New report on ‘ghost gear’ hands High Liner Foods a failing grade

by Charles Mandel

Lunenburg-based fishery processor and marketer High Liner Foods ranked last in a new report on fisheries and the problem of abandoned and lost fishing gear.

World Animal Protection (WAP) released the report, Ghosts Beneath the Waves, in mid-March.

The animal protection group found that 12 out of the 15 largest global seafood companies in the world do not have clear positions or solutions to abandoned and lost fishing gear.

According to its report, 640,000 tonnes of "ghost gear" - abandoned tackle off of fishing vessels - is lost or discarded in the oceans every year, killing millions of marine animals, including whales, dolphins, turtles, seabirds and fish.

While Lynn Kavanagh, campaign manager with WAP's Canadian office, told LighthouseNOW that "High Liner is already a very sustainably minded company with some good policies in place," she said the group hopes the firm will examine its supply chain, determine in which of its fisheries ghost gear represents an issue, and start to work to prevent the problem.

The 15 seafood companies in the report received rankings from one to five on their commitment to address the problem of ghost gear. Tier 1 ranked the best while Tier 5 was the worst.

While none of the companies achieved Tier 1 or Tier 2 status, High Liner landed at the bottom of the ranking in Tier 5.

Other big brands, including Bumble Bee Seafoods and Donwong - South Korea's largest seafood company and owner of StarKist tuna - outranked High Liner.

"It's disappointing to see such an otherwise progressive and sustainable Canadian leader, as well as a household name brand we all know, lagging behind on protecting animals and fragile ecosystems from ghost gear," Josey Kitson, executive director at World Animal Protection Canada, said in a statement.

"By acknowledging this issue and taking simple steps to prevent lost gear in their supply chain, High Liner Foods could be a leader again," she added.

Bill DiMento, vice-president of corporate sustainability and government affairs at High Liner, told LighthouseNOW that the company is happy to talk with WAP and has a meeting set up with them at this week's Boston Seafood Show.

"I'm sure that we'll be making our commitment in assisting whatever responsible way we can do in a public way," DiMento said.

DiMento added that it would "be appropriate" for the company to reach out to its suppliers around the world and make sure they are fishing responsibly "and remedying issues that are associated with problems in the environment."

The federal Department of Fisheries and Oceans was unable to respond by deadline to LighthouseNOW's requests for information on the extent of the problem.

Kavanagh would like to see companies sign onto a global, collaborative, multi-stakeholder alliance that would work together to address the problem.

WAP reports that ghost gear is responsible for a decline in fish stocks ranging anywhere from five to 30 per cent.

Notes the report: "Research by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) found ghost gear to be directly responsible for a 5% reduction in total cod catch in the Baltic Sea, and a 20-30% reduction of Greenland halibut catch off the coast of Norway."

The lost or abandoned gear comes with other costs as well. Governments and industry spend hundreds of thousands of dollars annually cleaning up the gear, according to the report.

The report recommends reducing the volume of fishing gear in the oceans, removing ghost gear from the water, recycling the often plastic gear in creative ways, and providing training and support to organizations that rescue animals entangled in the gear.

The review drew on publicly available information from company websites, CSR strategies, annual reports, shareholder information, the latest news articles and press releases, as well as information known via companies' involvement with the Global Ghost Gear Initiative itself and material published by certain third parties, such as certification schemes as of December 2017.

Companies were ranked in criteria including policy and commitment, and implementation and reporting.

DiMento said it's not unusual to see not-for-profit groups "doing what we call electronic searches for company policy."

Kavanagh noted that web site and public policy searches were used as WAP doesn't have access to proprietary information on each firm's supply chain. "So that's why we look to what's on their web site and the commitment they've made based on what they've put in the public domain."

She noted that the firms are under a lot of pressure to operate sustainable fisheries. "So we make the assumption, and I think it's an accurate one, that if they were doing something in a positive way on this issue that it would be in the public domain like they are with other issues."

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