ISSF’s Susan Jackson: Tuna stock-rebuilding efforts are working

Published on
November 29, 2021
at regional fishery management organizations, according to Susan Jackson, the president of the International Seafood Sustainability Foundation.

Tuna stocks globally are stable, but more needs to be done to improve science-based management at regional fishery management organizations, according to Susan Jackson, the president of the International Seafood Sustainability Foundation (ISSF), a global coalition of seafood companies, fisheries experts, and scientific and environmental organizations.

The organization, which recently launched iss-foundation.org to showcase its data, has the ultimate goal of helping global tuna fisheries meet sustainability criteria to achieve the Marine Stewardship Council certification. ISSF members include leading tuna firms Bumble Bee, Thai Union, and Starkist, but the organization has no members from China, which is increasingly a key player in tuna fishing, processing, and consumption.

In an interview with SeafoodSource, Jackson said ISSF is committed to science-based initiatives to conserve and protect tuna stocks from overfishing.

SeafoodSource: Globally, is tuna being fished at sustainable levels?

Jackson: Stock-rebuilding efforts are working, which is a sign that management is improving. Our Status of the Stocks report shows that the majority of the global tuna catch comes from stocks that are at healthy levels of abundance. Over time, data in that report – which is updated multiple times per year, every year – shows that the health of some tuna stocks are improving, while others need to be better managed by regional fishery management organizations (RFMOs).

The most-important thing we can do is make sure that the broad scope of stakeholders remains steadfast in continuous improvement as our collective north star – not an easy task, and one that requires buy-in from vessel operators, processors, NGOs, and ultimately, the RFMOs. Getting these various global stakeholders on the same page and seeking the same objectives has been one of our most-important achievements as an organization, and we continue to rally our partners to call for science-based action by fisheries managers at all RFMOs. 

It’s important, too, to make the distinction that more data is always better. There are certain cases where a stock status will worsen, but not based on poor management; rather, based on the existence of better data or due to the application of a more precautionary approach by a given RFMO. In those cases, better information has become available, which means better management practices can be applied to that fishery.

SeafoodSource: A growing number of labor issues are being reported onboard tuna-fishing vessels. Why do you think this is, and do you think increased exposure of the issue is leading to positive change? 

Jackson: Last year, we adopted a conservation measure for ISSF participating companies aimed at this very issue, to formalize our commitment to social and labor standards in global tuna fisheries – a topic we have increasingly supported as our work toward sustainable fisheries has evolved – and that was outside of our scope of our initial strategic plans. Conservation Measure 9.1 Public Policy on Social and Labor Standards joins the dozens of ISSF conservation measures and requires processors, traders, importers, transporters, marketers, and others involved in the seafood industry to develop and publish a public social and labor standards policy and/or sourcing policy that applies to it and its supply chain. This includes production facilities and fishing and supply vessels and addresses these categories: forced labor, child labor, freedom of association, wages, benefits and employment contracts, working hours, Health and safety, discrimination, harassment and abuse and grievance mechanisms. With these measures and with major tuna companies being transparently audited against them – we hope to provide NGOs who are more squarely focused on these labor issues with information they can use in their engagement with tuna companies as they attempt to push the industry towards better standards.

SeafoodSource: How are you seeking to engage in China, where an increasing amount of tuna production, processing and consumption is happening?

Jackson: We want all tuna companies to become a part of ISSF. We are open to the world’s tuna processors, marketers, and traders – those companies that are willing to commit to conform to ISSF conservation measures. With that goal in mind, we continue to adopt measures that impact the full tuna supply chain. The measures provide best practices for sustainable fishing, right down to boats on the water, and are required and implemented by the world’s leading seafood companies and audited and reported on by an independent, third-party auditor.

SeafoodSource: How many Chinese firms are members of the ISSF?

Jackson: We do not have any participating companies headquartered in China. There are, however, more than 200 Chinese vessels on our ProActive Vessel Register (PVR), demonstrating varying levels of compliance with science-based best practices for fishing vessels. The independently audited PVR is one of four public vessel lists that ISSF provides to foster transparency in tuna fishing. Fishing vessels can be registered on the PVR to show that they are following ISSF conservation measures, best practices that support sustainable tuna fisheries.

SeafoodSource: ISSF’s 2020 report suggests the organization helps nations to conserve and police tuna stocks – can you give an example of such assistance?

Jackson: ISSF does not “police” – our role is to provide research and capacity-building directly with skippers and vessel operators through our workshops and best-practice guidebooks. Our organization also puts a significant emphasis on advocacy, and working with RFMOs for science-based management policy, which is focused on applying pressure so that science, not politics, win the day at RFMOs and progress is made to better protect tuna stocks for the long-term. It starts with research and ends with advocacy. ISSF issues a regular cadence of technical reports that provide science-backed and up-to-date best practices, data, and information for RFMO science committees and member countries.

For the last several years we, along with our partners, have been working with RFMOs to develop and implement harvest strategies and harvest control rules (HCRs), which are well-defined, pre-agreed upon stock-specific benchmarks tied to stock health statistics. They are designed to help managers make sustainable fishing decisions. These are really the holy grail when it comes to making sure RFMOs are conserving stocks. Science committees of the tuna RFMOs, which provide science-backed advice to the country-based organizations, are increasingly on board with the implementation of such measures, so we’re getting closer to universal adoption of HCRs, which we believe would be the biggest win for tuna fisheries conservation in a very long time.  

SeafoodSource: What are ISSF’s goals for 2022?

Jackson: ISSF as an organization is a problem-solver thanks to the strong fundamentals we’ve put in place over our 12 years of existence – scientific research, industry and NGO partnerships, and policy advocacy. We work to discover and implement solutions.

Next year, we will close out our current strategic plan, continuing our focus on developing and implementing verifiable, science-based practices, commitments and international management measures that result in tuna fisheries meeting the Marine Stewardship Council certification standard without conditions. We will continue to cooperate with and support RFMOs, and vigorously advocate to RFMO members for the adoption and implementation of science-based management measures, like harvest control rules and improved fish-aggregation device management measures, so that tuna stocks and their ecosystems are managed comprehensively and sustainably. 

Photo courtesy of Susan Jackson/ISSF

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