Working toward sustainable tuna stocks

Published on
August 6, 2014

Tuna is an important commodity stock, eaten the world over, and is a significant contributor to the global economy. Five main species — bluefin, skipjack, yellowfin, bigeye and albacore — are commercially caught by purse-seine, longline, troll and gillnet, in one of the world’s few remaining large-scale hunts.

In the U.K., tuna is the most popular canned fish, with consumers eating more than in any other country except the U.S. Unfortunately, our appetite for this fish can also put species such as sharks, turtles, dolphins and rays at risk, when indiscriminate catch methods such as fish aggregation devices (FADs) are used.  

Greenpeace is just one organization working to promote sustainable fishing methods and to stop the fishing of endangered tuna species, and while some may disagree with their methods, they are effective at achieving results.

Last month, Greenpeace announced that it was about to include discount stores in the list of U.K. supermarkets it regularly surveys, to ascertain the origin and catch methods of the tuna on their shelves.

“We’re trying to rid the U.K. market of tuna caught in an unsustainable way — for good,” said a spokesperson for Greenpeace, following one of its most successful environmental campaigns in years, which it claims has resulted in the U.K. canned tuna market becoming the most sustainable in the world.  

Following its 2014 survey of the top seven retailers, Tesco came in last. Greenpeace warned Tesco to take the unsustainable Oriental & Pacific brand tuna off its shelves and to set a target to change to sustainable tuna in products such as pastas, sandwiches and salads, considerable consumer pressure was brought to bear on the supermarket and the brand manufacturer.  

As a result, the manufacturer of Oriental & Pacific tuna agreed to source only tuna caught without the use of FADs, which means that from April 2015 the brand will be 100 percent sustainable.

Poor performers in the branded category were Princes, which has backed out of its commitment to use 100 percent sustainable tuna by the end of 2014, and John West, which is responsible for a third of the U.K. canned tuna market but cannot guarantee they will meet their commitment to source sustainably by 2016! This company supplies much of the sustainable supermarket own-brand tuna, yet seems unconcerned about their own-brand label, according to Greenpeace.

The International Seafood Sustainability Foundation (ISSF) is also working hard to improve tuna fisheries to make them more sustainable.  

In particular it works with and supports the five tuna regional fishery management organisations (RFMOs), and campaigns for reduced use of FADs or adoption of non-entangling FADs, as these controversial devices are currently used in 40 percent of global catches and more than 50 percent of the skipjack catch.

ISSF produces regular updates on the status of the world’s 23 tuna stocks, and its latest piece of research compared 19 of these (except bluefin tuna) against Marine Stewardship Council (MSC) indicators of sustainability for stock status and management practices.  

“This exercise gives a snapshot of the current status of the stocks and the strengths and weaknesses of regional fishery management organizations, as well as being a useful source document for future tuna certifications,” said Susan Jackson, ISSF president.  

Only five stocks achieved a passing score, while those that failed to meet the standard generally did so because of a lack of target and limit reference points, and for not having well defined harvest control rules in place.  

The RFMOs also had similar weaknesses, but these varied between regions, and ISSF said the results will help the five RFMOs improve the management of tuna stocks.  

ISSF also regularly summarizes the results of scientific assessments of tuna stocks and management methods, the latest of which found that in 2012, the 4.5 million metric tons commercial catch was made up of skipjack (56 percent), yellowfin (27 percent), bigeye (10 percent) and albacore (5 percent). Bluefin tuna accounted for only 1 percent of the global catch.

Globally, 65 percent of the stocks were considered to be at a healthy level, 22 percent were overfished and 13 percent at an intermediate level.  In terms of exploitation, the report found that 43 percent of tuna stocks were experiencing a low fishing mortality rate, 22 percent experiencing overfishing and 35 percent had a high fishing mortality that was being adequately managed.

The good news is that overall 94 percent of the catch came from healthy stocks, due to the fact that skipjack stocks are all healthy and make up more than half of the global tuna catch. Bluefin stocks and two out of six albacore stocks were overfished, but combined they made a relatively small fraction of the total catch.

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