A sustainable, European Tuna Giant?


As a tuna consumer you probably didn’t notice, but the tuna industry was hit by an earthquake. Or tsunami if you like that better. In July the Bolton Group, one of the giants in tuna trade, took over the tuna supply business of another giant in the market, Tri Marine.  Both names are hardly known outside the closed circuit of tuna business, specialists and other freaks. But the fact of the matter is that this is a major step of power concentration in the tuna business. And that has, inevitably, a fall out on the sustainability of tuna fisheries.


Bolton, huge as it is, is a bit of a mystery. The privately-owned Group emerged in postwar The Netherlands as a trading and distribution company, owning small distribution companies in consumer goods in Italy. Founder-owner Joseph Nissim, a Jewish-Greek-Italian business man who had escaped Thessaloniki from the Nazi’s and fought bravely with the British army in World War II, kept an extremely low profile. He died earlier this year at the age of 100. Although a bigger than live character, and a ‘tuna-legend’, I never saw any interviews with him.

Just to get the picture: we are talking about the real big tuna traders in the chain of canned tuna, with strong vertically integrated tuna-interests. Unlike fishers, processors, brands and retailers, traders are usually not a very well-known part of the tuna world to the broader public. But in the chain, they play a powerful and often crucial role as lead firms. There are three big global traders in the chain for canned tuna:  Tri Marine, the Taiwanese FCF and the Japanese Itochu. The last one is a relative outsider that operates mostly as an entity on the Japanese market. FCF from Taiwan developed as a global trader from being owner of a vast fishing fleet. Tri Marine was originally an Italian government-owned tuna supplier based in Singapore. In the eighties Tri Marine privatized under the current CEO and president Renato Curto and his friends.

Background player

Bolton is a giant background player. It owned 40 % of the Tri Marine stock. It is the biggest brand-owner in Europe with shares in the leading Spanish Grupo Calvo and Grupo Garavilla producers, and owner of the Italian Rio Mare and Palmera and the French Saupiquet brands. As a private company, Bolton is still registered in The Netherlands, but with important working companies in Italy. It is an empire with fifty brands of household goods, twelve factories, forty-four offices and over five thousand employees. And now Bolton positioned itself even stronger in the tuna market by taking over Tri Marine’s tuna supply business, including its processing plants (like Sol Tuna) and the Solomon Island fishing company.

What does this European tuna giant mean in terms of sustainable policies? Bolton as a lead firm can matter much when it comes to sustainable tuna sourcing, producing and consuming. On first sight, the company is pretty aware of its role in the sustainability issue, with a special program called ’We Care’ that is displayed on its website. Looking more closely, the company is part of an initiative to reduce ghost gears. Last year It published a 3-page press release with an ambitious statement asserting that it will become “the most sustainable tuna company in the world”. That was based on the measures mentioned in its The Right Course Socio-Environmental Report published in 2017.


Bolton’s core commitments to the Right Course are:

- by 2020 (next year), 50% of tuna procurements will be sourced from more selective fishing methods with a lower level of by-catch and environmental impact (pole and line, handline, artisanal small-scale sustainable vessels, and FAD-free purse seiners).

- Also, next year 50 percent of tuna procurements will be sourced from purse seiners with FAD management measures in place: those fishing only non-entangling FADs and with a maximum of 300 active drifting FAD per vessel.

- by 2024, 100 percent of its tuna will be sourced from MSC-certified fisheries or from ‘credible and “robust” fishery improvement projects (FIPs)’.

That all sounds nice.  But, as always,  the devil is in the details. Everybody with some notion about sustainability issues knows that the Spanish and Italian canned tuna brands have the worst record when it comes to offering certified sustainable products on the shelves, let alone on the information about it. So that has to be changed in 2024 (still five years to go) by sourcing sustainable from MSC or ‘robust’ FIPs.

Wait another five years?

First: why wait another five years if there is already a considerable amount of MSC certified tuna available on the market? Second: mind the ‘or’ in ‘MSC or ‘robust’ FIPs’. In 2024 most tuna fisheries of Bolton might be in FIPs, with only a few MSC-certified. That indicates a very slippery path: independent standards or supervision on the ‘robustness’ of FIPs are hardly available. FIPs are not sustainable tuna. With a little luck, a FIP is a declaration of good intentions to go for the MSC standard somewhere in the future. If you are less lucky, it works out as just a marketing tool to create a sustainable image. Like it has done many times before.

There are more worries on the issue of transparency and traceability of the tuna that will eventually be sourced in a sustainable way.  Traceability of the sustainable sourced tuna is key for the future of a sustainable product in the end market. It is actually the most heated battle-ground in tuna wars. How can I ever be sure as a consumer that the tuna on my plate is indeed that sustainable fished tuna that Bolton says it will be sourcing in 2024?

For a company that stresses the importance of sustainability in the supply chain, those guarantees are rather poor. Bolton mentions the Proactive Vessel Register (PVR) of the ISSF (where Bolton is an active member). With all due respect: this has not much to do with traceability of sustainable fished tuna in the chain. Then, there is an ISO certified traceability system in place (at Rio Mare) in one plant in Italy. Good, but not very impressive. Also, Bolton promises that there will be in some unspecified future on-pack information on the cans describing species, fishing oceans and fishing methods. It’s about time I would say. But unfortunately, this information ads more to the confusion for the poor consumer than it helps to solve it. Where is the accessible and transparent system where the consumer really can trust that the tuna in the can is a sustainable sourced product?

Resuming: Bolton’s intentions are certainly good. That is a positive starter. But as one of the most experienced, powerful and clever lead firms in tuna business they can do much better. Now keep our fingers crossed (and our eyes open) if Bolton really will find the pathway to sustainability. That would make a big leap for sustainable tuna and give Bolton’s image a real boost.