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Fishing for tuna solutions

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Conservation

fishing for skipjack tuna

Tuna fisherman employ traditional pole and line fishing, a sustainable fishing technique.

Credit: Greenpeace

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In the 1976 film, Logan's Run, mankind "lives for pleasure" but eats fish farmed beneath the "great domed city".

It's one thing to deprecate dystopic sci-fi films. It's quite another to ignore the science, some of which says that given the status quo wild fish will completely disappear by 2048.

Bluefin, the piscine equivalent of the Sumatran tiger, is already so rare that a single individual caught off northern Japan sold in January for the astronomical sum of US$177,000.

Unfortunately for the species, a UN-led conference on the Convention of International Trade of Endangered Species this week failed to pass a temporary ban on fishing the bluefin, dooming it forever.

Casson Trenor, San Francisco based author of Sustainable Sushi, bridles at the thought.

"It's beyond equivocation that the tuna stocks - and we're talking about yellowfin and bigeye, primarily - in the Pacific Ocean and the Indian Ocean are strongly beleaguered and are crashing."

Australian supermarkets make over $330 million a year from canned tuna, says Greenpeace.

Consumer power

Shoppers can help change how tuna are caught but better labelling is required so that consumers can make a more informed choice.

"I think that, in fact, the Australian audience is very sensitised to ecological marine issues because we've had one of the greatest marine reserves in the world for some time," says Greenpeace tuna market campaigner Genevieve Quirk.

A small percentage of Australian grocery establishments sell tuna caught by selective methods: methods that do not result in by-catch of such endangered marine life as turtles and sharks.

In February, for example, Aldi started selling Ocean Rise White Tuna - Pacific albacore caught by pole-and-line and trolling, which are preffered methods as they have no impact on the surrounding ecosystem. The product is certified as sustainable by the Marine Stewardship Council (MSC).

Greenpeace, however, advocates pole-and-line fishing of skipjack tuna and says that North Pacific albacore tuna is overfished. It has ranked Aldi's canned tuna a disappointing third behind Greenseas and Coles.

The MSC's Asia Pacific Commercial Manager Patrick Caleo says, in a press release, that the latest scientific information, based on an independent assessment, confirms that albacore are at abundant levels.
But the nations that jointly control access to wild tuna are not so sure.

Pacific solution

The Parties to the Nauru Agreement (PNA) - seven Pacific island nations and Papua New Guinea - control about 30 percent of the global tuna supply, and worry about the livelihoods of local fishermen and the sustainability of their deep water fisheries.

Most of Australia's tuna is caught in the Pacific using industrial methods, is canned in Thailand and is shipped to Australia from there.

In December 2008, armed with scientific advice, the PNA asked the Western and Central Pacific Fisheries Commission, which controls their fisheries, to reduce the catch by 30 percent.

"All the Pacific island countries basically said, 'OK, well this is the number we want agreed at this meeting'," says Greenpeace oceans team leader Lagi Toribau. "And the Asian nations basically laughed at their face and said 'Sorry, no. We're not going to do that'."

Maurice Brownjohn, PNA commercial manager, says they were "naturally disappointed" the deep water fishing nations argued for a lower, phased reduction or an exemption.

Alternate ideas

The PNA didn't give up. In February they announced that they were seeking MSC-certification for purse seining of skipjack, a species Quirk says is "relatively stable".

Purse seining is a non-selective method of fishing. It is also an industrial method. According to Greenpeace, a single purse seiner can catch in one day what it takes a fleet of local fishing boats a year to catch.

"Pole-and-line fishing is an excellent potential artisanal fishery, but it occurs in a few localised areas and it does not produce the volume needed for the canning market," argues PNA's Brownjohn.

Not everyone is a fan of the MSC, an organisation set up by Unilever and the WWF. Its board of trustees includes members from the WWF, fishing companies and scientists.

"There is no reason that the MSC has to continually, to this day, make it so easy to get into assessment, to get the stamp of approval, and to keep the stamp of approval even though you don't meet your benchmarks," says author Trenor.

Choices

At the end of the day, the best thing to do is to read the label of your can of tuna and joining campaigns that call for better food labelling.