Same tuna, different song: the encouraging story of a (maybe) sustainable catch

by | Dec 3, 2021 | Opinion

In the second of an ongoing series, Vincent ponders whether tuna should make it to his plate

Cats love tuna. I love tuna. We all love tuna.

The appetite for tuna in the last 60 years has been prodigious, reaching 6 million tonnes a year, a 1000% growth since 1950. Most of that is Skipjack tuna, the stuff in the cans. In 1950 under 100,000 tonnes of Skipjack was caught. This year it will be over 3 million tonnes. That’s a lot of cans.

If this sounds like a preamble to a story about the imminent collapse of a fishery, you’d be right. Just how much fishing can a fish stock take? Left unabated, that growth would have seen tuna fishery end in an Atlantic cod-style collapse. And in parts of the world, especially the Indian Ocean – and for some species, especially bluefin tuna – that continues to be true. One study predicts tuna is destined for extinction.

But you’d be also wrong. The tuna story provides a rare beacon of hope at a time when bad environmental news seems to blaze from every headline. It shows how conservation, when collectively done on a grand scale involving governments, industry and civil society, can arrest what feels like an inevitable slide into oblivion.

By the numbers

Let’s start with the numbers. The authority on tuna stocks is the International Sustainable Seafood Foundation, a consortium of industry players, scientists and the WWF. Formed in 2009, the ISSF monitors fish stocks, helps reduce by-catch, fights illegal fishing and set industry standards. It issues the benchmark state-of-the-nation report about world’s 23 main commercial stocks.

Source: ISSF, 2021


The results? In 2019 it found 65% of the 23 stocks are at healthy levels of abundance, 22% are at an intermediate level and 13% are overfished.

The numbers square with a study last year by the UN Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) which showed between 2014 to 2019, the number of major tuna stocks experiencing overfishing went down from 13 to five. This means eight fish stocks are now being rebuilt to reach a healthy level.

It’s a reversal in fortunes that’s come from a UN-led collaboration project called Common Oceans. The project targets international waters where it sets catch quotas based on scientific surveys, has convinced fishers to change gear to reduce by-catch and negotiated agreement to close 18 areas regarded as sensitive ecosystems.

Further evidence of a better times for tuna comes from the Marine Stewardship Council, the largest certifier of sustainably caught fish. The proportion of the global tuna catch by volume engaged in the Marine Stewardship Council program for sustainable fishing doubled in the last year from 26% to 49%. The number of certified tuna fisheries is 30%, up from less than 1% in 2019-20. That still means half of the tuna fishery is outside of the most basic of environmental management. But I guess you could say it’s the direction of the trend that matters. And the trend is bending up.


Red light on bluefin

There are 15 species of tuna, and none more magnificent than the bluefin. Growing up to three metres in length and built like a silver torpedo these predators are near the apex of the food chain. No wonder humans love to kill them.

Bluefin are fancy fish, destined for high-end Japanese restaurants and fetching eye-watering prices. Japan’s “Tuna King” Kiyoshi Kimura paid a record US$3.1 million for a giant bluefin tuna at Tokyo’s Toyosu fish market  in 2019.

The sources of bluefin are the Mediterranean and the Atlantic (both the Atlantic species), Pacific and Southern Oceans. In 2011, the Atlantic was declared ‘endangered’, having declined by half in just 10 years. Half! But thanks to similar efforts described above the Eastern Atlantic biomass has bounced back and the 2021 status has shifted to ‘least concern’, though the Western (Mediterranean) is regarded as overfished.

In our neighbourhood, the southern bluefin tells a similar arc of recovery. The bluefin story was expertly told this year by Kate Evans in a detailed feature story in New Zealand Geographic. The story took seven years to produce and has incredible photography to match. You can read it for free (but I highly recommend subscribing). James Frankham the publisher kindly gave me permission to quote the story.

Southern bluefin numbers had declined so quickly that, in 2011, the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) listed the species as “critically endangered” on its Red List.

The crisis led to the formation of the Commission for the Conservation of Southern Bluefin Tuna (CCSBT), involving governments, industry and conservationists from Australia, the European Union, the Fishing Entity of Taiwan, Indonesia, Japan, Republic of Korea, New Zealand and South Africa. CCSBT created a suite of actions similar to those described above: monitoring, limits, reporting, and changes in method.

NZ Geo writes:

This system has really turned things around for the southern bluefin, says Nickson. “It’s close to a world first, and it’s the reason that you are starting to see some incremental improvements in that population. It means that science is at the very heart of the decision-making every time. And the industry considers it one of the best things that was ever done.”

Models produced by the CCSBT show that:

The tuna population has increased by around five per cent every year since 2011. It reached the 20% goal early, in 2020. In 2018, the total catch was increased to 17,647 tonnes per year, where it has remained. A new management procedure has been adopted, with the goal of reaching 30 per cent of the original tuna population by 2035. (Non-profits such as WWF and Pew argue that 40 per cent is a safer target, providing a buffer against climate change or other shocks.)

There’s no doubt that the future of southern bluefin is looking a lot better than it did ten years ago, says WWF’s Bubba Cook, a ponytailed Texan now living in Wellington. But we shouldn’t forget how bad things were, he cautions.

“There is this tendency for fisheries managers and the industry to pop champagne corks and pat themselves on the back whenever they recover a collapsed fishery,” says Cook. “That’s great, but it should never have collapsed in the first place.

“The fact remains that southern bluefin tuna is still an endangered species.”


What to eat, then?

It’s not all roses for tuna. There are still many places where stocks are overfished including the Med, the Philippines and the Indian Ocean. The use of harmful FADs (floating buoys that cast a shadow attracting schools of fish) is widely used in tuna fishing.

And while half of the tuna fisheries are now in the MSC, that means half are not. Illegal fishing continues unabated.

So what can we eat with a clear conscience? Here’s what I’ve found so far:

  • Start with Forest&Bird’s Best Fish Guide. They have a handy chart which places albacore (preferably troll-caught) and skipjack tuna near the top
  • Look for certification on tuna packaging by the Marine Stewardship Council (MSC) or similar credible outfits
  • Look for claims about fishing methods. Line-caught and trolling are best. Purse-seining is okay for skipjack.
  • And read Kate’s article in NZ Geo. She says:

The Pacific population of albacore is relatively healthy, New Zealand’s catch is a tiny proportion of the global total, and 90 per cent of that is fished using a technique called trolling, where short lines are dragged behind a moving boat. “It’s a very low-bycatch, relatively low-impact fishery,” says Bubba Cook of WWF.

Other good choices are canned albacore, or skipjack that has been caught by purse-seining.

Tuna caught in the Pacific by purse-seining is less likely to be implicated in human-rights violations, illegal fishing or misreporting than high-seas longliners.

The tuna story is a mixture of hope and despair. But it shows that sustainable food is possible. I’m not an expert and I’m learning as I go. So if you think I’ve got something wrong or you can add to the story, please comment below or drop me a line. I’m still not eating fish but if you must, try the right sort of tuna.

About the Author

Vincent Heeringa

Hi, I'm Vincent! I'm a co-founder of The Feed, a writer, marketer and PR expert specialising in food, tech and sustainability. In a previous life I was publisher of Idealog, Stoppress, NZ Marketing and Good magazines and helped establish the Science Media Centre. I'm also the host of a podcast ‘This Climate Business’. When I'm not burning the midnight oil, I'm hitting the town or planting trees with my wife Sarah. Ping me to talk about all things food. @vheeringa

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