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One Night in Bangkok - Part III: Baht Actors: Friend of the Sea and Earth Island Institute

by Campaign for Eco-Safe Tuna
December 9, 2015

One Night in Bangkok - Part III: Baht Actors: Friend of the Sea and Earth Island Institute

This past November, Friend of the Sea and Dolphin-Safe (aka Earth Island Institute) hosted a meeting in Bangkok with the Thai Tuna Industry Association to reach out to retail and catering buyers. The purpose of this meeting was to convince retail and catering buyers that the only tuna to buy is tuna labelled dolphin safe and that by requesting and buying “dolphin safe” tuna, more suppliers will be incentivized to change their fishing methods. Unfortunately, this isn’t what actually happens, and the reality is that Friend of the Sea and Earth Island are looking to protect and expand their consumer deception scheme.

What is more interesting is not what Friend of the Sea and Earth Island told the buyers about canned tuna, but what important facts that they left out. In this last installment of the three part blog post we will address the money behind so-called “dolphin-safe” labeling.


Eco-labels in the seafood industry are big business. Many retailers, restaurants and consumers will pay a premium for fish that bears that label. In the United States, Whole Foods is a perfect example. They have gone out of their way to support eco-labels on everything from seafood to cleaning products. For the most part the process to use one of these labels involves the certification of a fishery and the fishing practices within that fishery. The initial audit can cost hundreds of thousands if not millions of dollars for the scientific research and review. There is also an annual fee for using the eco-label and continued monitoring, to say nothing of the costs of meeting the standards in the first place.

One of the best known and best respected is the Marine Stewardship Council (MSC). This label has been in existence since 1999 and includes stringent standards and a rigorous scientific audit before a fishery can use the label. Seizing on the money-making opportunity, Friend of the Sea launched in 2006. Their standards are lax compared to MSC’s requirements and they have positioned themselves in the market as a cheaper alternative to MSC certification. They claim that they do so to allow “artisanal fisheries” to gain certification, but really they’re just putting a stamp on any fishery that shows up with cash. Their process isn’t transparent or strong enough and NOAA has found that they’re not even compliant with the standards put forth by the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization on the setting of guidelines in relation to the involvement of the standard setting organization in both decisions about fisheries approvals and the conduct of the objections procedure.

Friend of the Sea has certified tuna fisheries where Illegal, Unregulated and Unreported (IUU) fishing is taking place and along with their partner Earth Island Institute, shielded fishing companies that have used fishing practices that go against their own unenforced and unenforceable standards for “dolphin-safe” labeling and the eco-label. One of the most egregious example is the fishing vessels that were added to the Greenpeace blacklist after they were caught setting nets around marine mammals in violation of international marine protections and Earth Island’s “dolphin-safe” standards. NOAA levied over 1.5 million USD in fines for these violations. Five of the vessels in question are managed by South Pacific Tuna Corporation, which was set up as "a high-seas tuna fishing joint venture project between 4 of the world's largest seafood companies, Bumble Bee (USA), Chicken of the Sea (USA), Thai Union (Thailand), and FCF Fisheries (Taiwan)," all companies whose tuna bears the “dolphin-safe” label, and one of whom (FCF Fisheries) has been certified by Friend of the Sea.

What it boils down to is that Friend of the Sea will become a friend of any company that is willing to pay for their eco-label. We have documented time and time again how mother organization, Earth Island benefits directly from the “dolphin-safe” label in the United States, despite lacking any credibility. We have shown, time and time again how far Earth Island is willing to go to protect that income stream. So you might be wondering what does all of this have to do with Thailand?

It’s simple. Seafood is a top export for Thailand. It is critical to their economy and over the past 25 years, the de-facto ban on Mexican tuna in the United States has meant that Thailand has become responsible for 55 percent of U.S. tuna imports. Mexico’s advantages of location, lower transportation costs, similar labor costs, capacity for production and zero tariffs thanks to the North American Free Trade Agreement would make it more difficult for Thai tuna to compete. As a result, the Thai industry has cozied up with Earth Island and Friend of the Sea to be their enforcers of trade manipulation.

For Thailand, maintaining the status quo is important but it might not be for long. Now that the WTO has denied the United States’ final appeal, it is likely that they will have to start competing on a level playing field with Mexico. This is an outcome that would be beneficial to consumers who will finally know the truth about the false claims of no harm to dolphins of the product they’re buying; Thai fishermen who have been enslaved aboard tuna boats; and would reduce the devastation of ecosystems around the world as a result of Earth Island promoted fish aggregation device fishing.