National Fisherman

Toward truth in tuna

The largest players in the global tuna business and the World Wildlife Fund have gotten behind a new organization dedicated to the conservation of tuna.

Bumble Bee, Chicken of the Sea, StarKist, and others, joined by WWF and a number of prominent scientists specializing in tuna, have launched the International Seafood Sustainability Foundation.

The foundation's science committee includes researchers with considerable expertise on tuna. Among them are Jim Joseph, whom the ISSF describes as the dean of science-based tuna conservation, Victor Restrepo of the International Commission for the Conservation of Atlantic Tunas, and Richard Deriso of the Inter-American Tropical Tuna Commission.

William Fox of the World Wildlife Fund, a former director of NMFS, is vice chairman of the ISSF board.

Although the group has bestowed upon itself a somewhat grandiloquent title, the foundation's launch is by all means a positive development.

Management of tuna is complicated by their highly migratory nature. The fish would be well suited to oversight by international tribunal except that the international waters of the world are like a schoolyard sandbox in which not all of the children — in this case, nations — play well together.

The launch of the ISSF signifies the tuna industry's recognition that we now live in the age of sustainability, a term that has evolved from concept to imperative. The harvester's challenge is not simply lobbying for quota or holding environmental groups at bay; consumers want a healthful product from a sustainable resource, and they are sophisticated enough to encompass non-target species and habitat in their vision of the resource.

Regardless of this whole-ocean perspective, the centerpiece of any plan to manage fisheries is the target species. If the target species will not support a harvest, or is being plundered toward oblivion, the ball game is over or soon will be.

In the case of local stocks, a sound management plan can save the day: Consider the recovery of halibut in the North Pacific, for example, or scallops in the North Atlantic. Two very different regimes were employed, but in each case stocks rebounded because a plan was implemented and adhered to.

Highly migratory species are a different ball game. It is difficult for one nation or even a group of nations to hold a particular country to account for fishing violations, as students of tuna management know.

Consider the 46-member International Commission for the Conservation of Atlantic Tunas. The commission routinely sets bluefin quotas that exceed the recommendation of ICCAT scientists, and these quotas are in turn exceeded by the fleets of avaricious member nations.

The ISSF says it is not about the business of usurping international tribunals but that it intends to work with them.

And because all of the major international tuna buyers are principals of the ISSF, the group believes it has the leverage to alter the behavior of rogue tuna fishermen and the nations that sponsor them. Simply put, the foundation can see to it that there is no market for their fish.

For example, the foundation is urging the Inter-American Tropical Tuna Commission in the eastern tropical Pacific to enact "meaningful" conservation measures on behalf of bigeye tuna.

The bigeye biomass is above the level needed to support maximum sustainable yield, but the IATTC and NMFS believe overfishing is occurring.

According to ISSF president Susan Jackson, if science-based conservation measures are not implemented on behalf of bigeye in the eastern tropical Pacific, foundation members will "refrain from transactions in fish from this stock" after Sept. 1.

The foundation has also dedicated itself to the fight against illegal, unreported and unregulated fishing of tuna. Underlining the importance of so-called IUU fishing in general, NOAA held the first in a series of public hearings on a proposed rule to identify and certify nations whose vessels fish illegally, at the International Boston Seafood Show in March.

American bluefin tuna fishermen in the Atlantic are up to their ears in frustration with IUU fishing in their fishery. "We've waited way too long," said Rich Ruais, who is executive director of the Blue Water Fishermen's Association and has served as a member of the U.S. ICCAT delegation. "Some of these players just aren't going to clean it up."

The ISSF says it will not do business with vessels on the IUU list of any regional tuna fishery management organization. The implications of this with respect to bluefin are unclear because Bumble Bee, StarKist and others do not play the same role in the bluefin market that they play elsewhere. Nonetheless, the fact that industry and government are aligned on the issue, combined with growing consumer interest in seafood certification, must be seen as boding well for ISSF influence.

Law-abiding governments are limited in their sway over fishing fleets that engage in illegal or irresponsible practices with the blessing of their own governments. But it's just possible that rogue operators can be compelled to "follow the money" to acceptable fishing practices.

– Jerry Fraser

Inside the Industry

It’s no secret that fraud is a problem in the seafood industry. Oceana repeatedly touts a mislabeling epidemic. While their method has been criticized, the perception of rampant fraud  has been established.

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The Center for Coastal Studies recently announced that Owen Nichols, Director of the Center for Coastal Studies’ Marine Fisheries Research Program, has been selected as this year’s recipient of the John Annala Fishery Leadership Award by the Gulf of Maine Research Institute. 

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