Chasing Tuna

I need the right temperature and sea level to be able to catch as many tunas as possible. Therefore, I should be ahead of the curve in Global Warming preparation, right? Think again.

The tuna industry is one of the most environmentally conscious industries out there, mainly because such variables as ocean temperatures and sea levels are fundamental for the effectivity of the catch of this animal. Furthermore, this is a very global industry as well, considering that fishing occurs mostly in international waters, prices are extremely correlated to the balance between supply and demand of this product. Therefore, for local fishing companies, productivity is key to maintain their profitability despite variability and seasonality. Ironically, their oversensitivity and consciousness with the environment in combination with their profitability interests (ensuring there’s sufficient tuna to fish and sell for years to come) allows them to have these seemingly opposite goals aligned.

Starkist Co. is one of the largest companies in the industry which has a 36% (7) market share in the United States. Starkist has done significant efforts to ensure that the tuna it sells comes from healthy supply chains, both in fishing practices as well as working environments for the people aboard the ships (4). Starkist is part of the International Seafood Sustainability Foundation (ISSF) which is comprised of several scientists and managers that provide a framework for the entire industry to ensure all parties share the best practices that bolster the sustainability of tuna, based on scientific data (3). The mission of ISSF is that the tuna fisheries worldwide are successfully and sustainably managed by their governments, until then, they will continue to research, propose new practices, come up with regulation and policies and communicate these findings to the industry.

This is a US$ 10 billion global industry (1) which interacts with almost every country in the world, navigates through international waters and manages animals overly sensitive to environmental factors. Thus, it is quite astonishing that the approach of the sustainability efforts is limited to only ensuring there’s enough tuna for generations to come. There’s hardly any mention of global warming in any of the major websites of this industry, particularly none in Starkist’s. But why is this happening and why is it so important?

First and foremost, the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea which is the document that provides the global legal guidelines for the industry was signed in 1982 (5). This 34-year-old document was updated in 2013 but, isn’t global warming’s prioritization for nations today incomparable to what it was in the 80s? In my opinion, it is and it is one of the main reasons this continues to happen, and this is further explained in Sarah Hauck’s article in Conservation International (1). On the other hand, it is extremely important because of the possible repercussions on the environment explained by the World Bank website (2):

  • “Raising of average ocean surface temperatures to levels currently experienced during medium-intensity El Niños.”(2) This is also complemented with Sue Taei’s remarks (executive director of New Zealand and the Pacific Islands at Conservation International): “As warmer water currents continue pushing eastward, the tuna — assuming they’re able to survive ocean acidification and other stressors — will increasingly move beyond many Pacific Island nations’ boundaries and out into the high seas” (1).
  • “Increasing year-to-year climate variability.”(2) This increase in variability will greatly contribute to the exacerbation of the supply chain’s challenges of sustainability.

These two repercussions are not directly addressed by Starkist nor by the ISSF, rather they are mostly focused on ensuring that there’s an appropriate level of tuna in the ocean in terms of the balance of reproduction and fishing. This is a very profit driven approach in my opinion and not necessarily focus on the long term environmental situation of the industry. There are many things that Starkist can do to include this in their efforts:

  1. Request the ISSF to include the global warming forecast into their scientific models and define appropriate policies to give to the government for implementation.
  2. Identify what key areas of the ocean and islands will be significantly affected and support those highly dependable on tuna communities with help.
  3. Participate proactively in the media with communications about the problem and how it can potentially damage the environment and the communities.

This is a complex problem within a complex industry with no clear solution nor timeframe. Nevertheless, due to its size, importance, availability of financial resources and close-knit relationship with the scientific community, it is safe to assume that the potential is there to tackle this challenge and overcome it quite successfully.

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  1. Hauck, Sarah. “With climate change, Pacific tuna economy enters uncharted waters”. humanature Conservation International Blog, 2016. accessed November 2016.
  2. The World Bank. “Chapter 5 Impact of Climate Change on Regional Tuna Fisheries”. The World Bank. accessed November 2016.
  3. International Seafood Sustainability Foundation. 2015 Annual Report. Washington DC: ISSF 2016
  4. Starkist Company. “Corporate Responsibility”. accessed November 2016.
  5. United Nations, Division for Ocean Affairs and the Law of the Sea. United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (December 10, 1982).
  6. Undercurrentnews seafood business news from beneath the surface. “Species: Tuna”. accessed November 2016.
  7. Ferdman, Roberto A. “The world’s biggest canned tuna company is about to get a lot bigger”. The Washington Post, December 2014. accessed November 2016.
  8. Greenpeace USA. “Tuna Fishing Industry Out of Control”, Youtube, published July 29, 2015. accessed November 2016.



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Student comments on Chasing Tuna

  1. Juan – Thanks for the article. StarKist is a great example of how a large player in an industry can use their market position to combat widespread industry ills, which would otherwise be difficult to address given the tragedy of the commons (impacts both overfishing and climate change). StarKist, for example, has been able to raise awareness about the importance of purchasing sustainably harvested tuna and was the first company to adopt a dolphin-safe policy (incorporating a Dolphin Safe logo on all products so that customers recognized that StarKist condemned the used of indiscriminate fishing methods to trap dolphins, whales, and other marine life alongside the intended tuna catch). [1] Similar, StarKist was a founding member of the ISSF and only purchases from vessels that share an anti-shark-finning policy. [1] These market actions have had a measurable impact by establishing standard within the industry and differentiating StarKist’s brand versus competitors.

    Within the tuna industry, StarKist can uniquely justify investments given its leading market share and ability to shift public awareness thereby creating a competitive advantage. Given this proven strategy, I agree that StarKist should explicitly incorporate sustainability efforts into its social and environmental initiatives. The industry has adopted many of the standards that StarKist was the first mover on (e.g., Dolphin Safe, bycatch policies, fish stock management), meaning these standards no longer represent competitive differentiators for StarKist versus the industry. While there is clearly more to be done in terms of fishery management, incorporating an explicit climate change pledge offers StarKist a unique opportunity to push the industry forward along a new dimension of sustainability, doing well for both StarKist and the world.


  2. It’s really interesting that Starkist’s sustainability initiatives appear to be focused on ensuring a consistent supply of fish. It seems that Starkist is ignoring the broader effects climate change may have on their industry. I’m very surprised they have not done more to address the impact current and future mercury levels may have on their products. Mercury is released into the environment through activities like coal burning and oil refining and ultimately ends up within fish. When humans eat this fish, mercury accumulates in their bodies, which can lead to mercury poisoning over time. With continued water pollution through greenhouse gas production, mercury levels in tuna could rise significantly. I see this as a huge threat to their core operations that they do not seem to be addressing.

  3. Thank you for the interesting article! It is surprising to see that there is this much of a direct impact by climate change on the industry. Since there are limited areas around the world where you can catch and produce tuna, I assume that these areas are shared by several market leaders of the industry. Do you think it is possible to think of a collaborative action by leading companies in the industry around the world to address and react to this threat to their business? I think Starkist has the influence and the size as a market leader to initiate such collaboration.

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