Ocean

Why western and central Pacific tuna stocks must be safeguarded

A worker tests yellowfin tuna for its freshness in the Philippines.

A worker tests yellowfin tuna for its freshness in the Philippines. Image: Reuters/Erik de Castro

Tom Pickerell
Global Director, Ocean Program, Head of the Secretariat for the High-Level Panel, World Resources Institute
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This article is part of: Centre for Nature and Climate

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  • West and central Pacific tuna stocks are currently in the green, but it may not remain that way.
  • The region still lacks effective harvest strategies for tuna that would ensure responsible sourcing.
  • Without them, certified sustainable fisheries could struggle to meet their quotas.

In 2022, we’re all very familiar with the term “green”. Daily, we make green choices – from the food we choose to eat, to the banks in which we choose to put our money – all in pursuit of a greener lifestyle, which we interpret as meaning more sustainable.

But green is also a symbol of safety and reassurance; everyone who's seen a traffic light knows that green equals good to go. Which means that labelling something as “green” has powerful implications for the choices we're likely to make about it. In the case of tuna in the western and central Pacific Ocean, its green status refers to the health of the stocks, which – as the colour would suggest – is healthy, with no overfishing, for now. But does this mean we are really good to go?

What is the problem?

Fifty-seven per cent of the world’s tuna comes from fisheries in the western and central Pacific Ocean. However, these fisheries are slipping through the net of sustainable management, with far-reaching implications not only for the coastal nations in these regions, but the markets and consumers of sustainable tuna worldwide.

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In order to ensure they can be fished by future generations, tuna stocks must have long-term management plans in place. Effective harvest strategies (also known as management procedures) set target catch levels with limits, and guide fisheries management in a sustainable way.

While this may sound ambitious, it is achievable, even for tuna. Adopted in 2021, the International Commission for the Conservation of Atlantic Tunas (ICCAT) successfully agreed a harvest strategy for North Atlantic albacore. To demonstrate how effective this harvest strategy is, a total allowable catch (TAC) for the 2021-23 management period was agreed to by all parties without controversy.

In addition to adhering to modern fisheries management best practice, consistent with the United Nations Fish Stocks Agreement and the Food and Agricultural Organization Code of Conduct for Responsible Fisheries, harvest strategies are an essential element of sustainable seafood certification schemes. This is hugely important for responsible members of the supply chain who are continually increasing their sourcing from tuna fisheries certified by schemes such as the Marine Stewardship Council (MSC). But these are not currently in place in the western and central Pacific.

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How can the situation be improved?

The Western and Central Pacific Fisheries Commission (WCPFC), the international body responsible in the region, does have a workplan to implement these measures on some stocks, with harvest strategies for skipjack and South Pacific albacore scheduled to be implemented in December of this year. However, the timeline has slipped for South Pacific albacore. For skipjack, we hope WCPFC members will agree to adopt the harvest strategy at the upcoming meeting at the end of November.

The timeline has also slipped for yellowfin and bigeye tunas. By December, we are also hoping to have “target reference points” – which define the level of fishing pressure and stock size that allows optimal harvesting – agreed.

Why is this so important?

Tuna stocks in the western and central Pacific Ocean are currently in a healthy state – there is no overfishing and the stocks are not overfished. They are “in the green”. In addition, there are currently 28 MSC-certified tuna fisheries in the region, as well as an additional five seeking MSC certification. This represents over 2 million tonnes of certified or possibly certified tuna within the supply chain each year.

However, the green status and the MSC certifications may not last without robust management. The current situation can be likened to having a house without a roof: Everything is fine when the sun is shining, but it’s bad news once it starts raining. Without harvest strategies, the stocks are at risk. Being “in the green” now doesn’t mean they will necessarily stay that way; long-term management is needed to avoid complacency.

Tuna catch and stock status for each RFMO
Tuna catch and stock status for each RFMO Image: Global Tuna Alliance

What needs to happen?

The WCPFC is meeting at the end of November – the first in-person meeting of the commission in three years. At this upcoming meeting, the WCPFC needs to adopt a harvest strategy for skipjack, and agree a revised workplan for setting a harvest strategy for South Pacific albacore, and setting target reference points for bigeye and yellowfin in 2023.

To support this, we are calling for the establishment of science-manager dialogue meetings that bring together scientists and delegates outside of the main regional fisheries management organization (RFMO) meetings to discuss the details relating to long-term management. Use of science-manager dialogue meetings are essential to progressing the small print that make up the harvest strategies, so it’s paramount the WCPFC utilizes them. All other tuna RFMOs already utilize these forums.

To achieve this, seafood supply chain companies, including many retailers, are publicly calling for action. Fifty-three seafood companies, responsible for 30% of the world’s tuna catch, are partners in the Global Tuna Alliance (GTA), which actively engages with tuna fishery managers such as the WCPFC. It is coordinating a comprehensive outreach strategy to ensure the voice of the market is heard by decision-makers later this year.

What could happen if progress stalls?

If we don’t make progress on establishing robust management measures for tuna this year, then many MSC-certified tuna fisheries could face difficulty meeting their conditions, and may be suspended from the programme. If all western central Pacific tuna fisheries become suspended, over 2 million tonnes of tuna could no longer be sold as MSC-certified into the supply chain, and brand owners would no longer be able to use the MSC ecolabel on products made from this catch.

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As indicated in the graph above, the WCPFC is both the largest and, currently, the “greenest” RFMO. But this means that it has the farthest to fall. Fisheries in the western and central Pacific Ocean are not too big to fail; indeed, in 2019 and 2020, the mackerel, Atlanto-Scandian herring and blue whiting fisheries in the north-east Atlantic (nearly 2.5 million tonnes) lost their MSC certifications, and with it, many green, eco-conscious customers and consumers.

My message to all parties in the west and central Pacific is therefore a simple one. Develop harvest strategies. Prevent overfishing. Keep tuna stocks “in the green”.

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