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Almost half of the world's tuna is landed by the PNA tuna fishery which is MSC certified as sustainable and well managed. Bill Holden explains what this means.

Originally from San Diego, Bill Holden landed a Peace Corp posting in Tonga, in the Pacific Islands and decided to stay on for a while. He owned and operated a tuna fishing business for more than 20 years before joining the MSC. He recently appeared in the National Geographic Wild documentary Mission: Save the Ocean, talking about the Parties to the Nauru Agreement (PNA) skipjack tuna fishery which operates in the western and central Pacific. We asked him a few questions about his work…

How do you describe to people what you do?

I’m the Pacific fisheries outreach manager: I try to get fisheries, in particular tuna fisheries, involved in the MSC program. This means I travel around the world meeting with fishers and fishing associations, talking about sustainable fishing. Primarily I meet with tuna fishermen and fleets, however in Australia and New Zealand I meet with all kinds of fisheries. I also attend tuna conferences and forums to promote the MSC Standard for sustainable fishing.

Tell us about your recent trip to the PNA tuna fishery.

This depends on what you call the PNA fishery! The office is in Majuro (Marshall Islands) and I was there earlier this year to promote the fishery in PNA waters for the Swedish Postcode Lottery with the production of the film Mission: Save the Ocean. It was great to highlight the PNA’s MSC certification as it’s the largest tuna fishery in the world and their inclusion in the program is a significant step in the transition towards a more sustainable seafood market. I was also in the Solomon Islands [one of the eight PNA countries] in September where I attended the Pacific Tuna Forum and visited the fleet and processing plants of NFD and Soltuna. As there are eight countries the journey is different for each place but the fishery is the same – that being purse seine fishing for skipjack tuna.

What makes the PNA fishery so special?

The free school purse seine fishery for skipjack is the world’s largest certified tuna fishery globally and the PNA countries are leaders in the Pacific Ocean with regards to fisheries management. They were the first to implement management measures that placed temporary closures on fish aggregating devices (FADs) fisheries, closures of high sea purse seine fishing, 100% observer coverage on purse seine vessels, banning sets on whale sharks and other management measures.

The fishery is managed by a Vessel Day Scheme which is an input control on the number of days that purse seine vessels can fish in the PNA waters. The number of days fished is set to maintain the sustainability of the tuna stocks according to the best scientific research on the region.

What was your experience of the fishers?

I relate well to fishermen, having been a tuna skipper operating my own company for over 20 years. I left fishing to try to encourage more sustainable tuna fishing in the region and when I meet with fishermen we are all aware of what is required to be sustainable. For fisheries that are certified, the MSC ecolabel adds value to their tuna – and this can translate to new markets and price premiums as recognition of their efforts of sustainable fishing. 

How do the tuna fishers in the Pacific feel about sustainability?

Being sustainable is usually not the easiest or cheapest method of fishing, so those who travel down this path are doing so for a reason. Quite often this is so they can pass their skills onto their children and ensure they have a livelihood as well. Success is measured in how many generations the family can remain in the fishery and provide a living for them and their families.

In the PNA region this is especially important as fishing is the main livelihood of these island countries. They need to manage all the fish caught in their waters so that future generations have a source of food and income. The only way to do this is to ensure the fishery is sustainable – this is not only for the fish you are targeting but the whole environment you’re fishing in, and the management of the fishery must ensure it can adapt to changes.

How did you feel being in front of a camera crew?

The filming for Mission: Save the Ocean felt really natural. All I had to do was talk to fishermen and discuss sustainable fishing, which is what I do every day. Also this is what I believe in – I know the MSC Standard and sustainable fishers can make a difference. The fishermen and fisheries managers I spoke to were also passionate about what they do, so everyone was keen to tell their story.

How do you think the filming was for the PNA fishers?

I think the fact that we are not actors but passionate fishermen will come through in the film and perhaps this will show a side of fishermen not seen by the public or portrayed in the media. In the sustainable seafood movement fishers are sometimes represented as the bad guys, but for seafood to truly be sustainable we need to champion the fishers doing the right thing.

What keeps you doing this job?

I love my job and I can see that the MSC program is making a difference by the progress made in fisheries that go through the assessment process. There are positives in the way the fisheries operate as well as the way the management organisation – whether it’s regional or national – reacts to the assessment process.

Watch the full Mission: Save The Ocean documentary