Why Western Central Pacific Ocean Tuna Fisheries' Certification is Under Threat

December 2021

Twenty-eight MSC certified fisheries, which account for 85% of all MSC certified tuna, are at risk of having their certifications suspended in June 2023. To avoid this, harvest strategies must be adopted at the Western Central Pacific Fisheries Commission (WCPFC) annual meeting in December 2022.

What is the issue?

All 28 MSC certified tuna fisheries in the Western Central Pacific Ocean (WCPO) have timebound conditions of certification established and coordinated by independent certifiers that require the adoption of harvest strategies. If they aren’t met, then all the fisheries could be suspended by their independent auditors in June 2023.

It is critical that these are agreed at the next annual meeting of the Western Central Pacific Fisheries Commission (WCPFC), the international body responsible for regulating tuna fishing in the WCPO, in December 2022. This meeting is the last realistic opportunity for the agreement to be made. But progress is slow and time is running out. As tuna from the WCPO makes up half of the global commercial tuna catch and currently represents 85% of MSC certified tuna, this could put at risk most of the world’s certified sustainable tuna.

What are harvest strategies?

Harvest strategies are set by fisheries management agencies to publicly outline their intentions and methods to sustain their fish stocks. These strategies and associated management procedures, often called Harvest Control Rules, set the level at which catches should be reduced if a fish stock declines. In other words, they act as brakes to prevent stocks falling below unsustainable levels.

Without effective harvest strategies, sustainable fisheries cannot ensure the stocks they fish now will remain sustainable in the future. For instance, the Maldives Skipjack 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 been overfished without any ‘brakes' or harvest controls in place to reduce catches.

Tuna stocks are wild populations that present significant challenges to manage because they are highly migratory and subject to variations in the natural ecosystem where they live. To respond to these challenges and to account for fisheries designed to harvest surplus components of the population, it is essential to have pre-agreed harvest strategies that can be triggered quickly and reliably.

The decision-making body, or Regional Fisheries Management Organisation (RFMO), in this case the WCPFC, is made up of 26 independent government delegations and decisions require consensus. Given the varied priorities and interests of the nation states, this situation can slow down decision making by many years, and when fish stocks start to drop, delays in reducing catches and setting harvest strategies can result in further decline. However, consensus is often easier to achieve when stocks are healthy because no nation state has to face immediate reductions in landings for its country’s use.

What is the WCPFC?

The Western Central Pacific Fisheries Commission (WCPFC) is an RFMO authorized by the United Nations that convenes 26 member-country delegations to jointly develop and set sustainable management measures, such as harvest strategies, to sustain tuna stocks in the area and prevent overfishing. The WCPFC includes nations and political unions that fish in the Western Central Pacific Ocean, such as the EU, Japan, the US, as well as small Pacific islands, such as the Marshall Islands and Guam.

Why does the WCPFC need to adopt harvest strategies in December 2022?

The full commission of the WCPFC meets annually, and also each year it holds scientific and technical meetings to prepare for the annual meeting. December 2022 is the final meeting before the June 2023 deadline established by independent certifiers for the 28 MSC certified fisheries to resolve conditions for the establishment of robust harvest strategies.

The previous meeting of the 26 members of the WCPFC was held in early December 2021. This meeting was critically important because the WCPFC had to make significant progress towards agreeing the science and management measures required to set the necessary harvest strategies. However, progress in this area was limited and so the fate of the fisheries must now be addressed in December 2022.

What was agreed at the meeting in December 2021?

Negotiations on harvest strategies were delayed until December 2022 for skipjack and South Pacific albacore, and 2024 for yellowfin and bigeye.

The WCPFC, however, agreed 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 if agreement on effective harvest strategies at the WCPFC’s December 2022 meeting can be reached.

Pushing back the adoption of new harvest strategies for yellowfin and bigeye tuna stocks to 2024 misses the June 2023 deadline. Consequently, MSC certified yellowfin and bigeye tuna fisheries are highly likely to have their certificates suspended by their independent auditor in June 2023.

What is at risk?

Without these agreements in place, the future of these currently healthy populations of tuna and the certifications that enable consumers to know these fisheries are sustainable could be at risk. Fisheries in the WCPFC have led the rise in volume of tuna products sold which has seen the proportion of global catch engaged in the MSC program double since 2019, could be at risk. The volume of tuna products sold with the blue MSC label, which has increased significantly in the past 5 years from 40,000 to 110,000 tonnes, could also begin to decline and lead to the loss of accepted ways to document sustainability to consumers.

At risk also will be the improvements to fisheries management which has been driven by the development of sustainable practices. 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.

What happens now?

The WCPFC needs to make concrete progress towards adopting harvest strategies at the science management meeting in August, regular science and technical compliance committee meetings thereafter, and agree and adopt harvest strategies at its next full meeting in December 2022.

In order to encourage the WCPFC to come to the needed decisions, ahead of this year’s meeting, 112 global retailers and supply chain companies wrote in October to the Heads of Delegation at the WCPFC, requesting they make significant progress towards agreeing harvest strategies across all tuna stocks. These calls were coordinated by the NGO Tuna Forum and included and have been supported in a social media campaign 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.

The MSC also calls on all those with an interest in the long-term sustainable management of our oceans to support this effort.

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