Industry's Role in Sustainable Tuna Management

Industry can play a vital role in ocean conservation, especially in overcoming barriers to sustainable tuna fishing. Today, the need for action is greater than ever. Once vibrant populations are overfished, and major fishing gears are still largely unmanaged, while industry looks for new markets to move more tuna product.

“Industry has taken some positive steps toward a more sustainable business model, but basic building blocks of good management are still missing from most tuna fisheries, such as reference points, harvest control rules, and gear regulation,” said Amanda Nickson, director of global tuna conservation at The Pew Charitable Trusts. “Responsible fishing means reversing the negative trends that are dogging tuna species in every ocean region, and that is as much the responsibility of industry as of government.”

Nickson spoke this week at INFOFISH Tuna 2014, the biennial international industry conference held in Bangkok May 21 to 23. Thailand, straddling the Indian and Pacific oceans, processes and exports more tuna than any other country in the world—in excess of 500,000 tons a year, according to trade statistics.

This year’s conference focused on the theme “Working Together Towards a Sustainable Industry.”  Though a range of interests must cooperate to create that future, Nickson told attendees that those in the business of buying and selling tuna can use their influence to push effectively for steps such as precautionary science-based catch limits and better gear regulation.

Tuna fisheries cannot support increases in catch, at least not with the current state of management. Pew has made adoption of precautionary science-based catch limits a top priority. In a world of natural variability, scientific uncertainty, and political influences, sound management requires a system of catch limits, targets, and rules that together allow managers to act swiftly and efficiently and adapt to change. A pre-agreed protocol, known as “harvest control rules”, can prevent catch from reaching dangerously high limits. That would help ensure the sustainability of the resource and maximize the long-term profitability of the fishery. 

“If industry were to put its full weight behind reference points and harvest control rules, we would be much closer to having them for every population of tuna being fished,” Nickson said. “Imagine what progress would be made if tuna companies warned  that in five years they would only source from fisheries managed with precautionary science-based catch limits. Either government leaders would get together and find a way to improve management measures, or they would risk losing their share of this multibillion dollar business.”

Industry also has great leverage over regulation of fishing gears, Nickson said. Fish aggregating devices, or FADs, are floating objects made of nets and rafts that attract marine life and make fishing much more efficient. The trouble is that upward of 100,000 FADs are tossed in the ocean each year without controls on the number deployed or any way for fishery managers to track them. This leads to fishing without effective management measures in place resulting in the significant catch of bigeye tuna in the Pacific. Many FADs are abandoned by fishing vessels and wash up on reefs and beaches.

In April, Pew announced a tracking project in the western and central Pacific Ocean that will allow the world’s largest tuna fishery to keep watch on the tens of thousands of FADs used in the region. Once operational, managers will be able to use the information to better control fishing, while scientists will acquire access to data that will help them better understand FADs’ impact on the marine ecosystem.

“Supporting tracking programs and improved management of FADs would allow fishing vessels to continue using a gear that industry has deemed the most efficient method for catching skipjack tuna, the most robust species,’’ Nickson said.  “At the same time, it paves the way for much needed improvements in the way FADs are regulated, making the fishing gear a more sustainable option.” 

In her conference remarks, Nickson called on industry to become aggressive and use its influence with governments to push for action on urgent fishery needs. “For better or worse, industry has always been the most important constituent in fishing negotiations,” she said.   “It’s time for business leaders to spend some political capital on protecting tuna. It’s good for the environment and reduces risk, which is in the interest of their long-term business model.”

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