OPAGAC leading effort toward more sustainable global tuna fishing practices

Published on
July 5, 2018

Rare is the week when the Organization of Associated Producers of Large Freezer Tuna Vessels is not sending out a press release.

The organization, which goes by its Spanish acronym OPAGAC, is an association of nine operators of 47 tuna purse-seiners fishing in the Atlantic, Indian, and Pacific oceans. Collectively, it is responsible for eight percent of the world’s tuna catch. 

Established in the 1980s, in recent years, OPAGAC has stepped into a leadership position in regard to environmental and social issues affecting the global tuna-fishing industry.

“Environmental and socioeconomic sustainability and the principle of transparency, are the basis of OPAGAC's activity,” according to the organization’s mission statement.

In 2016, it announced a collaboration with the World Wildlife Fund to develop a fishery improvement project covering its skipjack, bigeye, and yellowfin tuna fishing fleet. The group set a goal of obtaining Marine Stewardship Council certification within five years. That same year, OPAGAC focused its efforts on reform of the use of fish-aggregating devices (FADs), publishing a scholarly article that called into question the sustainability of practices previously considered standard procedure. The group has also led the clean-up the thousands of FADs that have been abandoned in the world’s oceans, starting with the waters around the nation of the Seychelles, and introduced a biodegradable FAD with the goal of lessening its environmental impact.

In November 2017, as social issues rose to the fore of conversations around sustainability in the global tuna-fishing industry, OPAGAC introduced its own Responsible Fishing Tuna Standard (also known by its Spanish acronym APR). Besides setting environmental standards that align with those of the Marine Stewardship Council, OPAGAC developed a set of social standards to comply with requirements set by the 2007 International Work Organization Work in Fishing Convention (ILO 188) and certified by the Spanish Association for Standardization and Certification (AENOR).

In its latest missive to the press, OPAGAC announced it is encouraging the European Commission to require the adoption of its APR as a prerequisite for allowing fisheries imports into the European Union.

“Many fishery products sold in the E.U. come from precarious fishing activities that do not meet the requirements of environmental sustainability or respect the social and labor rights of the crew, requirements that, paradoxically, are required of the European fleet,” OPAGAC Managing Director Julio Morón said in the release. “If Europe takes this step, it would be a remarkable impulse to stop illegal fishing, since the E.U. is the largest market for fishery products in the world today.”

In an interview with SeafoodSource, Morón said his organization spent the time and effort to develop the APR because of his group’s mission of ensuring the sustainability of the tropical tuna fishery, and because of his belief that other organizations have not elevated their own standards far enough.

“I’m not saying everything’s perfect, but things have improved substantially in the global tuna fishery,” Morón said. “Management actions from the [regional fishery management organizations] are leading to an optimistic perspective in the future. We want to keep pushing in that direction and no matter what management measures need to be taken, I think we will be able to achieve it.”

Even as it aims to reach its goal of obtaining MSC certification by 2021, OPAGAC has been a prominent critic of certain MSC policies – particularly those regarding FADs and social issues. Regarding FADs, Morón called MSC’s policy of allowing its certified tuna to be labeled as FAD-free so long as the catching boat remains more than one nautical mile away from any FAD “misleading and incomprehensible.”

“It just doesn’t make sense,” Morón said. “They are confusing people.  We believe if they really wanted to change and improve sustainability, they should have been certifying whole fishery either with or without the use of FADs. But their mixed message has been very damaging for the public interpretation of the purse-seine fleet.”

Morón is equally critical regarding MSC’s policy of allowing “self-declaration” as the only requirement for compliance with its social standards. 

“Self-declaration on child labor and forced labor, without any requirement for an audit by an external third party to any clear standard, is entirely insufficient and intolerable,” Morón said. “It would have been better for them to say they cannot do anything regarding social standards, because self-declaration is not a logical way to ensure consumers that there is no labor abuse in the tuna supply-chain.”

Upping the stakes of the debate – and OPAGAC’s involvement in it – is that fact that the tropical tuna fishery is especially vulnerable to abuse of crew members, a situation confirmed by frequent cases of abuse reported by international organizations and NGOs, such as the Environmental Justice Foundation, according to Morón.

“We cannot tolerate the existence of fleets that commercialize their tuna catches with an eco-label when the conditions in which the crew members of their ships live and work are far from respecting basic social and labor rights,” he said.

While it has jousted with the MSC on a number of issues, OPAGAC has no wish for the demise of the nonprofit, Morón insisted. 

“We have been talking with MSC because we think their approach is a very valid one. We believe MSC certification has a lot of value, and we also believe that the market has a crucial role in making the seafood sold around the world more sustainable,” he said. “MSC certification is a good tool to give incentives to fishermen to change their behavior.”

However, as the MSC has “turned its back on social sustainability,” according to Morón, OPAGAC is now pushing the European Commission to adopt the APR as the standard requirement for all European Union fisheries imports.

“This rule … [is] the only one in the world that considers the social sustainability of the crews at the same level as the biological and economic,” he said. "If Europe takes this step, it would be a remarkable impulse to stop illegal fishing, since the E.U. is the largest market for fishery products in the world today."

Getting Europe to adopt the APR would have the added benefit of raising global social and labor rights standards on board fishing vessels to the level currently required of the European fleet, Morón said. And those standards have helped make OPAGAC’s members “the highest-performing fishing companies,” he said.

“The secret is treating your people well, giving them incentives, and engaging them with the company – and that is only possible by ensuring good labor conditions on board,” he said. “We are not competing with MSC. We just feel that, if we are doing this right, why don’t we put it together in one standard? What we hope for is convergence, so that we meet the challenge of treating people just as importantly as fish.”

In conjunction with OPAGAC’s efforts with the European Commission, Morón said he is also aiming to work more closely with the regional fishery management organizations overseeing global tuna fishing.

“We believe tuna fishing has a sustainable future, in large part because actions from the RFMOs are leading to better outcomes,” he said. “I’m not saying everything is perfect now, but we want to continue to push in a positive direction and, no matter what management measures need to be taken, I think we will be able to achieve it.”

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