Push-pull” effect may create first billion-dollar sustainable fishery
Environmentalists of all stripes are coming to the aid of Pacific islanders to save the last great stocks of tuna from the massive depletion that international fleets have wrought elsewhere.
The result is likely to be a major restructuring that could lead to the creation of the world’s first sustainable industrial fishery and be a boon for the nations that provide half of the world’s tinned tuna.
As a result of Greenpeace campaigns this summer, nearly all retailers in Britain, the world’s second-largest consumer of tuna, had committed to selling only those caught without a lethally efficient fishing gear called a Fish-Aggregating Device (FAD).
“The momentum is huge,” says senior Greenpeace campaigner Phil Kline. The Independent newspaper in London called the campaign “one of the most successful in years”.
FADs, as they are known, are floating platforms built in many shapes that are deployed by purse-seining ships and serve as a gathering point for vast numbers of ocean-going fish.
They are believed to be largely responsible for the decline in the stocks of the region’s two most tasty and valuable species—the bigeye and yellowfin, which are even more depleted in other oceans.
FADs also kill many more sharks, turtles and other marine life with no commercial value than do nets set around schools of tuna that are swimming freely (see box on page 19). Finally, FADs have helped grow the landed value of all tuna catches in the Western and Central Pacific to $4.6 billion for which the fleets receive $2.4 billion in subsidies, according to official figures.
Meanwhile, the Marine Stewardship Council (MSC), which is based in London, is preparing to award its certificate of approval to FAD-free skipjack tuna—an abundant species ideal for canning—caught according to strict guidelines in free-swimming schools in the waters of the eight tuna-rich nations assembled in the Parties to the Nauru Agreement (Federated States of Micronesia, Kiribati, Marshall Islands, Nauru, Palau, Papua New Guinea, Solomon Islands and Tuvalu).
Today, about 50 percent of PNA’s tinned skipjack or about 400,000 tons a year is caught without FADs, but in most cases, fish caught with or without FADs are not kept apart.
The added marketability the MSC logo provides is expected to motivate fishers to segregate the two catches from the purse-seiners’ holds to the tinneries, or even forsake them entirely.
“We expect the assessment process will be final by September at the latest,” says Bill Holden, MSC’s Pacific Fisheries Manager.
A recent study in Britain in the Journal of Agricultural Economics showed that another MSC fish, pollock, is sold for a 14% premium over non-MSC pollock, evidence that consumers are willing to pay extra for sustainable products.
With impeccable timing, the PNA countries, which have already limited the use of FADs in their waters to nine months this year and only six months next year, partnered with a Dutch company that has been selling sustainable tuna since 2007 to create the region’s own certificate of FAD-free skipjack: Pacifical.
The new product is designed to fill the expected surge in demand for ecologically caught tuna, notably from Britain.
Campaigners in Europe, Canada and the US say the increased future availability of FAD-free tuna will make it easier to persuade canners and retailers to shun FAD-caught tuna, as the British have pledged to do.
According to a study published this year by the University of British Columbia in Vancouver, sharply reducing FADs use will allow the region’s mature population of bigeye, which is about 13% of what it would be without fisheries, to eventually triple. The bigeye, which can weigh 180 kg, is the most prized by sushi-lovers after the fast-disappearing bluefin, which lives in colder waters.
Increasing the population of bigeyes would increase the catch of adults caught with baited hooks and lines by fleets of long-liners, which set tens of kilometres of lines with baited hooks far from the shore, and pole-and-line users, which troll over schools of tuna feeding at the surface in coastal waters.
An average adult bigeye caught that way and destined for the grill or the sashimi platter brings $6/kg (or about $320 per fish, which average 60 kg) in port. A typical juvenile headed for a tin fetches only about $1.50/kg (or about $6 per fish, which average 4 kg).
So if FAD use is cut by 50 percent from today’s levels and fewer juveniles are caught by purse-seiners, the value of the whole fishery (using purse-seines, long-lines and pole and line) would increase by about $200 million per year, says Megan Bailey, a fisheries economist who is the principal author of the study.
Fisheries scientists from the Secretariat of the Pacific Community have been calling since 2008 for an immediate cut of 30 percent in the catch of bigeye, but so far the measures have only amounted to a cut of perhaps 10 percent.
The Canadian study found that halving FAD use would also allow the region’s mature population of bigeye to reach an ideal number. (Fishes will reproduce younger and grow faster when their numbers have been reduced to about 40% of the unfished population.
The yield decreases after that and usually collapses if the population falls below 10 percent of its original size).
Cutting the use of FADs, along with other measures such as the creation this year of a no-take area the size of India, is likely to be enough to make the PNA the world’s first sustainable industrial fishery, according to Bailey. “We have a unique set of push-pull effects here,” she says. “If it’s going to happen anywhere, it’s going to happen here.”
A Greenpeace success
The latest victory in the battle to save bigeye and yellowfin came this spring in Britain, when the Morrisons chain of supermarkets vowed to sell only FAD-free by the end of 2013.
The supermarket joined Tesco and Asda, which had made similar commitments in January. Princes, the leading brand, agreed in March to stop selling tuna caught by purse-seiners with FADs by 2014. When this edition went to press tuna brand John West UK, announced a shift to sustainable sourcing and lent its backing to Pacific marine reserves. Its actions mean the UK supermarket sector is the most sustainable worldwide on canned tuna.
They all were responding to a campaign that Greenpeace launched last year that involved writing letters (Princes got 80,000 of them, according to the organisation) and sending campaigners in shark costumes to picket supermarkets.
An initial campaign in 2008 called “Switch the Fish”, got retailers Sainsbury’s, Marks and Spencer’s and Waitrose to stock only tinned skipjack tuna caught with a hook and line.
The method requires the least subsidies and fuel and employs the most people in coastal communities. By-catch—fish caught unintentionally by the purse-seiners which includes young bigeye and yellowfin as well as turtles, sharks and skates —is virtually non-existent.
In addition, the fish themselves taste better because they haven’t been crushed in a huge net and brought in quickly. As a result, the fishermen get a better price for them, whether from canners or companies that fly them fresh to Britain.
Most of these three retailers’ tuna comes from the Maldives in the Indian Ocean, whose government has never sold fishing rights to its waters to purse-seiners. Somali pirates lately have been keeping the purse-seiners away from the international waters outside the Maldives’ 200-mile Exclusive Economic Zone, according to press reports.
Early this year, Greenpeace returned to the fray with a goal of extending FAD-free tuna beyond those caught with hooks to include free-swimming schools netted by purse-seiners the old-fashioned way, without FADs.
“We’ve demonstrated to the world that consumers really want to save tuna,” says David Ritter, head of biodiversity at Greenpeace UK. “Within three years, we now expect that most of Britain’s tinned tuna will be FAD-free.”
In continental Europe, says Sari Tolvanen of Greenpeace in Amsterdam, “demand for FAD-free purse-seine tuna is also increasing”. The same trend is also true in New Zealand and Australia.
As the supply from the Maldives becomes insufficient to meet the growing demand, fisheries in the Western Pacific will be able to expand their markets into Europe if they reduce FADs and develop sustainable fisheries, she says.
Tolvanen notes that the fleets that rely the most on FADs—from Spain, France and the United States—are also the ones that have joined together in the International Seafood Sustainability Foundation to object to expanding the FAD-free catch in the Pacific. “We need to pressure the governments to end the use of wasteful FADs in purse-seine fisheries,” she says.
In the United States, Greenpeace campaigners are pondering whether they can replicate the achievements of their counterparts in the United Kingdom.
“The British public is a lot more informed about the issue than the American one,” says Casson Trenor, senior markets campaigner for Greenpeace USA.
“There are a lot of different issues involving creating sustainable seafood systems and reducing FADs in just one of them.”
In Canada, Greenpeace started a drive in May against Clover Leaf Seafoods, which has nearly half the market and which a study found sells young bigeye in mislabelled tins.
The campaign, says its coordinator Sarah King, has so far involved newspaper advertising handing out fake tins full of information on by-catch and even placing small magnets on tins in supermarkets.
“We intend to continue until they set a timeline to stop selling tuna caught by purse-seiners using FADs,” says King.
The PNA plan
Last year, after the PNA formally requested for MSC certification for its free-school skipjack, it invited the Dutch company Sustunable to set up a joint venture to market it.
Henk Brus, its owner, had been running a mid-sized tinned-tuna trading company called Atuna, known for its data-rich website, since the 1990s.
In 2007, he founded Sustunable to market FAD-free tuna. Working first with locally-owned Colombian and Ecuadorian fleets, he helped them market their products on the European continent.
In the past two years, he has done the same with fleets operating in PNG waters. Now a total of about 20 purse-seiners are supplying Sustunable, says Brus.
He created a unique feature for the brand: a number on the tin allows anyone who punches it on the retailer’s website to immediately obtain a wealth of information on where the tuna in that particular tin was fished, including pictures of the vessel and the captain. It also shows in which country and how it was processed.
“The idea is to create a direct relationship between the fisher and the consumer,” says Brus. So far, the service exists only in German (for instance, punch in R315440301 in the box labelled “tracking code” on the following page: https://www.edeka.de/thunfisch. A picture of a yellowfin, of the boat that fished it and its captain, as well as a wealth of other information, will appear.)
A similar number will be applied to the Pacifical logo. Both will be affixed to the top of the tin and combined with the MSC seal, separate from the actual retailers brand shown on the side of the tin. “We expect Pacifical to be selling in about 15 nations around the world by mid-2012,” says Brus.
The PNA project goes beyond sustainability to creating jobs: the brand will only be used for fish processed in a PNA country.
At the moment, while 700,000 tons of the 925,000 tons of tinned tuna caught in PNA waters yearly is loined or tinned in Thailand, only about 13 percent is processed in PNA countries.
According to Maurice Brownjohn, PNA’s commercial manager, Papua New Guinea has one loining plant and three canneries; the Solomons has one cannery and the Marshall Islands has one loining plant.
But under the PNA’s development plan, that capacity will double when a large plant in Lae, PNG’s largest port, is finished next year. In addition, several other smaller plants are also being planned in PNG and the Solomon Islands, says Brownjohn.
“Our goal is to increase the proportion of our fish being processed in PNA, rather than offshore, so that we increase our employment and the economic benefits from our fish.”
Wresting tinning and loining work from Thailand won’t be easy, says Brus, but PNG has a trump card: Thai tinned tuna must pay a 24% import tax to enter the EU market, but PNG’s tuna comes in duty-free.
“And PNG also has an advantage that no other country has: it tins export duty-free to Europe even tuna fished outside its waters by foreign vessels, as long as it is processed in PNG,” he says.
“That allows PNG tinners to expand their business and it’s a powerful incentive for fleets to unload their tuna closer to their fishing grounds” instead of Bangkok, 4,000 km away, now the region’s loining and tinning center.
While curbing the reliance on FADs will necessarily make the fishing vessels less efficient and raise the cost of skipjack, Brus noted that free-swimming skipjack are on average larger than those found around FADs, which attract young skipjacks as well as bigeye and yellowfin.
“A larger skipjack yields about 10% proportionately more meat, so it will sell for more,” he says.
Will the reduction in FAD use lead to a smaller skipjack take and thus smaller fishing fees paid by foreign fleets to PNA countries to fish in their waters—fees that in some cases represent over 20 percent of a country’s budget, as in Kiribati?
“The total skipjack catch might go down a bit,” says Brus, but not the fees. “The average purse seiner pays perhaps $3,000 a day in fees to catch 30 tons of tuna worth $57,000 at today’s prices,” he says.
“Even if the catch goes down, there’s no way the fee per day is going to go anywhere but up, given the increase in demand for FAD-free skipjack.”
Saving the stocks
However, if demand for FAD-free tuna keeps going up and the use of FADs goes down, it will eventually reduce the catch of skipjack, concludes Rashid Sumaila, an economist who heads the Fisheries Centre at the University of British Columbia. But the catch of the more valuable adult bigeye and yellowfin would increase and their gain would exceed the losses on the much larger skipjack fishery, he found.
With no FADs at all, Sumaila projected, the Western and Central Pacific’s purse-seine industry would lose about $361 million a year because of a smaller skipjack harvest. On the other hand, the shallow-and deep-water hook and line fleets would gain $520 million, because many more young ones would reach adulthood and reproduce.
So if a single entity were managing all fishing methods in the region, the FAD reduction would make sense if the purse-seine fleet could be compensated for their losses. That would still leave a surplus of $160 million a year.
But no such authority exists today, says Sumaila. “The problem is that most long-liners don’t pay PNA countries any fees because they get their catch in international waters, while the purse-seiners do because they fish mostly in the waters of PNA countries,” he says.
“The use of FADs has to be reduced,” adds Sumaila, “but to be done in an equitable way, you have to create a cooperative management structure where the benefits that the long-liners will receive will be shared with purse-seiners who are making the sacrifice.”
He concedes that this has never been done. “It won’t be easy,” he says. “Given the current institutional setting, it appears the WCPFC (the Western and Central Pacific Fisheries Commission) would be the one to set this up and they need to take responsibility.”
Since man has been fishing from boats, it’s been known that fish tends to aggregate around an object like a log that is either floating at or not far below the surface, where it can grow algae that attracts herbivores.
Whether you’re spearing from a canoe or dropping a hook and line, your chances improve if you do it near, say, a log. If it’s not too deep, you can use chains and rocks to tether the object to the bottom, so it’s always there.
When purse-seiners expanded in the 1960s, they used two ways of spotting schools of tuna. One, when a so-called free or travelling school is feeding on a school of lesser fish like sardines or anchovies and driving them to the surface, they attract birds, which can be spotted from afar.
Smaller boats will drag lines through the area it’s called trolling, but purse-seiners will send a skiff to pull a net around the school, then pull it tight from below like a purse. Once the purse is closed, the mother ship comes over and hauls the whole school up with a crane, up to 100 tons of fish at a time.
The ones at the bottom are crushed, so the bruised meat is not fit for eating fresh or raw: it’s only good for the can.
The second traditional way of catching tuna is to spot birds that congregate around an object, like a log, a container that fell off a ship or an abandoned net.
There, the underwater community is much bigger: it is still dominated by skipjack, but there are many more sharks, rays and billfish.
In addition, many juvenile bigeye and yellowfin, perhaps a third of their mature size, rejoin the adult skipjack, which are their size. So when the net comes up around the log, particularly in the Central Pacific around Kiribati, perhaps a third of the catch can be juvenile bigeye and yellowfin.
These are sold separately but because their meat is darker, they fetch less than the skipjack in canneries. The Canadian Clover Leaf brand has been found to sell immature bigeye as skipjack.
In the 1970s, when industrial fishing took off, purse seiners started dropping overboard floating platforms called Fish Aggregating Devices with radio transmitters that made them easy to find.
So instead of criss-crossing the oceans looking for logs or schools, the purse-seiners can go from FAD to FAD, saving fuel and time. Between FADs, they still spot logs and free-swimming schools.
Finally, the more sophisticated fleets upgraded their FADs with sonars, which let them know precisely how much fish lay beneath each FAD. This makes them even more efficient by allowing them to indicate when the catch is going to be the biggest.
Mixed reactions to MSC move
Two years ago, the eight countries of the Parties to the Nauru Agreement approached the London-based Marine Stewardship Council to ask the council to certify its catch of skipjack tuna caught in either free-swimming schools or around logs, to the exclusion of tuna caught with Fish-Aggregating Devices (FADs), which kill relatively large numbers of young bigeye tuna, the world’s most valuable species of tuna after bluefin.
The idea was to create a price premium that would encourage fishers to forsake FADs, just as the PNA are limiting their use by foreign fleets to six months a year, creating what one scientist called a “push-pull effect” designed to stop the decline of the region’s bigeye population.
The amount of bigeye that could be sustainably caught today—about 30% less than what is actually caught—is half what was in 1970, at the dawn of the age of industrial purse-seining in the Pacific. If the population rebounds and the catch increases, the value of the fishery will increase by hundreds of millions of dollars, according to one study.
The council, which was created in 1997, now certifies over 7,000 seafood products, including several pole-and-line tuna fisheries. This marks the first time the council certifies an industrial purse-seine fishery.
Over the past two years, experts Moody’s examined existing data and determined that fishing skipjack caught around FADs and logs caused an unacceptable number of young bigeyes to die before they could reproduce. However, they found that nets placed around free-swimming schools of adult skipjack catch very few of these. So they agreed to certify the skipjack caught in free-swimming schools but not those taken around logs.
They determined that skipjack, the smallest and most fecund of the tuna, are able to reproduce fast enough so that the current stock is not threatened by purse-seining. And they found that PNA countries, by leveraging their contracts with the fleets that fish in their waters, have sufficient controls on the fishery to ensure skipjack caught in free-schools can be reliably segregated from those caught around floating objects until they are delivered to the canneries or to mother ships.
Because fishing with FADs is more profitable in the short-term, industry groups have strongly objected. Susan Jackson, president of the industry-supported International Seafood Sustainability Foundation, was scathing in a blogpost on the organisation’s website. “The fishery being certified simply doesn’t exist yet and is artificially defined by the PNA to mask problems that exist, which would otherwise rule out certification very clearly,” she wrote a year ago. “The assessors analysed a theoretical fishery, not an actual one.”
In another post this past June, she added, “There are concerns with even calling this a fishery as it’s defined in the PNA assessment. To us, it’s a bit contrived since vessels will continue to fish using both certified and non-certified methods during the same fishing trip.”
Albacora, a Spanish company that operates six purse seiners in the area including some of the largest in the world, issued a statement in which it noted, “On board purse-seine vessels, it is well known that all the catch is mixed,” whether it comes from FADs or not.
The company challenged the council’s conclusion that enough safeguards existed to prevent cheating. It also opposed the move on the grounds that “it would only be able to affect only 20% of the total catch of the species.”