Early in December, the organization responsible for the conservation and management of tuna fish in the eastern Pacific Ocean effectively rubber-stamped those waters to become the Wild West of the ocean. The Inter-American Tropical Tuna Commission (IATTC) met virtually to discuss renewing the conservation measures for tropical tuna which were due to expire at the end of the year. Despite five days of discussion, no agreement was reached and the meeting ended with no measure in place from 1 January 2021.
The collective failure of delegates to ensure that tropical tunas would be managed in 2021 was astonishing to those who care about a healthy ocean. In 2021, the 72-day closure of the purse seine fishery (large floating nets used in commercial fishing), and the limit of fish aggregating devices (FADs are floating objects designed to attract fish), which are the primary means of controlling effort in this fishery, was due to be entirely void. Furthermore, no catch limits were to be in place at all for longline fleets.
Not only would this put the tropical tuna stocks at serious risk of overfishing, but the lack of conservation measures would lead to these fisheries being considered unregulated. This alone would have a significant impact on the market that sources tropical tuna from the eastern Pacific. Many companies have public seafood sourcing policies that exclude products coming from illegal, unreported and unregulated (IUU) fishing, for example.
Faced with near-universal condemnation, the IATTC hurriedly scheduled an emergency meeting on 22 December 2020 – days before this Wild West of the ocean would have become a reality – and finally agreed to renew the conservation measures. But the fact that it came to this, a few days before Christmas, highlights a common situation with tuna fisheries management across the globe.
Tuna has significant problems, but with collaboration and a shared vision, these can be addressed to the benefit of everyone, and the ocean.
What’s the problem with tuna?
Tuna is one of the most popular seafoods, eaten across the world in different ways, from a sandwich made with canned tuna to fresh sushi. Ecologically, tunas are a vital part of marine systems and are known to play a fundamental role in open ocean ecosystems.
Despite the important status of tunas, the fisheries have serious problems as noted above. Tuna fisheries management decisions are based predominantly on potentially competing short-term financial objectives, putting long-term sustainability at increased risk.
Several tuna populations are subject to overfishing or are classified as overfished. And tuna fisheries can have significant negative impacts on incidentally caught bycatch species including seabirds, sea turtles, marine mammals, sharks and rays.
Maintaining tuna stock health is critically important to human communities that rely on them for food and economic well-being. Healthy ecosystems are even more important, at a time of global ocean change when resilience is key.
Our oceans cover 70% of the world’s surface and account for 80% of the planet’s biodiversity. We can’t have a healthy future without healthy oceans – but they’re more vulnerable than ever because of climate change and pollution.
Tackling the grave threats to our oceans means working with leaders across sectors, from business to government to academia.
The World Economic Forum, in collaboration with the World Resources Institute, convenes the Friends of Ocean Action, a coalition of leaders working together to protect the seas. From a programme with the Indonesian government to cut plastic waste entering the sea to a global plan to track illegal fishing, the Friends are pushing for new solutions.
Climate change is an inextricable part of the threat to our oceans, with rising temperatures and acidification disrupting fragile ecosystems. The Forum runs a number of initiatives to support the shift to a low-carbon economy, including hosting the Alliance of CEO Climate Leaders, who have cut emissions in their companies by 9%.
Is your organisation interested in working with the World Economic Forum? Find out more here.
Impact on people as well as the ocean
As well as environmental concerns, some tuna fisheries are blighted by stories of human rights abuses. Tuna fisheries often operate on the high seas, beyond the reach of enforcement agencies. Forced labour is a particular concern, where crew members have limited or no safe access to communication methods, effective grievance mechanisms and access to remedy. This is even the case for those which are usually provided through legislation in the national jurisdictions that do not apply on the high seas.
In addition, international migrants may be isolated not only physically at sea, but by language and culture. Social isolation and an absence of effective grievance mechanisms can leave workers exposed to abuse. Reports of such abuses are inexcusable, but not uncommon.
Finally, tuna is one of the most heavily traded food commodities around the globe, often passing through many layers in supply chains. Long and complex supply chains can make it difficult for product information to be recorded accurately, consistently, and shared throughout each step in the chain. For companies that buy and sell tuna, a lack of product origin information and supply chain transparency can pose significant risks while lack of uniformity can weaken the integrity of the information being shared.
What can businesses do?
Companies in the tuna supply chain, such as retailers and their suppliers, are aware of these issues and want them addressed. But how can they achieve change? The Global Tuna Alliance, with Friends of Ocean Action and the World Economic Forum, are convening responsible businesses, governments and civil society organizations around a voluntary sustainability commitment: the 2025 Pledge towards Sustainable Tuna (25PST), which sets out a framework for action that can achieve this bold ambition.
Voluntary sustainability commitments and the associated disclosure of performance are a powerful tool for driving change in global supply chains. Across many sectors, there has been a shift towards increased transparency and this builds accountability, providing businesses throughout the supply chain with additional incentives to achieve their performance goals. It also allows improved oversight of business practices by investors, consumers and the wider community.
The global ambition of the 25PST is that tuna meets the highest standards of environmental performance and social responsibility; in particular through demonstrable improvements in supply chain practices and the management of tuna fisheries by 2025.
To achieve our shared ambition, we are inviting businesses in the tuna supply chain to join the 25PST, and pledge to making demonstrable progress on three commitments:
Commitment 1: Transparency and traceability
We pledge to continually improve the traceability systems in our tuna supply chains to enable greater transparency, and to advocate for improved transparency in tuna fisheries.
Commitment 2: Environmental sustainability
We pledge to source from fisheries that meet the goals of environmental sustainability as outlined above, or are working towards them in a structured, time-bound process; and to advocate for comprehensive harvest strategies in tuna fisheries.
Commitment 3: Social responsibility
We pledge to complete effective due diligence regarding human rights risks in our tuna supply chains and advocate for implementation of international legislation to safeguard these rights.
There are many ways that companies can deliver these pledges, allowing for flexibility of approach albeit with shared endpoints.
What about other stakeholders?
Governments and civil society organizations are also invited to endorse the 25PST. Endorsing signatories support the goals of the pledge, and where applicable, are willing to provide support to the business signatories’ in meeting their commitments.
Governments play a unique and critical role in improving and enforcing supply chain transparency and traceability: in the environmental sustainability of fisheries, and the social conditions in the supply chain through their regulatory roles as port, coastal and flag states; and through their membership at regional fisheries management organisations and other international organizations in their role as domestic policy-makers.
Civil society organizations are a collective voice of the public. They play a vital role at the forefront of environmental and social issues, communicating the importance of responsible government and business practices and encouraging authentic, effective corporate responsibility plans.
After the launch of 25PST, the Global Tuna Alliance will monitor progress made by each signatory every year to ensure progress is being made at the required pace. The health of tuna stocks, and the human rights of those involved in tuna fisheries, need fast action and commitment from all of us. But the 25PST offers us a vehicle for achieving this, to avoid the Wild West of the ocean nearly becoming a reality.
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