Usufuku Honten gets MSC nod for Atlantic bluefin, over WWF objections

A Japanese fishery has received Marine Stewardship Council certification for its catch of Atlantic bluefin tuna, a first for the species.

The MSC ended the two-year assessment process with an assurance the Kesen-numa, Japan-based company, which fishes for bluefin tuna in the Northeast Atlantic Ocean using one vessel, the Shofukumaru, will receive certification, over the objections of conservation nonprofit WWF. On 30 July, an independent legal expert concluded a concern raised by WWF about bluefin tuna maturity rates was appropriately handled in an updated action plan created by the company. MSC certification will be granted pending minor amendments to the final report.

“This is a significant moment in the turnaround of the Eastern Atlantic bluefin tuna, which has been the subject of concerted conservation efforts for the past 20 years,” MSC said in a press release. “To be MSC certified, a fishery must show the fish stock is healthy, that it minimizes its impact on the environment and has effective management in place. Eastern Atlantic bluefin tuna was on the verge of collapse less than two decades ago. While fishing never stopped, with allowable catch remaining in the thousands of tons, stringent measures introduced in the 2000s led to a significant recovery in numbers in the past decade.”

The Shofukumaru, which fishes out of the Canary Islands, caught 55 metric tons (MT) of Eastern Atlantic bluefin tuna in 2018 out of 28,200 MT of total allowable catch that year for the area, according to MSC. The longliner fishes for only a few weeks each October to fulfill its quota, with the fish shipped to Japan, where it is consumed as sashimi. Outside of October, the Shofukumaru catches bigeye and yellowfin tuna in the central Atlantic. Usufuku Honten entered the assessment process two years ago “to help it differentiate itself from the high levels of illegal, unregulated, and unreported fishing of bluefin,” MSC said.

“We wish to call out to other fishermen and regional fisheries management organizations to create together stricter catch and distribution controls. We also want to spread awareness that our ship observes the world's strictest catch management. These are the reasons we are challenging ourselves to attain the MSC certification,” Usufuku Honten CEO Sotaro Usui said.

All three species of bluefin tuna – Atlantic, Pacific, and Southern – were at one time considered to be seriously overfished and in decline. Today, Atlantic and Southern bluefin tuna populations are currently increasing, though the numbers of Pacific bluefin have not rebounded in the same way.

Fifteen years ago, the International Commission for the Conservation of Atlantic Tunas (ICCAT), the regional fishery management organization overseeing fishing of the Eastern Atlantic bluefin tuna, instituted a multi-year recovery plan that included an agreement to reduce catches and increase reporting  By 2014, ICCAT scientists found that bluefin tuna numbers were increasing more quickly than expected and, in 2017, assessments indicated the Eastern Atlantic stock was no longer being overfished, according to MSC.

“This certification reflects the positive, concerted action taken over many years, to support the recovery of bluefin in the Eastern Atlantic,” MSC Chief Science and Standards Officer Rohan Currey said in a press release. Currey said it was the organization’s hope the certification will raise the importance of sustainably-sourced tuna with Japanese consumers.

Over the past six months, the certification process has been weighing objections to the certification filed by non-governmental organizations WWF and The Pew Charitable Trusts.

WWF provided “extensive scientific evidence proving the stock is not yet being fished within sustainable limits,” according to the organization.

“Control Union Pesca, the accredited conformity assessment body (CAB), failed to apply the best available science and overestimated the sustainability level of the bluefin tuna stock, resulting in scores that supported the certification of the fishery (Principle 1 of MSC Certification),” it said. “In addition, WWF was able to prove a dangerous lack of impartiality of the CAB vis-a-vis the fishery client, which skewed the evaluation. WWF is closely following the ongoing certification process for the French bluefin tuna fishery.”

WWF and Pew also raised concerns around how the stock is managed by ICCAT, and that certification risks the long-term recovery of the Atlantic bluefin species. However, independent adjudicator Eldon Greenberg determined Usufuku Honten had adequately addressed by agreeing to the condition that by 2025, the fishery will need to prove that the stock reached an agreed-upon sustainable level.

“Certify today and aim for sustainability in 2025. This does not reflect the rigorous certification standards we would expect to be applied when assessing one of the most valuable fish in the ocean, which was once harvested to the brink of extinction. MSC certification of bluefin tuna is an alarming signal that the result is driven by industry demand rather than scientific evidence of sustainability,” WWF Mediterranean Marine Initiative Director Giuseppe Di Carlo said in a press release. “Consumers in Japan will have MSC-labeled bluefin tuna that is not sustainable and a French tuna fishery is expected to receive the same certification soon. This may be a dangerous trend that can threaten the full recovery of bluefin tuna and our possibility of restoring ocean health globally by 2030.”

Currey said contributions to the certification process from Pew and WWF “are an essential and welcome part of the independent assessment process.”

“It’s clear from the independent adjudicator’s comments that both organizations have influenced his decision,” Currey said.

Usufuku Honten deserved MSC certification, Currey said, as it “had worked hard to meet the MSC’s high bar of sustainability,” but he warned that management of the world’s bluefin tuna species must proceed with caution

“We must be mindful that other stocks of bluefin are not in such good shape as the Eastern Atlantic,” Currey said.

However, WWF said the certification proved "the need to reform the MSC standard and assurance system."

"As the world's oceans bear increasing pressure, the MSC must ensure that its standard stays consistent with current science and global best practice. Specifically, WWF has been advocating for CABs to conduct an impartial and objective assessment, independent of their clients. CABs must use sound science and specific knowledge to justify all scoring, and where data is lacking, they must adopt the precautionary principle as the basis for decisions. The case of the bluefin tuna demonstrates that we are far from reaching this approach," it said.

WWF also called for the objections procedure to MSC certification to include the opportunity for independent scientific review of a CAB’s scoring decision and justifications "where there is clear controversy and/or competing scientific analysis."

“Consumers and retailers need to be able to have confidence in the MSC-certified label. Unfortunately, we are forced to question the appropriateness of that label for a growing list of fisheries, and now even for bluefin tuna,” WWF Oceans Lead John Tanzer said. “We have spent two years engaged in a process to strengthen the assurance mechanisms and help the MSC reliably and consistently deliver on its promise of seafood from healthy stocks and a healthy marine environment. We are disappointed with the end result. WWF will not be recommending the purchase of MSC-certified bluefin to consumers.”

Photo courtesy of Indian Ocean Tuna Commission


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