November 22, 2021
A bad dream for sustainable seafood: consumers who search in vain for certified sustainable tuna on the shelves of their supermarkets, the tuna-trade and Pacific Island nations without a compass for their currently healthy-stocks of tuna and the building of sustainable fisheries management policies in the tuna fishery collapsing. Only a bad dream for the oceans and the markets? It could be just around the corner if regional fisheries management organizations like the Western and Central Pacific Fisheries Commission (WCPFC), fail to get their harvest strategy policy in order in time. The first ocean to pick up this challenge is the Western and Central Pacific Ocean, with half the world’s tuna catch – notably the largest global tuna sourcing area. From next year on, harvest strategies have to be in place to manage the tuna populations in a sustainable way. This is no longer some theoretical playground of management policies. The Marine Stewardship (MSC) recently rang the alarm-bell, warning that the Western and Central Pacific is facing a suspension risk for its certified tuna fisheries.
We still can act in time to avoid this doomsday scenario, but the clock is ticking. The upcoming meeting of WCPFC which starts December 1st, should take the first steps to ensure robust advances in the management measures of the region’s tuna fisheries so harvest strategies can be adopted next year. These measures will ensure that tuna stocks remain at a sustainable level so that future generations can continue to benefit from the fisheries. This applies first and foremost to the smaller Pacific Island Countries, which depend for a significant part of their income on tuna fishery licenses. But also, to consumers in the European and American market who depend for a large part on the sourcing on sustainably caught tuna from the area.
Reminder: by 2022, the WCPFC must adopt harvest strategies for skipjack, the tuna found in most of our cans, bigeye tuna and yellowfin tuna. If the WCPFC does not succeed in this, the sustainability criteria of the MSC are no longer met. The tuna will lose its sustainability certificate, the well-known blue label with the fish. This could mark the end of more than a decade of MSC’s sustainable certification in the Western and Central Pacific, one of the certificate’s fastest-growing areas. What started in 2011 with the certification of the skipjack-fisheries of the Parties to the Nauru Agreement (PNA) represents now globally 73 % of the MSC certified tuna supply.
The consequences would be serious. Enough to just look at the situation in the North East Atlantic, where mackerel, Atlanto-Scandian herring and blue whiting lost their MSC certification because harvest strategies were not adopted in time by the management organization involved. Many years of work on sustainable fisheries policy could be wiped out in one fell swoop: the sustainability strategy of the market and the retailers, in which a lot of time, money and effort has been invested, might collapse. The consumer loses orientation towards a sustainable product. It will take years to regain confidence in a sustainably certified tuna, if it can be regained altogether.
In order for tuna to not get to that point, it is essential to have the harvest strategies established in the WCPFC next year. The groundwork for this must be laid in the next meeting at the beginning of December. It can safely be called a test case for one of the largest world fisheries in terms of volume and value. Harvest strategies are critical to modern fisheries management. Years of laboriously developed sustainability policy in the world’s region with the largest tuna resource depends on it. Too big a fishery for sustainable management to fail? Definitely not. But we simply cannot afford to let this fail. There is no time to lose.
The outcomes of the WCPFC meeting will be discussed with market and retail stakeholders in the tuna sector next month in a webinar hosted by the Global Tuna Alliance, among others. It will also discuss how the sustainability interests of the market sector are best served with regard to the timely implementation of harvest strategies in the Western and Central Pacific and what needs to be done to ensure adoption in December 2022.
Steven Adolf is a researcher and consultant regarding sustainable fisheries, and author of ‘Tuna Wars’, www.tunawars.net.