A critical intergovernmental meeting has ended without the necessary progress to ensure long-term sustainable tuna fishing in the Western Central Pacific, but there is still time to act to secure ongoing certification for skipjack and South Pacific albacore.
Twenty-eight tuna fisheries in the Western Central Pacific Ocean (WCPO) face an increasing risk of suspension of their certification to the Marine Stewardship Council’s (MSC) standard for sustainable fishing following disappointing progress at this month’s annual meeting of the Western Central Pacific Fisheries Commission (WCPFC).
All 28 MSC certified tuna fisheries in the WCPO have timebound conditions of certification that require the adoption of harvest strategies by June 2023.
Harvest strategies - or the rules which ensure the long-term management of stocks - act as a ‘safety net’ if currently healthy fish stocks begin to decline. They are fundamental to sound fisheries management, and are critical to future health of the stocks, especially for highly migratory species like tuna which span geopolitical boundaries .
This week’s meeting of the 26 member delegations of the WCPFC  was a critical opportunity to make progress towards developing the science basis and management measure agreements needed to deliver these conditions.
Negotiations on harvest strategies were however, postponed until December 2022 for skipjack and South Pacific albacore, and 2024 for yellowfin and bigeye. Despite this lack of progress, the commission did agree to hold a two-day science management meeting in August 2022, which could result in recommendations on harvest strategies in time for December 2022.
As a result, ongoing certification of skipjack and albacore beyond June 2023 is possible, but will now be dependent upon agreement and adoption of harvest strategies at the December 2022 meeting. With the delay until 2024 for WCPFC to adopt new harvest strategies for yellowfin and bigeye tuna, it is increasingly likely fisheries with certificates for these stocks will face suspension by their auditors in June 2023.
This slow progress will be particularly disappointing for retailers, brands and other supply chain companies which have committed to source tuna that meets the highest standards for environmental performance. Reflecting the value placed on MSC certification, 112 companies wrote in October to the Heads of Delegation at the WCPFC demanding that they accelerate action to develop comprehensive, harvest strategies across all tuna stocks. These calls included and have been supported by the Global Tuna Alliance, an independent group of retailers and tuna supply chain companies, responsible for tuna purchases worth USD$1.27 billion in 2020.
Tuna from the WCPO makes up over half of the global commercial tuna catch, making these tuna stocks the world’s most commercially important. Currently 85% of all MSC certified tuna caught comes from the WCPO. 78% of the MSC certified tuna caught in the WCPO is skipjack. The volume of tuna products sold with the blue MSC label has increased significantly in the past 5 years from 40,000 to 110,000 tonnes.
The growing demand for certified sustainable seafood choices has already driven improvements in fishing practices in the region. For instance, fisheries such as the Fiji Abacore and yellowfin tuna fishery have introduced a number of measures to reduce bycatch. Using longlines to catch tuna, the fishery switched from wire, which can accidently entrap sharks, to monofilament traces which sharks can bite through. The fishery also fishes in deeper waters to avoid sharks. It has also increased transparency and accountability, such as through using electronic monitoring systems and installing onboard cameras on more than 50 of its boats.
The MSC joins with many others in calling for the WCPFC to make concrete progress towards the adoption of harvest strategies at the newly scheduled science management meeting in August, regular science and technical compliance committee meetings and agree and adopt harvest strategies at its next full meeting in December 2022. The MSC also calls on all those with an interest in the long-term sustainable management of our oceans to support this effort. Failure could not only result in the loss of MSC certification of these fisheries, but also leaves the long-term health of tuna in the WCPO in question and is forcing tuna buyers to look elsewhere to satisfy their sustainable sourcing commitments.
Rupert Howes, Chief Executive Officer at the Marine Stewardship Council said: “The outcome of this week’s WCPFC meeting is disappointing for the fisheries, retailers, brands and supply chain companies which have worked so hard to achieve and support the high level of sustainability required for MSC certification. The unprecedented support for these fisheries to maintain their current MSC certifications from supermarkets and tuna brands from around the world demonstrates the growing market demand for and commitment to continue to source sustainable seafood despite the economic pressures and impacts of the current pandemic. MSC certification provides the assurance the market demands. MSC urges all those committed to seeing our oceans fished sustainably and the implementation of the UN’s Agenda 2030 Sustainable Development Goals for the Ocean to urge their governments and delegations to do all they can to accelerate the development and adoption of harvest strategies and control rules that underpin sustainable fisheries management.”
Notes to editors
1. Without harvest strategies, sustainable fisheries cannot guarantee the stocks they fish will remain sustainable in the future. The Maldives Skip Jack and Yellowfin fishery in the Indian Ocean lost its MSC certification for the yellowfin component in 2016. This was a previously healthy stock on which governments failed to agree a harvest strategy (in 2016/17). The stock has since plummeted with no ‘breaks’ or harvest controls in place to prevent overfishing.