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Bolstering Regional Management for Sustainable Tuna Fisheries

Words by 3p Contributor
Leadership & Transparency
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By Susan Jackson

The overfishing of the bigeye tuna stock in the central and western Pacific Ocean was one of the most talked about fisheries stories of 2014. Maybe that’s why, at the end of last year, almost every stakeholder in the industry and conservation community expressed stern criticism for the lack of effective measures to end overfishing in the western and central Pacific, where the species’ decline is most pronounced.

When it comes to tunas, there are five regional fisheries management organizations (RFMOs) that cover all oceans. The members of these organizations – which include all of the major fishing nations and coastal states – have the mandate to collectively adopt conservation and management measures for those fisheries. Responsibilities vary depending on the region, but a tuna RFMO’s purview can include monitoring how much fish is harvested per year; the gear types that are allowed; when fishing in certain areas or times is closed; the number of vessels that can be active in a fishery; requiring the use of human observers or satellite tracking systems to monitor fishing activities on the water; mandating the use of technical solutions to mitigate the catch of sensitive marine species; and much more.  These RFMOs all also have systems for assessing compliance with their regulations by their member states. Most importantly, over decades these treaty-based organizations have established a legal framework within which members adopt binding measures that carry the force of law.

One of these five organizations, the Western and Central Pacific Fisheries Commission (WCPFC) – whose membership includes nations from the EU to China, Japan to the U.S., and New Zealand to the Solomon Islands – recently wrapped up a disappointing year-end session. Little was accomplished for tuna sustainability despite calls for several necessary and significant policy changes from a diverse group of concerned parties.

Like any organization composed of many governments, bureaucratic slog and political posturing can too frequently reign over decisive action. With the example from the recent WCPFC meeting, it's perhaps understandable that the calls for an entirely new, from-the-ground-up international governance system continue and may even be gaining some momentum. But it is important to think carefully about disregarding the existing legal framework of tuna RFMOs, which already have the mandate, membership, global coverage and experience working in each unique tuna-fishing region. NGOs and the private sector need to cooperate with and strengthen RFMOs, while vigorously advocating for the adoption and implementation of science-based management measures so that tuna stocks and their ecosystems are managed comprehensively and sustainably. We are seeing signs of progress in a number of areas by doing just that.

Consider these important and progressive steps tuna RFMOs have taken in the last two years, for example:


  • Requiring the use of unique vessel identifying (UVIs) numbers that aid in combating illegal fishing;

  • Promoting management to better understand and then help mitigate unintended catch of non-target species around fish attracting rafts known as FADs;

  • Improving data collection and the use of harvest strategies for sound science-based management decisions;

  • and strengthening measures to monitor vessel’s activities on the water in their respective regions.

While RFMOs are not always the most effective harbingers of change, nor do they execute policy with machine-like efficiency, they still play a leading and integral role in the international management of shared fisheries resources. They are a framework that requires the cooperation of many nations to work. And when they fail to act, which they sometimes will, it is up to conservationists, the market and industry to step up where RFMOs fall short.

A rapid decline of bigeye tuna stocks is not good for anyone – least of all the businesses and coastal communities relying on the health of the stock. So, it is extremely frustrating that the powers that be in the Pacific allowed the opportunity to address it slip through their hands. Now is the time for us to do more.

Our organization, the International Seafood Sustainability Foundation (ISSF), will continue to invest time and resources to finding and implementing solutions to address bycatch, and we'll continue to support tuna processing and trading companies in taking steps within their supply chain to address overfishing and promote responsible practices. We are pleased that three new companies committed to work with ISSF this year. That means a total of 24 industry partners, almost 75 percent of tuna processing capacity, are proactively implementing ISSF conservation measures and commitments that are making a difference for sustainable tuna fisheries.

Consumers can do more to demand supply chain transparency by asking where their seafood comes from. Suppliers and buyers can do more by getting involved and demanding action from governments and supporting those companies that demonstrate commitments to tuna sustainability. Conservationists and NGOs can keep up the pressure on RFMOs and be willing to work with industry, as we do, in order to make sure tuna stocks and their ecosystem are conserved and managed – and that tuna RFMOs are held accountable by all stakeholders when they don't do the right thing.

Image credit: International Seafood Sustainability Foundation

Susan Jackson is President of the International Seafood Sustainability Foundation, a global coalition of scientists, the tuna industry and World Wildlife Fund (WWF), the world’s leading conservation organization, promoting science-based initiatives for the long-term conservation and sustainable use of tuna stocks, reducing bycatch and promoting ecosystem health.

3p Contributor

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