IUCN, NGOs, fishery managers and tuna industry groups plot way forward for sustainable tuna

20 May 2008 | News story

The report from the Tuna Roundtable co-hosted by IUCN in Brussels in April 2008 calls for greater collaboration between different interest groups and industry players to move towards adoption of legally-binding measures to fish tuna sustainably, a common set of standard to assess industry performance and harmonised certification programmes for marine capture fisheries.

The Sustainable Tuna Roundtable brought key industry interests together to reach agreement on how to employ market-driven incentives to contribute to producing sustainable tuna fisheries. Participants were from the tuna fishing industry, retail/foodservice industries, buyers, distributors, processors, and intergovernmental organizations, including regional fisheries management organizations (RFMOs) and other regional fishery bodies. 

Environmental non-governmental organizations, and to a degree, consumers, are increasingly demanding that seafood (both from marine capture fisheries and aquaculture) sold by retailers and restaurants be produced and processed in an environmentally sustainable and socially responsible manner. Approaches by major grocery retailers to demonstrate that their seafood comes from sustainable fisheries have been diverse, with each individual chain employing different measures. There has been a recent proliferation of programmes assessing the sustainability of individual fisheries or seafood species available to retailers. These include in-house retailer programmes, ranging from the assessment of fisheries against retailer-established sustainability criteria; individual retailer partnerships with environmental non-governmental organizations who conduct assessments and make recommendations for sustainable seafood sourcing; and use of a retailer eco-label. There are also numerous third-party programmes for marine capture fisheries, including eco-labelling programmes, and consumer guides, which assess the sustainability of individual fisheries, rank the relative sustainability of individual seafood species, or rank retailers based on the sustainability of their seafood sourcing practices. 

Roundtable participants agreed that international management of commercial tuna fisheries’ sustainability through regional fisheries management organizations (RFMOs) requires improvements. Tuna fishing companies want RFMOs to be successful, recognizing that the long-term viability of their businesses rely on the availability of tuna resources at sustainable and optimal levels. In some areas, RFMO management improvements are required to address the overcapacity of tuna fleets, allow rebuilding needed for some tuna stocks and avoid and minimize adverse ecosystem effects of tuna fisheries, including bycatch of sensitive species groups and the catch and discarded bycatch of juvenile and undersized tunas. Furthermore, international management has generally not been successful in addressing problems created by substantial illegal, unreported and unregulated (IUU) fishing, which hampers the effective management of tuna fisheries. 

RFMO management ineffectiveness has occurred, in part, due to low compliance by member states with RFMO measures and because consensus-based decision-making has often prevented the adoption of appropriate measures. The tuna industry recognizes it can play a significant role towards preventing overexploitation of tuna stocks and reversing it when it occurs, addressing bycatch issues, enhancing data collection and communication, and improving management. To address these problems, participants agreed to increase retail, processor, buyer, distributor and tuna fishing industry participation in RFMO activities to push for adoption of and compliance with legally binding measures to achieve sustainable tuna fisheries. Participants discussed benefits from the establishment of national competent authorities for fishery sustainability certification and labelling. 

Eco-labelling and other certification programmes were seen as having the potential to provide an important, complementary, market-driven incentive to improve tuna fisheries’ sustainability. There was discussion, but a lack of consensus, regarding the utility of certification programmes in providing independent, third-party (in some cases, peer-reviewed) verification of the success of fishery management. Participants discussed how third party assessments rely largely on government-collected fishery data, including fishery data held by RFMOs. There was, however, general consensus that certification programmes provide the fishing industry with incentives to push their national governments and RFMOs to engage in better management. The Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nation’s Code of Conduct for Responsible Fisheries was agreed to be an appropriate starting point as a global, single set of standards against which to assess the sustainability of individual marine capture fisheries. These minimum standards address the: (i) adequacy of the fisheries management systems, (ii) the health of stocks under consideration, and (iii) ecosystem effects (e.g., bycatch of sensitive species groups, habitat effects from fishing gear, status of stocks of non-target catch, impacts on dependent predators). 

Roundtable participants recognized that several programmes which assess the sustainability of marine capture fisheries already exist, and that some have room for improvement, including in their accuracy and scientific rigor, and in how they convey results to consumers. Participants identified examples of programmes that make recommendations on seafood procurement, including some seafood certification programmes, which have been overly simplistic, relied on incorrect or incomplete information, made broad generalizations, and disseminated misleading or incorrect information. These concerns could be addressed through augmented scientific vigour in assessment methods, and improvements in how information is conveyed to the consumer. To this end, participants agreed to improve communication of how to improve tuna fisheries’ sustainability and the basis for tuna sourcing decisions. 

Furthermore, participants expressed interest in a single set of global minimum sustainability standards as a means to address confusion and diminished confidence by consumers, environmental groups, and the fishing and seafood industries in assessment results created by there being numerous and a rapidly growing number of competing programmes. Examples of competing certification programmes with conflicting opinions on the sustainability of individual fisheries were noted to highlight this issue. Participants agreed that, while the development of assessment methods and certification programmes for marine capture fisheries are in an initial stage, sustainability issues and certification in fisheries are likely to remain key issues in seafood markets for the foreseeable future. Participants agreed to continue communication between the retailer, buyer, distributor, processor and fishing industry sectors to address their demand for global, harmonized standards against which the sustainability of tuna fisheries can be assessed, and involvement in the evolving use of market-based tools for sustainable sourcing of tuna products. 

The meeting was co-hosted by IUCN (International Union for the Conservation of Nature) (www.iucn.org) and the Western Pacific Regional Fishery Management Council (www.wpcouncil.org) with sponsorship provided by the Sea Fish Industry Authority, UK (www.seafish.org), Royal Caribbean International (www.royalcaribbean.com) and the Hawaii Longline Association (hawaiilongline.org). The Roundtable was organized by IUCN’s Eric Gilman.


This image shows the courtship behavior of Indian Bull frogs (Holobatrachus tigerinus). During the monsoon, the breeding males become bright yellow in color, while females remain dull. The prominent blue vocal sacs of male produce strong nasal mating call.