The science of sustainable seafood, explained

Proposed Atlantic bluefin MSC certification stirs debate

In January, the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) formally objected to a proposed Atlantic Bluefin Marine Stewardship Council (MSC) certification. The certification has not been officially approved yet, but the Usufuku Honten Northeast Atlantic longline bluefin tuna fishery has entered the MSC assessment process. According to Giuseppe Di Carlo, Director of WWF Mediterranean Marine Initiative, “if a bluefin tuna fishery is certified by MSC then we have a dangerous incentive to the market and we risk compromising the long-term recovery of the stock.”

Atlantic bluefin tuna has been a controversial fishery for decades, but the debate over its recovery was renewed in 2017 when the International Commission for the Conservation of Atlantic Tuna (ICCAT) increased the quota for the coming years, up to 36,000 tons for 2020. Many marine conservation NGOs voiced their displeasure at the time, claiming these quotas would lead to declines in abundance and that neither the Western nor Eastern Atlantic bluefin stocks were rebuilt yet.

However, looking at ICCAT’s most recent (2017) bluefin tuna stock assessment, the stock has been rebuilt to levels observed in the 1970’s (Figure 1, below). Spawning stock biomass was at its highest point in decades and fishing mortality was low. These results, in addition to the discovery of a new spawning area for Atlantic bluefin tuna and reports from fishermen in places like New England that bluefin are again plentiful in historical fishing grounds, point to a legitimate recovery of eastern Atlantic bluefin stocks. Even WWF acknowledged that Atlantic bluefin tuna is, “on its way to recovery.”

Spawning stock biomass of Atlantic bluefin tuna.
Spawning stock biomass (in thousand metric ton), recruitment (in million), and fishing mortality (average over ages 2 to 5, and 10+) estimates from VPA base run from the 2017 stock assessments for the period between 1968 and 2015. The last four years recruitments (2012-2015) are not shown because they are poorly estimated. From ICCAT 2017.

An MSC certification of the bluefin fishery currently in review would not increase the quota for Atlantic bluefin. In fact, the “fishery” under assessment is comprised of only one vessel with a quota to catch between 200-400 tuna in the Eastern Atlantic – hardly enough to flood the market with newly-labeled bluefin tuna products.

In response to the ICCAT stock assessment, WWF objected on the, “uncertainties of the stock assessment, and the unknown magnitude of illegal catches that still occur in the region.” But there was also a concern that a sustainable label on any bluefin product could disrupt the ongoing recovery efforts for Atlantic bluefin, giving consumers the wrong idea and creating “dangerous incentives,” as Di Carlo said.

Rohan Currey, chief science and standards officer at the MSC told Undercurrent News: “Scientific evidence on bluefin recovery in the Eastern Atlantic is encouraging. The historic overexploitation of bluefin globally shows why it is so important to understand and incentivize the sustainable management of bluefin fisheries. The whole assessment process, which is ongoing for this fishery, happens entirely independently of the MSC so we can’t say what the overall outcome be.”

In spite of the best available stock assessments and a carefully worded endorsement of the fishery and certification process from Currey, WWF and other NGOs remain in opposition.

“WWF had no other option than to object,” explained Di Carlo. “As a stakeholder with interest in the conservation and effective management of bluefin tuna, we shared carefully reasoned submissions as part of the process but these were summarily dismissed. We are now taking a stand and shining the spotlight on the failings of the MSC system, as well as on the need for precautionary and careful management to ensure the continued recovery of this iconic species.”

But the MSC is not assessing the bluefin species or even a significant portion of the fishery, they are assessing one vessel catching hardly any fish.

At what point would WWF and other NGOs consider the Atlantic bluefin fishery “recovered” and allow the market to respond? Global bluefin tuna recovery still has a long way to go and the argument that changing perceptions could happen too early and compromise the recovery of more threatened bluefin populations is a potential concern. But if MSC certification cannot be achieved, or at least cannot be rewarded in the marketplace, the incentive to begin the fishery improvement project (FIP) process will be destroyed, potentially hurting the same recovery efforts NGOs want to encourage. Ultimately, the MSC has a standard that is acceptable for other species and fisheries. If this bluefin fishery meets that standard, it should be rewarded with the same certification as any other certified fishery. The burden should then fall on the environmental NGOs to reframe bluefin conservation campaigns around a more nuanced, accurate description of this species’ recovery, even if that means adjusting a lucrative campaign for an “iconic species.”

Picture of Jack Cheney

Jack Cheney

Jack has sourced, sold, cooked, and sustainably certified seafood over the past 10 years. In addition to his contributions to Sustainable Fisheries UW, he is working to increase traceability into supply chains and educate consumers, chefs and retailers on the value of environmentally sustainable seafood. He earned a Master's in Marine Affairs from the University of Washington in 2015.

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