How Eastern Pacific Fisheries Managers Can Improve Tuna Sustainability

Management of North Pacific albacore should include input from retail sector and better oversight of fishing

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How Eastern Pacific Fisheries Managers Can Improve Tuna Sustainability
A fish—mostly silver but black on its top and tail—swims through bright blue water, with additional fish in the background.
North Pacific albacore, most often sold in cans at grocery stores, is a major driver of the global tuna industry.
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Albacore tuna accounts for a significant chunk of the $40 billion-per-year global tuna market, and demand for this species is projected to grow. That’s why it is vital that fisheries managers work to ensure the sustainability of the albacore population, including at the meeting of the Inter-American Tropical Tuna Commission (IATTC) in Victoria, British Columbia, taking place 7 to 11 August. The IATTC manages North Pacific albacore with another regional fishery management organization (RFMO), the Western and Central Pacific Fisheries Commission (WCPFC). Together, they can create the first Pacific-wide harvest strategy to jointly manage the stock. After years of research, evaluations and negotiations, managers are now poised to adopt a full harvest strategy this year.

The IATTC and WCPFC can greatly increase the likelihood of long-term sustainability for North Pacific albacore by creating a harvest strategy—an approach that considers ecosystem factors beyond population size and includes target reference points to guard against overfishing. Historically, albacore, like most fish populations, have been managed through annual catch limits that fail to account for broader ecosystem conditions and are often set to maximize catch and profits, with only scant attention to sustainability. For the past eight years, the IATTC and WCPFC have worked to determine how to modernize management of albacore fisheries. At a successful meeting of WCPFC’s Northern Committee in early July, member governments agreed to a long-term harvest strategy for the stock, setting the stage for its adoption at IATTC’s august meeting. If endorsed by WCPFC in December, it will be the first multi-RFMO harvest strategy in the world.

While albacore in the North Pacific Ocean are neither overfished nor experiencing overfishing—two of the distinct designations managers use to describe the state of a fishery—adoption of a harvest strategy would establish precautionary management while the population is healthy, helping ensure that it will remain that way. Such stability is also good for the supply chain: Fishers, processors, wholesalers and retailers can reasonably anticipate how much fish is coming in, which means consumers will see fairly consistent prices at the point of sale—and know that the fish they buy was caught sustainably.

The Victoria meeting is also a new opportunity for market stakeholders to engage in IATTC management. Traditionally, fishers and fishing companies have provided input on management decisions, but industry engagement in RFMOs has been uneven, with disproportionate representation by the catching and processing sectors whose goals often focus on maximizing catch in the short-term. Now, retailers have a chance to weigh in and speak to the needs of consumers, particularly on the importance of sustainability.

IATTC must take final steps to modernize North Pacific albacore management

A harvest strategy—also called a management procedure—is a more predictable and effective way to manage a stock through a science-based, pre-agreed framework for setting limits on catch and/or fishing effort. Since 2015, IATTC managers and stakeholders have been working to develop a harvest strategy that maximizes catch while keeping a healthy, sustainable amount of albacore in the North Pacific Ocean.

In addition to harvest strategies, IATTC member states can also take steps to further strengthen management of North Pacific albacore—and all stocks under their charge—by embracing innovative, cost-effective tools that improve fisheries monitoring and enforcement. Technologies like electronic monitoring (EM) and vessel monitoring systems (VMS) are options proven to expand oversight of fishing activities and traceability, which help keep illegally caught fish out of the supply chain. At this year’s meeting, IATTC members should agree to develop minimum standards for an EM program in the Eastern Pacific Ocean. The commission should also strengthen its VMS measure to improve implementation rates, how frequently vessels must report their positions and how vessel information should best be shared.

Retailers and their suppliers should commit to active engagement with the IATTC and other RFMOs

Retail markets have a lot to lose from poor management—for example, consumers increasingly want sustainably-caught seafood—yet retail firms are often absent from key decision-making meetings. Over the past few years, organizations such as the Global Tuna Alliance and the Tuna Protection Alliance have worked to bring together retailers and the supply chain to push for sustainable and socially responsible management of key fisheries, and the IATTC meeting offers market representatives another opportunity to directly engage policymakers.

By attending RFMO meetings, engaging with member governments’ delegations and working with nongovernmental organizations and other observers to improve fisheries sustainability, retailers can help both themselves and—by fulfilling their public commitments to sustainability—their consumers. The upcoming IATTC meeting is a good opportunity for these stakeholders to take part in the fisheries management process, especially as advocates for good governance on North Pacific albacore.

Esther Wozniak is a manager and Katy Hladki is a senior officer with The Pew Charitable Trusts’ international fisheries project.

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