The Truth About Tuna: Reflections On Commercial Fishing

Reflections on Commercial Fishing is the final installment of The Truth About Tuna, Lauren Reid's report from the front line of tuna fisheries in the Pacific Ocean that supply the U.S. She recently finished sailing on the Greenpeace ship Rainbow Warrior. Here are her first, second, and third updates.

There are two important ideas I've taken away from my time spent on the high seas of the Pacific. 

First, if the fishing vessels I visited were, say, actual companies based on U.S. soil, it would be absolutely unacceptable to allow the conditions I saw on board to continue to exist. Most of the practices that shocked me are commonplace, and even if they're not illegal on the high seas, they're enough to give me major pause. Imagine if the working environment at Google were a 20-hour workday, with no bathrooms or sick leave, ever. Workers would protest, exposés would be published, fines issued, and company stocks would plummet — I think we can all agree this wouldn't be tolerated. Beyond the scandalous, front-page abuses that have occurred on fishing boats (which there are plenty, although I didn't see them), no person wants his or her child, brother, or father to have to make a living in conditions that extract every possible drop of production value from the human body, without even the fundamental allowances for rest and basic sanitary facilities.

Second, in 2014, a record 2,860,648 tons (!) of tuna were caught in the Pacific Ocean. Conservation attempts are clearly having little effect, which hurts both the tuna and the people who rely on them. Important sushi species have been hit hard, with bigeye down to 16 percent of its population and bluefin now under five percent. The albacore fishery I visited can't catch enough tuna to be profitable. And over the past year, fleets have caught so much skipjack, the healthiest and most abundant tuna species, they flooded the canned tuna market and prices dropped so low that they're not making any money either. If we continue fishing at this level, it won't be long before those tuna sandwiches become a thing of yesteryear, a dish of the past that our children will have no concept of.

Beyond the fact they are destroying their own industry along with hundreds of thousands of jobs, their fishing methods kill other threatened species, like sharks, rays, and turtles. When you add this to the threats to our oceans from pollution, warming, and acidification, it will have dire consequences for all of us in the near future.

In a world riddled with corruption and abusive organizational practices, I often struggle with a feeling of hopelessness, or worse, straight-up apathy about situations that seem near impossible to change. Sometimes, George Carlin's reasons for not voting resonate a little too much. For better or worse, our society lives and breathes on commercial consumption and the purchase power of the U.S. dollar. We can't escape it. We effectively vote for what we want when we buy something at the supermarket —

If there is one place we have concrete power to influence change, this is it.

We don't have to stop eating tuna. But in an effort to ensure the sustainability of these fish stocks into the future, we obviously can't continue down the path we're on. Personally, I don't ever want to support companies that — through ignorance or profiteering — allowed the conditions I saw to be the fishing methods that get canned tuna onto our plates back at home.[pullquote:right] One very simple solution is to support brands with high standards of quality, sustainability, and fair working practices. Many of the brands on our store shelves believe and practice these core values. We have the choice to support companies that respect their employees and don't indiscriminately take (and take... and take...) from our ever-dwindling ecosystems.

While what I saw on those boats may fall into a legal a grey area, it will no doubt stay with me for a long time. What would break most of us — tirelessly working in a rocking space of grime and blood, men exhausted by the never-ending pace of throwing and catching and hauling and cutting up of fish bodies — was nonetheless done faithfully, with such a willingness to let us observe what they did. I realize from recent reports in The New York Times that I was on comparatively better ships, but the fact that conditions are often much worse than what I witnessed leaves me disheartened at the thought of those who are essentially trapped fishing out at sea.

This is what I took from my time in the Pacific. We can tell companies how we want our food caught and grown, or whether we want it modified and processed. Supporting our values through our hard-earned dollars isn't hard at all when the choices are there. And they are — we just need to support them. For now, this is what I know as a concrete way for all of us to respect our fragile earth and promote companies that value human life in the process of catching our tuna.