“Lots to do”. Those are the last three words Tracy Murai from Thai Union, tells us before saying goodbye to us after the interview. She has been recently promoted to her new position and has a lot of work ahead, but, above all, she loves her job. Her enthusiasm for sustainability is such that if she could only ask for one thing for her career, it would be to manage shared fish stocks to the levels that science says they need to be to stay healthy.
The little girl who dug holes in the garden with her mother building ponds to raise fish, who dreamed of travel she saw in movies, ended up living all her adventures near the water because, for her, the wildlife of the ocean was the place she kept coming back to. Sailing, Tracy set her course towards seafood sustainability, which led her to work for WWF-UK as the person responsible for establishing the partnership with Thai Union and other seafood processors. The move from the NGO to Thai Union was a natural fit to continue the work she had started. She was familiar with it but even so, what she found when she arrived surprised her. “The energy to further develop Thai Union’s sustainability programmes was brilliant,” she says. It still is. Tracy Murai exudes that brilliant energy.
Looking for adventures
When we spoke to Tracy she had just been appointed Assistant Director, Global Fisheries Sustainability. This stepping stone in her career did not seem obvious when Tracy was in school, even though her higher education was all marine-related and she worked as a PADI dive master and for the Maritime & Coastguard Agency.
She appeals to luck, but Tracy began to mark her path as a child. Back then, she would obsessively watch documentaries and adventure films such as ‘Treasure Island’ and ‘Swiss Family Robinson’. Tracy grew up raising fish at home with several ponds and large tanks. “Most kids would be playing around with toys, and I was with my mum. We were changing water and planning for a different fish or plants that we wanted to keep.”
After college and working for a bit, she realized it was time to go to university. “What am I gonna do?” she wondered, and the answer was clear: “I’m gonna do Marine Science.” She did, and then pursued those adventures she had dreamt about. She also worked a lot – on dive boats or as a stevedore in the dockyard – until the time came to do her Master’s in Aquatic Resources Management.
Right after finishing it, Tracy Murai worked for MRAG, a consultancy firm that works on the sustainable management of natural resources including work with seafood processors and retailers. “When the seafood companies were focusing on developing their sustainable sourcing policies and conducting their audit programs of vessels,” she explains how the opportunity at MRAG put her there from the early days.
How ‘switching sides’ felt
A job opening at WWF-UK enticed the move from London to Surrey. This to manage a team working specifically with the seafood industry, both aquaculture and wild caught fish, and was later responsible for establishing the partnership with Thai Union Europe. “One of the UK’s popular canned seafood brands is John West, so, I had a meeting with their CEO and then we met with their owner Thai Union Europe, and a sustainable seafood partnership was born in 2014,” she recalls. The focus was projects to improve the environmental sustainability of the fisheries they were sourcing from.
She spent five years working at the NGO before joining Thai Union Group. When asked what it was like to move from an NGO to a private company, Tracy doesn’t hesitate. “It felt so natural,” she explains. The good work that WWF does together with many marine-related and seafood companies makes these opportunities of going further emerge. It’s not the first time someone has told us this. Something similar happened to Nina Jensen, who, after a lifetime of being a “panda” decided to accept Kjell Inge Røkke’s offer to become the CEO of REV Ocean.
As with Nina, with Tracy Murai, there was also a person who was key in making the decision. In her case, it was a woman, Darian McBain. This “inspiring seafood sustainability leader,” as Tracy describes her, was the Global Director of Corporate Affairs and Sustainability at Thai Union at the time. “Do you want to join us and continue your work?” she asked Tracy. “Yeah, I do,” was the response. “The WWF programme finished a couple of years after I started but the energy of the business to keep implementing and enforcing sustainability policies was brilliant. So, I feel like it’s very similar.”
Companies taking responsibility for their impact on the planet
Thai Union’s global sustainability strategy is called SeaChange®. Its ultimate goal, Tracy tells us, is to achieve something that has been much discussed in the seafood industry over the last 10-15 years, “moving from just creating a policy which sounds very nice and then producing something that’s got the impacts and you really feel like you’re doing something.”
The company plans to update and expand it in the coming months, but the overall goal, she explains, “is to reshape our strategy with commitments for people and planet that will sustain into the future.” At this point, Tracy remembers again the person who brought her into the company. “The reason I came to work for Thai Union was Darian’s vision and leadership which was instrumental in developing Thai Union’s first global sustainability strategy,” she says. Thai Union’s global leadership team has worked and supported the way forward through its sustainability journey, which has achieved international recognition such as being ranked number one in the food products industry of the Dow Jones Sustainability Indices in 2022, a position the group previously held in 2018 and 2019. Thai Union was also named to the FTSE4Good Emerging Index for the sixth straight year in 2021. Another milestone was to join the Seafood Business for Ocean Stewardship (SeaBOS), which is currently chaired by Thai Union’s President and CEO, Thiraphong Chansiri.
“We’re not so arrogant to think that we’re leading on everything we do. It’s really important to join forces and work together”
SeaBOS identified the 10 ‘keystone’ seafood companies in the world and brought them together to work on science and actions they could implement to propel the industry’s sustainability efforts forward. It’s about leading by example but also thinking about what’s next, leading as much as joining the rest with the common goal of following science and making things better. “Collaboration is key, we won’t solve everything on our own,” Tracy says. For instance, the group takes a hands-on approach in their collaboration with partners in working towards a common goal, be it with fisheries or in aquaculture. “We try to have an open way of working with our suppliers,” Tracy explains. “It is quite straightforward. We show them our policies and ask them to show us and explain their operations. Through the discussions we can start to understand each other and how to build a working relationship.”
Traceability, the backbone of their strategy
The efforts that any company makes in sustainability become especially relevant when product traceability is carried out. Thai Union is very committed to this. “Traceability is the backbone of our strategy,” Tracy Murai says. “We can’t do anything without it, it’s critical on so many levels.” This includes understanding where everything originates from, being able to track volumes they have purchased, understanding gear types, farming methods, working conditions, and all the inputs into the farming of the fish. And then, “once you know what farms and vessels you are sourcing from, you can better understand what their credentials are.” So, whether it’s for environmental or quality, they are able to put it all together and come up with what, again, they were doing with WWF and do now with the Ocean Disclosure Project, the picture of their seafood portfolio to really understand what their supply chains look like.
“We need to also make sure we have the traceability for business and the legal requirements we need regarding food hygiene and safety,” she continues. “If ever we do recalls, we need to know where the seafood has come from. So, it’s got an operational and an environmental sustainability aspect.” Moreover, on the fishing side, they have another requirement: “It’s essential for us to make sure all of the fishing activity that goes on that catches the fish that we buy is legal and complying with reporting and regulatory requirements.”
Communicating traceability to the consumer is important and some of Thai Union’s brands have webpages available where you can type in the can code and find out which boat caught your tuna.
Loving seafood people
As Tracy Murai explained to us, for large companies like Thai Union to make progress in sustainability, collaboration with other companies is crucial. But there is another critical element: people. That’s what she really loves about the seafood industry, working with people. “I enjoy the breadth of people I get to talk to and feel everyone values the relationships we build as much as I do,” she says, adding that at the team she works with at Thai Union. In a global business like this, trusting relationships are key. “I especially enjoy visiting producers that we source from, I believe this is really important,” she says.
On visits to vessels, Tracy often goes with consultants who conduct private interviews with, for example, the crews of the vessels. The objective is to find out if the fishermen are happy, how they are treated and what their working and living conditions are like. An interaction that has had a very good response. “We didn’t know how much anyone [the supply chain] cared,” fishermen and fishing companies have told the interviewers, and that’s why she enjoys her job. “I get to be the person who brings that message on board a fishing boat saying, ‘I know that consumers and retailers and brands in Europe care about how this fish is being caught, how the fishermen are being treated and the journey that it takes to get to market’,” she says.
“I work for a company that knows how important those relationships are.” Tracy says she wouldn’t be where she is now if it weren’t for the senior members of Thai Union. They believed in her and gave her confidence. “I was recently promoted from a European-level position to a global-level position, which is a fantastic new challenge for me. And I think it’s a really good example of how Thai Union tries to retain and develop talent.”
Challenges, always in her mind
To end up our conversation, we asked Tracy about the future and the challenges that, in her opinion, the seafood industry will face in the coming years. She tells us that there are a couple of things that are always on her mind and even more since taking up her global position, because, as she says, it has something that “has been around for a long time.”
The first is “the challenge in managing shared fish stocks at levels that science tells us they should be kept at to be healthy.” As she recalls, we are seeing more and more cases where MSC is suspending certificates of various fisheries because their coastal states cannot agree on how much fish should be taken from those fisheries. “Fish stocks need to be managed at levels deemed sustainable by science. We have this wonderful gift of replenishing natural resources in the oceans, which if managed properly could provide even more than they do now and protect the environment; there should be a duty to manage them with care.” She is aware these are issues beyond seafood and fishing companies, which can only join up to message to governments or fisheries management organizations, but Tracy dreams of making it happen. “If I could do anything in my career, it would be to see that happening,” she says.
The other challenge for the future in her mind is reducing carbon footprint, including scope-3 emissions. “It’s something we will all have to do – processors, vessel owners, retailers, farmers,” she says. According to her, finding solutions for farms and vessels that can be scaled up to reduce impacts and reporting for climate change is going to be a really important issue. “Seafood’s got a great story in terms of its health and its low carbon footprint compared with some of the other protein food sources,” she says. And so, she believes that is the area to focus on, and that is what her team does whenever it gets the chance, a call out to the fishing and the farming industry reminding them “that we’ve all got to get better at reducing our carbon to minimise the impacts of climate change.”
As said at the beginning, at the time of this talk, Tracy Murai had just been appointed to her new role. Her personal challenge, she says, will be to take everything we discussed during the interview and define priorities for her new position. “This will be much more working at the fish-end of the supply chain. I’m really looking forward to this,” she tells us. “There’s lots to do,” she ends. What she doesn’t say, but we add, is that she will do it with the traits that brought her this far: dialogue and taking people on a common journey.
About Thai Union
Thai Union Group PCL has been bringing seafood products to customers across the world for 46 years. Today, the company is regarded as one of the world’s leading seafood producers and is one of the largest producers of shelf-stable tuna products with annual sales exceeding THB 155.6 billion (US$ 4.4 billion) and a global workforce of more than 44,000 people who are dedicated to pioneering sustainable, innovative seafood products. As a company committed to ‘Healthy Living, Healthy Oceans’, Thai Union is a member of the United Nations Global Compact, a founding participating company of the International Seafood Sustainability Foundation (ISSF), and current Chair of Seafood Business for Ocean Stewardship (SeaBOS).