complain about the shift — it is never convenient — but I usually enjoy the simple work, lifting and carrying, which is unlike any other work I do. It sometimes even has a nice rhythm to it; and I can allow my mind to wander as I work.)

So while stooping and lifting and carrying, I happened to notice that your shipping cartons make no secret of the fact that your sardines are packed in Vietnam. Maybe the law requires that declaration. But I was surprised to discover that everywhere else you seem to take great pains not to disclose the place where the sardines are packed. The packaged tin says the sardines are “micro-cannery produced for Wild Planet Foods, Inc.” A Google search reveals that the word “Vietnam” does not appear on your website at all. Not once.

Instead, one learns that Wild Planet sardines are “wild caught,” a method rated by various environmental organizations — Seafood Watch, Blue Ocean, Fish Wise, and Sea Choice — as the “best” or “green” method of catching sardines. The trouble is, the phrase “wild caught” is terribly vague: as one writer puts it, “‘wild-caught’ casts a wide net and can mean that your fish were caught using highly destructive (read: downright demonic) fishing methods such as dynamiting reefs, high-seas bottom-trawling, and drift nets. But the term wild-caught can also encompass more desirable lower-impact techniques, such as hand-lines, divers, or the use of pots or traps.” Let’s assume you opt for the low impact techniques: why not say so and specify those techniques? Instead, you ask that we take your word that you limit your “bycatch” (those fish who happen to get caught up in a net not intended to net them), and that you don’t use destructive methods.

As a result, your claim to sustainable fishing methods, your claim to sustainable practice, lacks cogency. NO PURSE SEINE OR LONG-LINE CAUGHT TUNA WILL EVER BE USED IN OUR PRODUCTS! your site boldly announces — in capital letters, and with an exclamation point to boot. But does that mean your sardine fishermen don’t use purse seine nets? After all, the purse seine is a very good, proven way to catch sardines; and one wonders how the fishermen casting those nets assure the bycatch is, in your words, “negligible.” Sea Choice currently rates the sardine “of ‘low’ conservation concern regarding fishing pressure”; and the big drop in sardine populations off the California coast in the middle of the last century seems to have been due as much to a natural cycle of boom and bust as to heavy fishing. So, taking all this into account, what exactly does sustainable fishing of sardines mean? Does it simply mean fishing that does not exceed catch quotas — in other words, fishing that’s simply legal?

I would like to believe that Wild Planet is the environmentally-conscious company it makes itself out to be, and that you have simply done a bad job of explaining yourselves on sustainable fishing. Still, it’s a very narrow definition of sustainability that takes into account how the fish are pulled from the sea and doesn’t consider what happens to them after that. I imagine — I could be wrong — that the sardines are fresh frozen and then transported to Vietnam for canning. Have you calculated the amount of energy it takes to transport them to and from Vietnam? What is the carbon footprint of a typical catch? What can you tell me about the the Vietnamese canneries? Where exactly in Vietnam are they? What are the working conditions like? What is the average pay? Surely all of this has to figure into any discussion whether a practice rightly deserves to be called sustainable, doesn’t it?

Of course, there are no canneries here in the United States. The last one, the Stinson Sardine Cannery in Prospect Harbor, Maine, closed in February of this year. Steinbeck’s Cannery Row in Monterey, California is more like a mall or an amusement park than an industrial center. King Oscar packs their sardines in Poland. StarKist and Bumble Bee also ship their fish to faraway canneries. But (I couldn’t help but wonder as I stooped and lifted and carried) why Vietnam?

There is very little information readily available – at least to someone who can’t search in Vietnamese – about canneries in Vietnam. I was able to find a picture of a Vietnamese fish processing plant; it looks clean and orderly, with everyone dressed in protective face masks, a little like the high-tech manufacturing facilities I have seen, except there are dead fish everywhere.


I can infer a little more from a Request for Emergency Dislocation Aid filed by American Samoa’s governor, Togiola Tulafono, in May of 2009. There, Tulafono complains that a mandated 50-cent increase of the hourly minimum wage in American Samoa “is a direct cause” of the StarKist cannery moving to Vietnam, where workers earn around 70 cents an hour, “and less.” Granted, a worker earning 70 cents an hour, working five days a week, eight hours a day at one of your Vietnam canneries would not be considered poor in a country where per capita income in 2008 was $1,024, or about 85 dollars a month. But what drudgery!

Maybe I am not seeing the bigger picture here, and how this all adds up to sustainability or sustainable practice. In a business proposal for a cannery, Don Hosokawa, a consultant, lists some of the economic benefits that canneries bring: jobs — one cannery alone can generate 1,500 on-site jobs, and up to 2,000 more jobs in the surrounding community — economic development, a big client for local utilities and other services; “an entire infrastructure would be developed.” A fish cannery can be a real boon for the host region.

What’s more, Asian countries that are members in the ACP — the African, Caribbean and Pacific Group of States, created by the Georgetown Agreement in 1975 — enjoy special trade agreements with the EU; and the ACP is committed to “sustainable development of its Member-States and their gradual integration into the global economy, which entails making poverty reduction a matter of priority and establishing a new, fairer, and more equitable world order”.

Only Vietnam is not a member state. Hosokawa says this would spell “more advantages” for the entrepreneur in his cannery scheme; but it’s unclear to me what advantages the people working at the Vietnamese cannery might enjoy, and how all this might help secure them, or us, a new, fairer, and more equitable world order. On this last point, especially, I hope you can enlighten me.

2 thoughts on “Fishy Sustainability

  1. Russell Klipple

    I buy into your interrogation of the person that wrote the text for the sardine box. People throw words around and expect everyone to believe them to be true but there are a few non believers out there that would like a clarification of what some companies claims are. FYI the box I have says ..caught in the Pacific Ocean and if they were harvested off the coast of Viet Nam the box is correct. The product in the tins was very good and I did enjoy them. By the way my favorite catch phrases are bio degradable ( so is plutonium ) and safe in septic…Whatever that means.

    Reply

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