Is Tuna Fishing Sustainable? The Facts You Need to Know

Is Tuna Fishing Sustainable? The Facts You Need to Know

In 2017 alone, 4.8 million tons of tuna were caught commercially worldwide. Tuna is an affordable protein source that is popular all over the world. But is tuna sustainable, or should tuna fishing be curbed? Read on for more insight into the polarizing issue.

How did tuna become so popular in the United States?

Though practiced throughout the world for millennia, tuna fishing in America originated in San Diego, as immigrants from Portugal and Italy brought their fishing knowledge with them to the US West Coast.

The first American tuna fishery started in 1903 when a packer from San Pedro switched from canning sardines to canning albacore tuna. Canned tuna grew quickly in popularity, and San Diego became the base for regional tuna fishing fleets.

Throughout the first half of the 20th century, San Diego was known as “the Tuna Capital of the World.” By the 1960s, tuna was San Diego’s third biggest regional industry. Employing around 40,000 locals, San Diego’s tuna fishing and processing industry was preceded only by the aerospace industry and the US Navy as the biggest employer locally.

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Ecologists estimate that, since the 1970s, marine species have been effectively halved. Though other factors such as pollution and climate change have played their part, it is inarguable that overfishing has taken a toll.

Over the past 50 years, governments around the world have enacted legislation not only to regulate tuna fishing, but the fishing industry as a whole.

The growth in tuna consumption

Over the last 75 years, canned tuna has become a popular product and can be found in virtually every country around the world. 

With increasing popularity and advances in fishing technology, catch rates of tuna have expanded significantly to meet growing demand.  Since 1960, tuna catches have grown from about 600,000 tons to 4.8 million tons, with almost all of the growth in the skipjack and yellowfin species – the most common species used for canning.

Tuna, a highly migratory species, can be found in all of the world’s major oceans.  There are five commercial species of tuna: bluefin, bigeye, albacore, yellowfin, and skipjack. Tuna is considered a fish without a country as it swims constantly and moves through broad areas of the oceans. 

To manage tuna stocks, a series of Regional Fishery Management Organizations (RFMOs) were created. RFMO members are coastal nations and distant water fishing nations that operate within the various tuna fisheries. They are responsible for conducting science and implementing responsible tuna conservation policies.  However, conservation policies require unanimous approval, and more often than not, fail to pass due to lack of political will.

The establishment of the International Seafood Sustainability Foundation (ISSF)

Given industry and environmental concerns that the RFMOs were not meeting their objective of implementing responsible and effective tuna conservation policies, the International Seafood Sustainability Foundation (ISSF) was formed in 2009.

The ISSF is a global consortium of fishing industry officials, scientists, and environmental experts that undertakes science-based initiatives to preserve tuna stocks.

The ISSF sets stringent criteria for tuna processing companies and has adopted conservation measures to ensure that tuna processors, transporters, traders, and importers adopt industry standards that facilitate a concerted and sustained improvement in global tuna stocks.

These measures include:

  • Maintaining records on participant vessels.
  • Discouraging importers, transporters, and processors from trading with non-compliant vessels.
  • Gathering breakdowns of tuna species caught in each fishing trip and their sizes.
  • Ensuring that participating processors and marketers adhere to stringent labeling requirements, detailing the species of tuna contained in the product and the ocean it was captured in.
  • Safeguarding supply chain transparency by ensuring that traders which buy more than 10,000 tons of tuna annually only buy from ISSF-compliant companies.
  • Mitigating bycatch by implementing a ban on shark-finning and prohibiting participant companies from trading with shark-finning vessels.
  • Prohibiting participants from buying tuna caught using large-scale pelagic driftnets.
  • Prohibiting compliant vessels from dumping catches of less valuable tuna species in favor of higher value catch.
  • Formulating skipper best practices.
  • Prohibiting the use of non-entangling fish aggregating devices (FADs) by participant vessels.
  • Formulating best practices for dealing with shark and sea turtle bycatch.
  • Maintaining monitoring, control, and surveillance on participant vessels, processors, marketers, and traders in the seafood industry.
  • Prohibiting participants from trading with vessels featured on the Regional Fisheries Management Organizations’ list of illegal, unreported, and unregulated (IUU) fishing vessels.
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The ISSF’s Annual Conservation Measures and Commitments Compliance Report

As outlined in the ISSF’s report, many of the world’s leading tuna processing companies took part in the ISSF audit in 2018, showing a 98.5 percent compliance with ISSF tuna conservation measures.

ISSF president Susan Jackson pointed out that as the ISSF celebrates its 10th anniversary, it is encouraging to see such a high level of conformance with industry standards and the science-based measures the ISSF has developed.

Tuna levels rebounding

Eighty-six percent of tuna landed in 2017 came from tuna species at healthy levels of abundance. Skipjack comprised 58 percent of tuna caught in 2017. Next came yellowfin tuna at 28 percent, bigeye tuna at 8 percent, and albacore tuna at 5 percent.

Both skipjack and yellowfin tuna remain at healthy levels globally. Bluefin, bigeye, and albacore tuna are generally considered to be at their Maximum Sustainable Yield (MSY), though bluefin and bigeye are considered at risk in certain regions.

Through proper regulation and increased uptake of responsible fishing practices, the ISSF model shows that the tuna market is sustainable.

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