When shoppers reach for canned tuna at Walmart stores, they may not know the retailer has worked to ensure its Great Value tuna carries the Marine Stewardship Council seal for being sustainably sourced. The brand also provides economic opportunities in the Marshall Islands.
About a year ago, The Nature Conservancy (TNC) began working with Walmart on sustainability issues to radically change the tuna supply chain.
Pacific Island Tuna was formed in October 2021 as a partnership between TNC and the Republic of the Marshall Islands. Pacific Island Tuna now supplies Great Value canned tuna to Walmart. The Pacific Island Tuna company is one of 10 place-based solutions where Walmart is committed to increasing supply chain visibility and sustainable practices for fresh foods.
“This model was somewhat unheard of,” said Matt Arnold, global head of impact and finance for TNC. “We failed for years to convince the incumbent supply chain of tuna in the South Pacific to change their practices to become more sustainable. So, we formed our own company.”
He said more than half of the tuna eaten in the world comes from the Western Pacific, and it is a very challenging supply chain as conditions on fishing boats are not great.
“There is the killing of other animals like turtles and dolphins that mistakenly get caught up in the nets. We couldn’t see a way to change that, so we formed our own company. Pacific Island Tuna works with ships to fish more sustainably. The fishing methods are monitored and verified as sustainable, and today we are part of the Great Value Tuna supply chain,” Arnold said during Walmart’s recent Sustainability Summit in Bentonville.
Arnold said TNC and the Marshall Islands partnership couldn’t have happened without Walmart and a shared goal to change the tuna supply chain.
Aman Singh, a sustainability communications strategist at Walmart, told the Northwest Arkansas Business Journal that the Great Value tuna supplied by Pacific Island Tuna comes from tuna caught near the Marshall Islands. The tuna loins are shipped from Majuro in the Marshall Islands to a canning facility in the Philippines and then sent to the U.S.
“As part of the Pacific Island Tuna collaboration, at least 40% of the company’s net income distributions will directly support community-based conservation and climate resilience projects, including the development and management of Marine Protected Areas and coral reef restoration. The other 60% of profits will be returned to Pacific Island governments,” Singh said.
Mark Zimring, director of TNC’s global tuna program, said the partnership between TNC and the island government facilitated by Walmart is a win for all. It gives Walmart a sustainable supply chain for tuna, which is good for the environment and gives back to the Marshall Islands by providing jobs and opportunities that did not otherwise exist.
“For decades, these fishermen had never met the retailer buying their catches from the packing company. Pacific Island Tuna has put fishermen in direct contact with Walmart and the packers so they could build a level of trust around a shared goal,” Zimring said.
He said that for too long, the island nations did little more than collect rent from the fishing boats that worked offshore in the Western Pacific. The new model sets aside 60% of the profits that go back to the island nation. Zimring said the old model provided little visibility upstream for the fisherman. He said there is now a level of trust and a common goal of sustainability, with everyone getting paid.
“In the past year, we are now seeing this model disrupt the supply chain, and other players are trying to replicate the model that’s good for the planet, people and all the partners,” he added.
Zimring said there were no guarantees when Pacific Island Tuna was founded a year ago. Still, there is talk of expansion and scaling the business in the coming months. Walmart confirmed it has been working closely with PIT and actively looking for ways to scale the work.
“This project is an example of how we are pursuing our commitment to regeneration with projects that create economic, social and environmental value for our customers, our suppliers and our communities while providing our customers access to affordable protein,” Singh said.
Zimring said there have been some challenges with the business relating to supply chain and inflationary prices, but that’s the case with every company, particularly a startup.
“We still have some work to do in tuna, but we see real opportunity to adapt the learning to other seafood proteins,” he said. “Just as important as scaling PIT, we’d like to see the rest of the market adopt the sustainable procedures in their supply chain that also provide support for the resource nations.”
Zimring said Pacific Island Tuna came about because enough people were tired of the status quo and sought to make the impossible inevitable. The partners took risks to move a big idea along, and the rest of the tuna world is taking notes.
“Pacific Island Tuna is showing the world that sustainability and profitability are not at odds, even in an industry that has been challenged by both,” said Gene Muller, general manager at PIT. “Through close collaboration between resource owners and retailers, we can shape a different, more resilient future for the tuna industry and the communities that rely on it.”
David Kabua, president of the Marshall Islands, said the partnership with the TNC has been a transformative business venture that provides economic and conservation development for the tiny island nation and better livelihoods for the people who choose to remain in their homeland.
PIT is not the only supplier of Walmart Great Value tuna, but it does have a sizeable part of the business with an interest in growing production. By 2025, Walmart said all canned light and white tuna sold in its U.S. stores, Sam’s Club and in Walmart Canada must come from suppliers who source from fisheries that have third-party certified sustainable practices or are working toward certification.
As of last year, 70% of the canned tuna sold in Walmart U.S. stores — branded and private label — had the certification. The number is now closer to 90%, Walmart said at its recent sustainability summit.
Editor’s note: The Supply Side section of Talk Business & Politics focuses on the companies, organizations, issues and individuals engaged in providing products and services to retailers. The Supply Side is managed by Talk Business & Politics and sponsored by Propak Logistics.