Op-ed: Pacific Ocean tuna fisheries and the new MSC fisheries standard

Victor Rest

Victor Restrepo is the vice president for science at the International Seafood Sustainability Foundation and a member of the Marine Stewardship Council’s technical advisory board.

In the world’s largest tuna fishing grounds, an important initiative is underway to ensure fisheries can meet the newest requirements of the leading seafood sustainability certification standard – the Marine Stewardship Council (MSC) fisheries standard.

 The MSC fisheries standard is used to assess if a fishery is well-managed and sustainable. A fishery maintains MSC certification for five years before it is required to be reassessed. In October 2022, the MSC released a revised, improved standard. Fisheries that were certified prior to the launch of the new standard have five years to modernize their fisheries management practices to be in line with the new requirements if they want to maintain certification.

The new MSC Fisheries Standard 3.0 lays out updated requirements for fisheries, including those addressing harvest strategies. A harvest strategy is a pre-agreed framework for making fisheries management decisions – such as setting catch or fishing effort limits – that is designed to achieve specific management objectives. Harvest strategies comprise elements that need to be agreed to by fisheries managers, including target and limit reference points, as well as harvest control rules, which are a set of well-defined, pre-agreed management actions that prescribe how the harvest is to be managed based on the state of specified indicators of stock status. Harvest strategies shift the focus from short-term, reactive decision-making to longer-term objectives and agreements, and they have proved essential to achieving sustainable fisheries worldwide. 

Yet progress in developing and implementing harvest strategies in the world’s tuna fisheries, which are managed by intergovernmental groups called regional fisheries management organizations (RFMOs), has been slow going for several reasons. Of the 23 stocks of major commercial tunas in the world, only six have harvest strategies in place. The process is a complex one, requiring substantial dialogue between managers, scientists, and other stakeholders. The fact that RFMO commission and science committee meetings typically occur only once a year also decelerates progress.

Up to now, the harvest strategy adoption process in tuna RFMOs has been too slow to meet MSC requirements for many fisheries. A lack of harvest strategies previously meant a fishery would only achieve MSC certification “with conditions”. Fisheries with conditions on harvest strategies were required to adopt them sometime within the five-year certification period to maintain that certification. The desire for MSC certification pushed tuna RFMOs to move more quickly in embracing harvest strategies, but in many cases, the pace was not fast enough. Fisheries faced losing MSC certification due to harvest strategies not yet being in place at the RFMO level.

The new MSC fisheries standard seeks to address this issue by permitting longer time periods for harvest strategy adoption. As a tradeoff, the harvest strategies must perform at a higher level than what the previous standard dictated. In general, already-certified fisheries now have five more years to put harvest strategies in place if they elect to adopt the updated MSC requirements to maintain certification.

The tuna fisheries in the Pacific Ocean are managed by either the Western and Central Pacific Fisheries Commission (WCPFC) or by the Inter-American Tropical Tuna Commission (IATTC). Some stocks, like South Pacific albacore, are managed by both.

Recently, many fisheries in the WCPO were set to either lose, or become unable to obtain, MSC certification because the WCPFC and IATTC had not adopted harvest strategies for many stocks. Rather than imperil their certification status, and with an eye to their fisheries’ future, the majority of certified fisheries have already opted for immediate adoption of the MSC standard’s newest harvest strategy requirements.

This decision is commendable for its scope and ambition: 43 unique fisheries that target skipjack, yellowfin, and bigeye in the Western and Central Pacific Ocean, and albacore tuna in the South Pacific have agreed to embark on a new path towards harvest strategy adoption. It is a complex move that requires coordinated and harmonized work. Specifically, seven different conformity assessment bodies, or CABs — the independent firms that score fisheries against the MSC fisheries standard — are working together in assessing these fisheries use of harvest strategies using the new standard. It is important to note that the annual catch from these four stocks averages close to 2.4 million tons. The catch of the "units of assessment" (a combination of stock and vessel type) represented by the 43 fisheries is close to 2 million tons.

Approaching this effort in a coordinated way from the start, rather than entering the process as individual fisheries, will prevent chaos and duplicative work. And, most importantly, it will deliver a credible, robust, and consistent outcome, setting an example for other tuna fisheries around the globe. While the WCPFC continues to progress harvest strategies for all tuna stocks in the WCPO and IATTC does the same in the eastern Pacific, these 43 fisheries can also now enjoy some “breathing room” in their efforts to maintain or obtain MSC certification. They can take comfort in the knowledge that their certification status will be set for the next five years.

We must urge these fisheries, however, to maintain the intensity of their commitment to harvest strategies for the long-term sustainable management of all Pacific Ocean tuna stocks. Five years seems ample time by most standards. But it is scarce time by RFMO pace, especially considering the amount of technical and scientific work that remains for most WCPO tuna stocks when it comes to harvest strategies.

In addition to leading by example, these fisheries must continue advocating to the WCPFC (and also IATTC for South Pacific albacore) for this critical management tool. Indeed, all stakeholders must maintain pressure on the managers of the world’s most abundant tuna fisheries. The pace of harvest strategy adoption cannot slow – not just to meet the newest requirements of the MSC fisheries standard, but for the long-term benefit of these vital tuna resources.

Photo courtesy of ISSF


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