Food Forum: Cracking the surface

Since tuna is a supermarket staple, retailers and their customers crave more information on sustainability.

By Susan Jackson

Tuna is one of the world’s most important and accessible proteins. It provides a wealth of nutrients for millions of families as well as jobs and a better economic outlook for tens of thousands more. While the products carried by retailers differ from supermarket to supermarket, every store has tuna on its shelves.

That means every retailer is increasingly interested in learning more about tuna sustainability.

Maintaining tuna’s predatory role at sea is just as important as considering tuna’s role on land. These constantly moving fish are integral to an entire marine ecosystem that is fragile to dramatic changes.

So much of what is important to us as a society is on the line—conservation of our environment, social and economic well-being and the health of millions.

Overall, most of the tuna we eat comes from stocks that are not overfished. It is also true that the way we fish for tuna today has some significant unsustainable elements to it. Most yellowfin and bigeye tuna stocks cannot sustain increased fishing and in certain regions, such as the Pacific, catch limits and other conservation measures are needed to give the species a chance to recover. Fishing methods must be made better and more responsible to reduce the impact on more at-risk species of marine life. Our capacity to catch tuna must also be reduced since right now we have the capability to catch more tuna than we should.

Action is necessary. Meaningful action is mandatory.

Unfortunately, too much time is spent debating how to move forward. Simplistic and unrealistic demands are everywhere. It is likely these campaigns are conducted with the intention of improving the outlook for tuna and other natural resources. The problem is that inconsistent and oversimplified recommendations often lead to confusion for consumers and retailers.

Processors cannot simply switch all production to fish caught using one single fishing method. If expanded to cover a much larger market share, each method would have a negative impact on fish stocks and the oceans as a whole. In other words, if everyone did the same thing it would be unsustainable.

Rather than abandoning fisheries, we must focus on working to improve them. For most of us that means rewarding the adoption of practices that are better today than they were yesterday and always pushing for even better practices tomorrow. The goal is working with everyone involved to make it happen. Instead of dictating a solution, we should work on finding them together.

This requires us to be long-term, strategic thinkers.

Sustainability will only come from eliminating all threats—illegal fishing, too many vessels on the water, inadequate conservation measures that ig­nore science, a lack of enforcing compliance with conservation measures, the environmental impact of all fishing methods and an absence of universally ap­plied best practices for fishing. That is a lot to wrap your mind around, let alone find fast solutions to overcome.

We must also remember that the sustainably caught and labeled tuna on store shelves today will only be there as long as the stocks that these fish come from are conserved. Everyone fishes from the same stocks, label or no label.

It is time to protect the deep blue from solutions that don’t even get below the surface of the problem.

Susan Jackson is president of the International Seafood Sustainability Foundation, a global coalition of scientists, the tuna industry and the World Wildlife Fund, the world’s leading conservation organization, which promotes science-based initiatives for the long-term conservation and sustainable use of tuna stocks, reducing bycatch and promoting ecosystem health.

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