Bigeye Tuna

From FIP to MSC Certification

In March 2019, a Chinese-operated longline bigeye tuna fishery, located in the Federated States of Micronesia (FSM), became the first of its kind to earn Marine Stewardship Council (MSC) certification. This marked the culmination of a Fishery Improvement Project (FIP) – defined as a multi-stakeholder effort to improve the sustainability of a fishery – that began nearly a decade ago.

FIPs vary in scope and accountability, but many FIPs are formed explicitly to drive towards MSC certification. Under MSC standards this requires a pre-assessment to determine which performance indicators for sustainability are being met and which are not, a subsequent action plan for improvement, implementation of the action plan and clear progress, and finally a re-assessment to prove the necessary changes have been made across the fishery. Never before had a bigeye fishery been MSC certified, regardless of catch method. Many similar fisheries have sought FIP status, but actually finishing the process to achieve MSC certification has been insurmountable – until this past October. Hopefully this example of a successful FIP will encourage other players in bigeye and yellowfin fisheries to make sustainable changes.

We spoke with Tom Kraft, Managing Director of Norpac Fisheries Export, one of the founders of this FIP in 2011 and Jack Kittinger, Senior Director for Fisheries and Aquaculture at Conservation International and professor in practice at Arizona State University’s Global Institute of Sustainability. Together they described what attaining this historic certification entailed and what it could mean for the viability of Pacific tuna stocks in the future.

From FIP to MSC certification

Kraft was involved in the selling of yellowfin and bigeye tuna from the FSM and Marshall Islands in 2002 when he first suggested a switch to shipping tuna loins rather than headed and gutted tuna, which was the industry standard at that time. This change would reduce waste in Hawaii, where the tuna was being processed, and, “would also provide employment opportunity to people in the [FSM and Marshall] islands, and would capture more of the value of the fishery in the [FSM and Marshall] islands, which at that time was primarily being exported out to other countries,” explained Kraft. This inspired Kraft to consider other opportunities for improvement in the fishery, and ultimately the idea of an industry-led longline tuna FIP, which had never been done before. “My partners were skeptical, but I said trust me on this, this is where we need to be going, as we need to be improving these fisheries and I think industry is in a much better position to do it than environmental NGOs who certainly can assist with it, but ultimately it’s the market that is going to move the industry.”

The FIP process begins with a pre-assessment aimed at determining which performance indicators must be improved to meet MSC standards. But what is not often explained is the need to develop a stakeholder group that will motivate local government to work with the FIP efforts. A number of key performance indicators are directly related to strong governance in the fishery, something Kraft and his team had no control over. “Big mistake on our part, not addressing that right away, we did a lot of the work ahead of time and then brought it to [local government officials], which didn’t endear us to them, we seemed a bit bull-headed showing them how best to address their fishery, rather than as a cohort deciding together.” Ultimately, Kraft and his team were able to work effectively with the local government and earn their trust, but the broader Regional Fishery Management Organization (RFMO) remains an ongoing challenge.

“A big problem with FIPs is that they don’t always have a lot of progress to report, and that can create some concern that the FIP isn’t making progress fast enough. The thing about a FIP is that many corporations and businesses that buy seafood will accept the fact a fishery is in a FIP as credible evidence that the fishery is moving in the right direction and therefore deserves their support by buying from it. But is the performance really significant enough to qualify for support, or is the FIP more of a paper tiger meant to create a market opportunity without having truly impacted the fishery?”

Kraft explained this dilemma when I asked him about the pros and cons of pursuing and attaining MSC certification. Because there had been no Pacific longline tuna FIP that had reached MSC certification, all registered FIPs were essentially as sustainable as it got in the market, which minimized the incentive to continue improving.

But this FIP made it, “out of the wilderness and found the promised land,” Kraft explained. “We have proven that there is an end to a FIP if you do it with true passion and you have the integrity and desire to actually see it through.” He believed the industry is moving in this direction, and this MSC certification may be a catalyst to accelerate similar FIPs that have been resting on that status.

Kraft and his team were completely transparent about their progress and the obstacles to certification. Rather than keeping their improvement workplan proprietary knowledge, they voluntarily published their pre-assessment before it was common practice. “We have been supportive of other industry people getting involved, because we feel that for us to be competitive with others in the industry we also need them to be MSC certified because we’re at a cost disadvantage, due to the effort it takes to get MSC certified and then retain the certification.”

Kraft agreed that it would probably be an advantage to have the only MSC certified bigeye tuna on the market for now, but only, “until we run out of fish” he warned, grimly.

Jack Kittinger agreed that this certification was a huge step forward for the industry, and applauded Kraft’s perspective that the priority is ensuring fish for the future, not monopolizing the MSC certified market by keeping their successful strategies secret. “That’s the kind of the ethos here that Tom and others have been driving on the industry side, that’s important to recognize and support,” Kittinger remarked.

But there is a reason no similar FIPs have been awarded MSC certification – it’s difficult and can prove costly. “You can’t really catch as much fish as you want if you’re under MSC certification because it means that you’re fishing in a way that is more sustainable than the status quo,” Kraft explained. “[MSC certification] does not take into account any quality aspects, and the same thing for Fair Trade. So there is nothing in that whole scenario that would necessarily move a product to be better quality.” Meanwhile, to meet the performance indicators for certification you must invest in new systems, whether that be gear or traceability.

Even the MSC system itself can create competition between its users, as Kraft illustrated:

“You can have MSC certified purse seine tuna. In order to be MSC certified purse seine caught, it has to be caught from what they call ‘unassociated sets’ – tuna (primarily skipjack) that is free schooling and not associated with a Fishery Aggregation Device (FAD). However a fishing boat can have both types of fish on board, so they can have MSC certified fish that they caught the right way, as per the unassociated gear rules, and then they can also have fish that was caught using sets on FADs. Purse seine fisheries that fish on FADs generally cannot achieve MSC certification. Now, they have to keep it separate, but when you think about it, where is the sense in that? You’re just working the system. Yeah you have them segregated, but you haven’t changed your fishing.” There are clear quality differences between purse seine tuna and Kraft’s longline tuna, but for a buyer seeking MSC certified product with room to compromise on quality standards, this example showed a serious threat to Kraft’s market.

“Consumers will pay more for better quality, they just will not pay for an intangible,” said Kraft, when describing the market advantage of the MSC label. “They assume that you wouldn’t sell it to them if it wasn’t a safe product, if it had slave labor in the supply chain, if it wasn’t sustainable. Because of those assumptions it becomes a negative buy, nobody is going to pay for it, they just expect it to be there.”

In spite of all these challenges, Kraft still maintained that pursuing MSC certification was not ultimately that costly. On paper it seemed so, but in practice many of the measures to improve traceability and switch gear to be more selective also improved overall quality.

“At least at Norpac, we have tried to bring together the confluence of electronic traceability which begins from the vessel all the way through processing to the customer, the food safety around all of this because food safety is a big issue, the post-harvest handling of that product from the time its hooked to the time it gets to the customer. When you invest more into a product, all of those things tend to make you better,” and many of those things overlap with MSC certification standards.

When considering the impact of this certification, and whether or not it will mark a new trend of similar FIP’s achieving the same status, Jack Kittinger believes tuna stock structure uncertainties are an impediment. “I think one of the big challenges here particularly with respect to tuna, and it has been argued about for years, is this issue of ‘unit of assessment’ versus the ecologically meaningful unit. We do not have resolution on the stock structure of yellowfin and bigeye,” explained Kittinger. If new research could prove distinct, individual tuna stocks that could, “drive improvements and sustainable practices at the level of individual, self-replenishing stocks,” such that if “FSM, the Marshalls and Palau shared a bigeye stock – hypothetically for this example – you would want the entirety of that stock to be certified. That would ensure the perpetuation of the stock, and of course the economic benefits that flow from it to those countries and businesses. We’re just not there quite yet, but we are making good progress including via a recent convening of experts on this topic with the SPC (which functions as the science agency for Pacific tuna management) that resulted in a shared research plan to resolve stock structure.”

Until that research is completed, Kraft and others seeking MSC certification must rely on strong market demand for certified products and strong governance in the western and central Pacific. The market aspect is challenging, but at least companies can improve their status through quality enhancing activities. Governance on the other hand, “we have no control whatsoever, other than to petition the RFMOs to encourage good governance.” said Kraft. “So that’s the next big hurdle that we have to overcome, at least in these highly migratory species, is how to get the RFMOs to work more swiftly and implement really strong governance and enforcement policies that will move these fisheries forward.”

Jack Cheney

Jack Cheney

Jack has sourced, sold, cooked, and sustainably certified seafood over the past 9 years. In addition to his contributions to Sustainable Fisheries UW, he is working to connect chefs with US fishermen to create more value for both ends of the supply chain. He earned a Master's in Marine Affairs from the University of Washington in 2015.

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