Changing Planet

Achieving Sustainable Tuna

Purse seine fishing vessels catch nearly 62% of the 4.2 million tons of tuna caught globally every year. To have the meaningful impact we all seek, NGOs need to collaborate on and advocate for outcomes and policies where we share common ground. Photo by Jeff Muir (2012), courtesy of ISSF.

By Susan Jackson and Jennifer Dianto Kemmerly

There is no endeavor quite like commercial tuna fishing. Perhaps no other industry is comprised of such a diverse group of stakeholders – with diverse opinions and approaches – that are so actively engaged in working toward a common goal.

As many different voices weigh in to positively affect the long-term sustainability of global tuna stocks, they may not always sing in unison. However, there is actually far more sustainability policy that major stakeholders agree on than not.

For example, you’d be hard-pressed to identify one conservation group or economic stakeholder that does not believe stock health and sustainability need to be monitored, and that fisheries need to have the rules and resources in place to maintain healthy levels. There are no sustainability-minded parties among us that don’t believe we need more research and outreach to fishers to minimize secondary ecosystem impacts associated with commercial fishing (e.g. bycatch).

This broad alignment is our greatest collective strength. And rather than an overemphasis on specific tactics and approaches that we individually champion, we are working on the efforts on which we collectively agree. This harmonization is most clearly seen in efforts to engage retailers, foodservice companies and others in supporting the continuous improvement of tuna fisheries through their conservation actions and procurement strategies.

These companies are interested in the answers to a few key questions: “What should we buy to ensure our tuna is sustainable?” “How can we make sure our tuna is not IUU-fished?” or “What can we can do to help improve tuna stocks?” And these questions present tremendous opportunity. But far too often we also hear companies ask, “why when you tell us to buy certain tuna do others tell us we shouldn’t?” Or “you told us our efforts were helping, so why do some other NGOs tell us it’s still not enough?”

Of course, NGOs do not have to agree on everything. In fact, the constant flow of diverse approaches to sustainability is what keeps us on the right path. But there is a need for greater consistency in our underlying message – a common ground, a unified understanding – if we are going to engage additional stakeholders in efforts to promote tuna fishery sustainability.

So, what does such a collective approach look like? What are the minimum procurement benchmarks that NGOs can and should agree to when appealing to retailers and food service?

One effort is the Buyer Engagement Strategy Team (BEST) working group, a subset of the International Seafood Sustainability’s (ISSF) Environmental Stakeholder Committee made up of leading NGOs. This working group has documented its current consensus related to engaging buyers in support of tuna sustainability improvement. As outlined in the group’s Common Ground document, participating NGOs are advising businesses to, for example:

  • Encourage improvements to global tuna stocks to a level of performance consistent with that of an unconditional pass of the Marine Stewardship Council (MSC) standard;
  • Adopt a shared principle for sourcing guidance;
  • Recommend a minimum procurement benchmark incorporating ISSF participating companies and vessels registered on the ProActive Vessel Register, regardless of channel, product form, gear type, etc. and;
  • Adopt shared priorities for RMFO advocacy efforts.

And because we have been able to establish this common ground, we can now proceed to develop plans to conduct coordinated buyer engagement, for example, joint buyer meetings or buyer advocacy support. Important parallel efforts include Monterey Bay Aquarium’s recent work to convene the leading NGOs working on tuna issues to discuss aligned business advice for skipjack and albacore tuna. In addition, members of the Conservation Alliance for Seafood Solutions share information on many issues including sustainable seafood sourcing. This group of more than 20 NGOs connects leading conservation groups that work with businesses representing over 80% of the North American grocery and food-service markets.

It is true that ultimate responsibility lies in the hands of Regional Fisheries Management Organizations (RFMOs) to implement broad-based and long-term sustainability measures based on sound science. But for this to happen realistically and effectively, every voice needs to be at the table, including government and non-government entities, ship owners, fleet managers, cannery directors and overseas scientists.

To have the impact we all seek, many NGOs recognize the need for better collaboration on and advocacy for the outcomes and policies where we share common ground.  And in doing so, we strive to not let the how distract from thewhat we want to achieve, and why.

Susan Jackson is president of the International Seafood Sustainability Foundation and Jennifer Dianto Kemmerly is Seafood Watch Director, Monterey Bay Aquarium.

  • Thomas Kraft

    I believe there needs to be redirected focus upon the core issue related to tuna stock sustainability and the purported purpose of the ISSF. The fishing of skipjack tuna using nets and fish aggregation devices (FAD’s) is driving tuna stocks to unprecedented low levels. The by-catch is high in juvenile yellowfin and bigeye tuna, which have not reproduced, nor ever will once caught. Technology now allows these FAD’s to “herd” schools of juvenile tuna (that school with the skipjack tuna). The FAD’s use sonar and communication technology to notify the “fishing” vessels when there is a large school surrounding the FAD. It is now more a matter of harvesting, rather than fishing. Talk of “buyer” engagement, registering fishing vessels is great work, which can and is being done by other organizations. The best positioned organization for addressing the depletion of the tuna stocks through purse seine fishing with FAD’s is the ISSF, I would like to see in the opening statement above that what we all agree upon is that purse seine fishing with FAD’s must stop and cannot start up again until the by-catch of juvenile tuna has been solved. Rather than redirecting the focus away from the elephant in the room. The ISSF can do the job, but needs to stay on task.

  • jason bahr

    Well said Thomas. The bottom line is that the size of yellowfin and bigeye tuna caught with FADs is 1/2 size of those caught in free schools. This leads to catching too many numbers of juvenile tuna which has led to overfishing. The science on this is clear. We just need the RMFO’s managing these species along with the ISSF to actually make real progress on reigning in the FADs. The lack of action by ICCAT, IATTC and other RMFO’s and managers is a huge black eye that needs to be addressed immediately.

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