Science - September 10, 2010

Tuna thinktank: 'the industry must take action'

Not consumers, nor the government but industry should take the lead in making tuna fisheries sustainable. This was the surprising conclusion drawn by an international thinktank brought together by Wageningen University and the Worldwide Fund for Nature (WWF).

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How long shall we be able to go on buying a tin of skipjack tuna at the supermarket, or, a bit up-market, a fresh yellowfin tuna steak? Global tuna stocks are severely threatened and the WWF has been sounding the alarm for years. To no avail, because making this branch of the fishing industry sustainable seems to be extremely complex. Tuna fish travel great distances and the same populations are therefore fished by several countries. That makes it difficult to arrive at solid agreements about quotas and fishing methods. Lida Pet Soede of the WWF: 'You can protect the tuna fish in Indonesian waters only to find that Australia fishes the same fish further down.'
Dilemmas
Breaking this deadlock was the main objective of last week's meeting. The thinktank, an initiative of the Aquaculture and Fisheries and the Environmental Policy chair groups in collaboration with the WWF, was made up of a remarkably mixed gathering of scientists, fishers, economists, multinationals and even filmmakers. They pondered the dilemmas afflicting tuna fisheries. A further problem is that one tuna species is more threatened than another, whereas they are found in the same waters. Thinktank member Simon Bush of the Environmental Policy chair group: 'Skipjack tuna is a small, cheap species that can be found in tins in the supermarkets. It is not overfished, but skipjack does swim in schools with young tuna of overfished species such as the yellowfin and the bigeye tuna. So they end up in the nets as well.'

Protect young tuna
After three days of brainstorming, the thinktank reaches its conclusions. The participants agreed that fast and effective changes were not just to be achieved through the purchasing behaviour of consumers. Nor would government measures give results soon enough.
The number one solution, according to the thinktank lay in appealing to the canning industry. 'The canning industry plays a central role and has tremendous power in the tuna chain', Bush asserts. 'If you can reach agreements with this industry to stop canning young tuna fish, this will have a direct effect on the fishing methods and force fishers to leave young tuna alone.' By increasing the mesh size of fishing nets you can also prevent fishers catching young tuna. 'In order to implement this quickly you could consider a system in which fishers get subsidies if they exchange their old nets for new ones with larger meshes', explains Bush.

New mindset
The Wageningen scientist says he is impressed by the results that this mixed group came up with. The clear conclusion that the solution lies in economically motivated improvements in collaboration with industry reflects a new mindset, he says. 'The group came up with genuinely interesting and surprising ideas.' Wageningen is going to put heads together with WWF to work out the ideas in concrete terms and set up research programmes that should lead to permanent changes in the tuna industry.
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