Op-ed: Securing a future for tuna in the Western-Central Pacific

Global Tuna Alliance Executive Director Daniel Suddaby.

Daniel Suddaby is the executive director of the Global Tuna Alliance.

Over 10 years ago, in 2012, I attended my first Western and Central Pacific Fisheries Commission (WCPFC) meeting in Guam. The world was a different place then – smartphones were just becoming a staple, and the idea of tweeting as a form of diplomacy was still a novel concept. I had just begun embarking on a journey with the WWF which involved building a program of engagement in tuna RFMOs that has since endured a decade. Now, in 2023, and representing a precompetitive collaboration rather than an environmental NGO, I prepare for the long journey from Europe to the Cook Islands for the 20th session of the WCPFC. With this somewhat mirroring, I can’t help but reflect on both the strides we've made and the challenges that lie ahead.

Back then, one of our primary focuses was the development of harvest strategies and control measures. Since that time, there have been numerous capacity-building workshops, discussions on management objectives, Marine Stewardship Council (MSC) assessments, objections, conditions, NGO campaigns, and strong words said. Promisingly, we have the engagement of a wider spectrum of stakeholders in decision-making, such as retailers. Yet, despite these efforts, key components of a robust harvest strategy are still missing in the WCPFC

Implementing a harvest strategy is a complex process, involving scientific, socio-economic, and political considerations. It requires full engagement of all parties, and a rushed or forced process could lead to non-compliance or outright rejection. The case of the skipjack tuna harvest control rule in the Indian Ocean, which has seen consistent violations, underscores the critical nature of getting adoption right.

This journey is akin to a marathon – it requires strength, stamina, and grit. The WCPFC has demonstrated remarkable endurance, but as we near the finish line, we cannot afford to lose faith in the work that has gone before us.

In 2012, the MSC certification of the Parties to the Nauru Agreement (PNA) skipjack tuna fishery was a beacon of hope. It was assumed that the conditions would drive the rapid uptake of harvest strategies. However, a decade later, we are still striving to implement these strategies fully. This situation mirrors the broader challenge in sustainable fisheries management: having the knowledge and technology but struggling to implement them effectively.

The WCPO stands unique among the world's tuna fisheries. Unlike other regions, where overfishing is a pressing concern, the WCPO's stocks are all "in the green." This status is crucial for retailers and seafood supply chain companies under increasing pressure to offer sustainable tuna products. Consumer behavior surveys by the MSC show a growing demand for environmentally responsible seafood, with research by the MSC finding that 82 percent of consumers believed seafood needed to be protected for future generations. The Global Tuna Alliance, comprising 50 retailers and seafood supply chain companies, is committed to sourcing 100 percent of tuna products from sustainable fisheries. This commitment is not just a 'nice to have;' it's a necessity for maintaining consumer trust and market viability.

Research in 2021-22 by the GTA found that 1.6 million metric tons of tuna per year passed through its partners. To put that into perspective, it accounts for roughly a third of the global tuna trade. As part of the GTA’s five-year strategy, its partners are committed to sourcing 100 percent of tuna products from fisheries with a GSSI-recognized certification or on a pathway to sustainability. This means the likes of some of the world’s familiar brands as well as some of the world’s largest retailers like Ahold Delhaize, H-E-B, and Tesco potentially moving their sourcing away from the WCPO if stocks “fell out of the green” and fisheries lost their certifications. 

However, the absence of overfishing in the WCPO does not mean the absence of challenges. Managing tuna stocks without comprehensive harvest strategies is like a house without a roof – fine in fair weather but vulnerable when storms hit. The WCPO, with its significant tuna catch, needs robust management measures to protect its valuable stocks.

Last year, the WCPFC made a significant leap by adopting a management procedure for skipjack. However, this measure was non-binding, weakening its potential impact. For the GTA and its partners, effective, binding agreements are essential for maintaining the confidence of businesses and consumers alike.

As we approach the 20th session of the WCPFC, the future of tuna in the WCPO rests in the hands of the delegates. The GTA has set forth a series of asks, aligned with scientific advice, to accelerate the development of harvest strategies. This is not just about the present; it's about ensuring the fortune of tuna stocks for future generations.

Incorporating the concept of "fortune" from our campaign, we recognize that sustainable fisheries management is not just about guessing the future but doggedly shaping it. Like a marathon, it requires foresight, endurance, and a commitment to the long haul. As I embark on this journey, I am hopeful that the stamina and determination that have brought us all this far will continue to drive us towards a sustainable and prosperous future for our tuna fisheries.  The finish line is in sight; let's keep the faith and secure a future for tuna. 

Photo courtesy of Daniel Suddaby/LinkedIn


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