Fair Trade Writes New Chapter In Story of Tuna


Tuna is the second most popular seafood in the United States, yet for most Americans, it’s a non-descript protein puck that inevitably gets mixed with mayonnaise and celery. Maybe the tuna in that can came from the Philippines, or Micronesia? Perhaps it was caught by a Japanese vessel and transferred to a processing plant in Thailand before making its way to your local supermarket. Maybe it was hooked on a longline or scooped up in a purse seine? Who knows?

In March, there will be a new type of tuna available that comes with a much different pedigree. That’s because Safeway and Fair Trade USA just announced a partnership to bring the first-ever Fair Trade Certified™ wild fish to the North American market. You may know Fair Trade from their work in coffee or chocolate, and with yesterday’s announcement, handline-caught yellowfin from the Maluku Island chain of Indonesia is now part of their ever-expanding product portfolio.

If you’re a fish nerd like me, this is exciting for several reasons:

  • This is the first wild fish certification program to include both environmental and social benchmarks. That ensures that fishermen operate under internationally-recognized fair working conditions, and that they must meet independently audited standards of environmental compliance.
  • The Fair Trade program operates on a model of continuous improvement, which means that the fishery is required to become more sustainable over time in order to maintain their certification and market access.
  • Fisheries that apply for Fair Trade certification must collect a variety of information regarding their catch, and use those data to inform science-based management decisions. In a region where stock assessments and management plans are hard to come by, this is a welcome development.
  • And perhaps most importantly, soon these small-scale fishermen will start receiving an additional Fair Trade Premium – 10% of the dockside price – for their catch. This can then be used for community development projects, improving fishermen safety, and ultimately – making their fishery more sustainable.

Although this first release is limited to Safeway stores in their Northern California division, the excitement around Fair Trade fish is already creating momentum for nearby tuna-fishing communities to enter the program. Eventually, new Indonesian fisheries will apply for certification – and with a little luck – a new Fair Trade hub will form in Latin America, too.

So while this first certification only applies to a small tuna fishery in an isolated part of Indonesia, soon it will lead to more small scale fishermen fishing sustainably and more coastal communities earning more for their catch. It’s a first step that I’m very excited to take.


* In the interest of full disclosure I am a member of Fair Trade USA’s Fishery Advisory Council, which helped develop the Fair Trade fisheries program and corresponding standards. I receive no payment from Fair Trade USA or Safeway to serve in this role, and the views expressed above are my own.

Tim Fitzgerald leads EDF’s global programs on fisheries finance, training and capacity building, and seafood markets and supply chain engagement in an effort to improve the sustainability of the world’s fisheries. He serves on the boards of the California Fisheries Fund, Ecofish LLC and GulfWild®, and is an advisor to Fair Trade USA and the Conservation Alliance for Seafood Solutions. Originally trained as a shark scientist, Tim has appeared on Shark Week and National Geographic Explorer, and also been featured in Time, The Wall Street Journal, the New York Times, the Aspen Ideas Festival, and NPR’s Fresh Air. He also provided invited testimony to President Obama’s National Commission on the BP Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill. Follow Tim on Twitter.
  • Cheryl

    “So while this first certification only applies to a small tuna fishery in an isolated part of Indonesia…”

    A quick read of this story might cause the average person to think that all is well, no need to give up anything, business as usual, eat freely. The feel-good tone distracts from the very real set of crises facing our oceans. From devastating levels of pollution, to acidification, to depletion of fisheries far & wide, things are not ok out at sea. Just the fact that we’re talking about tuna from INDONESIA – what does that tell say? Of course, Fair Trade is a step in the right direction, wherever it can be initiated. But the typical fish you will buy in Safeway is not going to be part of this program.

    • Hi Cheryl, thanks for your comment. There are many threats to the oceans today, and believe me, I could write about a different one every day and stay busy for quite some time. However I also think that it’s important to recognize and celebrate successes whenever we can. Because let’s face it, it’s hard sometimes to be in this line of work without a little optimism. So when fishermen and businesses make forward progress, I like to let them know that it didn’t go unnoticed.

  • Lucie de Fretes

    So happy to read this information. I am a housewife but my father came from Maluku. For decades I know that Maluku which have potential fish environment, richness of fish have never been touched by any inve stors nor scientists to explore and develop Maluku’s fishermen knowledge with a modern technology. I do hope with the certification my Maluku’s sea will be known by the world.

    Thank you.
    Lucie de Fretes

  • Valters Kinna

    Dear Tim,

    This is definitely a complex issue to talk about, as there are multiple levels of ethical issues here. I am more inclined to say that fishing tuna at the moment can not be sustainable in any way, as it is being done way above the limits already and should gradually be reduced. However I can imagine the situation the tuna fishers probably find themselves in socially and economically. I presume that Tuna is their main source of income at the moment and their lives depend on it deeply, so it is definitely better to fish it more sustainably if being done at all.

    However I would like to ask what ecological aspects Fair Trade USA (and are You aware of them) has taken into account this time, is there any strategy behind this on how to reduce the risks of endangering tuna as a species and come to terms with biological diversity in that region.


  • Wiro Wirandi

    Dear Tim, thank you to bring this up.

    I’ve met with Pak Hayunan (on the photos above) on International Coastal Tuna Business Forum last week. Humble person and dedicated to work on fishery improvement

    As part of registered handline fishermen that doing fishery improvement and done several things Fair Trade standard on several years, i think he and his friends is a champion.

    They all handliners fisehrmen that rely on dolphin to spotting the tuna, and committed not to catch other ETPs species. I’ve been lived on their village for several weeks to watch the process of their fishing business. the fishing it self has been responsible (low on bycatch and low etp interaction).

    In indonesia, you will difficult to find fishermen that willing to work towards responsible fishery unless they get paid to do it.

    With the Fairtrade scheme, they are feel rewarded by buyers and now they campaigning to other fishermen to join with them as fair Trade fishermen

About the Blog

Researchers, conservationists, and others share stories, insights and ideas about Our Changing Planet, Wildlife & Wild Spaces, and The Human Journey. More than 50,000 comments have been added to 10,000 posts. Explore the list alongside to dive deeper into some of the most popular categories of the National Geographic Society’s conversation platform Voices.

Opinions are those of the blogger and/or the blogger’s organization, and not necessarily those of the National Geographic Society. Posters of blogs and comments are required to observe National Geographic’s community rules and other terms of service.

Voices director: David Braun (dbraun@ngs.org)

Social Media