By Brad Ack, World Wildlife Fund (WWF) Senior Vice President, Oceans
An important trend is taking shape in the fight to protect nature: more and more businesses are adopting bold conservation goals — even when some national governments fail to do the same.
We saw this last year, when more than 1,800 U.S. businesses and investors joined the We Are Still In coalition and pledged to help America remain a leader on climate action. We’ve seen it with individual companies like McDonald’s, which has committed to sourcing only deforestation-free beef by 2020. And, this week we see it as the International Seafood Sustainability Foundation (ISSF) launches its new five-year strategic plan that aims to reverse unsustainable tuna fishing practices by further focusing the power of market demand.
In 2009, CEOs from eight major tuna processing and canning companies, along with marine scientists and environmental champions, founded ISSF because they felt that governments responsible for managing tuna populations and fishing were moving too slowly and ineffectively to adopt sustainable practices. These business leaders saw a clear role for industry in driving positive change and the adoption of sustainable fishing practices. They recognized that dwindling tuna stocks posed a serious threat to the long-term viability of their businesses, to consumers and fishing communities alike, and ultimately to the health of ocean ecosystems.
Today, ISSF is a leader in developing industry-wide conservation measures to end unsustainable tuna fishing. These measures include, among other things, curbing illegal fishing and the reduction of bycatch (when tuna fishing gear catches wildlife like turtles, sharks and seabirds, as well as juvenile fish). Through their participation in ISSF, tuna companies dedicate funds to advance better policies and practices, and to support much-needed conservation science.
What sets this endeavor apart from other tuna conservation efforts – and the reason World Wildlife Fund (WWF) has supported ISSF’s mission since the beginning – is the foundation’s focus on harnessing the power of the market to drive progress, rather than solely relying on legal mandates. That’s because each ISSF participating company has accepted a binding agreement to comply with the foundation’s performance standards. By complying with conservation targets set by ISSF, and measurably improving their environmental performance, member companies are able to present themselves as ISSF compliant with retailers and consumers who are interested in sustainable seafood. Failure to comply results in termination of a company’s participation in ISSF.
The overall market share of ISSF participating tuna companies – now about 75% of the global canned tuna market – provides real leverage for advancing conservation. One of ISSF’s earliest measures required canned tuna products sold by participating companies to be traceable all the way back to the vessel that originally caught the fish. Major tuna companies had already been tracking the origins of their products for decades for quality and safety control purposes, and the participants committed to using this existing infrastructure to better trace fish throughout the industry. Doing so makes it easier to ensure that the fish in their products are caught in accordance with sustainable fishing standards.
ISSF early on adopted another key measure: all vessels that sell tuna to ISSF participating companies must obtain a unique vessel identification number, much like an automobile’s VIN number. This ensures that rogue vessels with no regard for the rules can’t simply change flags or names to avoid consequences and stay in business. The adoption of this measure led to changes in international policy and brought about the creation of another market-driven tool: the ISSF ProActive Vessel Register (PVR). Today, ISSF participants each commit to buy only from vessels listed on the register, which means that vessel owners who want to sell to buyers of 75% of the global canned tuna market must adhere to all the conservation performance targets as a requirement of being on the register. Importantly, continuous improvement is a core principle of ISSF, which means that we will expect to see additional measures in the future and that the standards of tuna fishing and management will continue to rise as a result.
Yet another ISSF-led measure has leveraged data collection from companies to enable more frequent and accurate scientific assessments of tuna populations, resulting in more effective management and conservation measures. Thanks to measures enacted by both ISSF and regional fishery management organizations around the world, the percentage of tuna stocks that are being fished more sustainably nearly doubled from 35% in 2011 to 65% in 2015. But there is still work to do and some populations – particularly those that don’t end up canned, like Pacific bluefin tuna – have yet to recover. ISSF’s new plan, Advancing Sustainable Tuna Fisheries, which was released this week, is expected to drive further progress by actively supporting development of Fishery Improvement Projects (FIPs) leading to measurable change on the water. In particular, ISSF will support FIPs by providing science-based guidance and verification tools to make these projects more transparent and successful.
Without question, the world still needs leadership from national governments and civil society in driving strong environmental policy and regulation. The private sector’s responsibility to turn a profit will always be weighed in setting their conservation goals. Governments, on the other hand, can set policies that are in the public interest regardless of their impact on corporate bottom lines, and they have the capability to enact more sweeping changes than non-state actors. In 2016, the Obama Administration did just that, finalizing a seafood traceability program for products sold in the U.S. that applies not just to tuna, but also to grouper, swordfish, red snapper, blue crab and more.
Nevertheless, the model ISSF follows, as well as other private sector initiatives, shows businesses that depend on nature (really all of them) must assess their environmental dependence and risks and act swiftly and decisively to make progress. Now more than ever, the market is prepared to recognize and demand this kind of leadership.