Tracing tuna from sea to fork

Tuna accounts for about 15 percent of the global value of all wild-caught fisheries. (© Gary Stokes)

Editor’s note: Tuna was on the menu last week at the U.N. Ocean Conference in New York, where representatives from civil society, governments and the private sector came together to sign the Tuna 2020 Traceability Declaration to promote sustainability for the world’s most important food fish. Its goal: to make all tuna fully traceable by 2020.

Promoted by the World Economic Forum (WEF), the declaration is a non-binding effort to galvanize governments, businesses and nonprofits to improve the health of tuna fisheries around the world. As Greg Stone, a marine conservation expert at Conservation International, explained in a recent interview, it’s a step toward an even more ambitious goal of total traceability in the global commercial fishing industry. An edited transcript follows.

Question: Where did the idea for tuna traceability come from?

Answer: The idea came out of a discussion among big European retailers and a variety of groups who all agreed that the traceability of seafood was the most important thing to them. So much of our terrestrially grown food is carefully traced — from “farm to fork” — but the ocean is in the dark ages when it comes to this kind of thing.

It’s such a big issue, so how do you start? So it was decided that tuna is a good place to start. It’s only about 6 percent of global catch but it’s about 15 percent of the global value of wild-caught fisheries; it’s international; and it’s something you kind of get your arms around, almost. It’s big but it’s not super big.

Q: Why is this traceability important?

A: A lot of tuna is traceable right now, but a good portion is not. Once you have traceability, everything else falls into place: When you know where something comes from, you can determine whether there’s a sustainable stock or not; you can determine whether there’s human rights abuses going on in the supply chain; you can determine product freshness, which is really important to companies.

The gist of the declaration is all five types of commercially fished tuna are fully traceable — and that includes not just the fish but the people catching them and the methods by which they’re caught — by 2020. When it’s done, then other fisheries would ideally follow.

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Q: How does traceability actually work in practice?

A: It goes sort of like this: You’re an international commercial fisher. Usually you have an observer on your boat, and the observer should be able to confirm the catch on the boat and where it was caught. That’s the start. Then the boat comes to port, offloads its catch, and that’s the next step in the process. The observer sees the first piece of it, then the port sees the second piece, and then it gets to a processing place.

Part of the declaration will be excluding at-sea transfers of fish. That is one of the ways that people can cheat: As it is, many of these boats can stay at sea for years at a time, that’s where you get the slavery going on. The boats never go to port, so there’s no way to get caught.

There are ways to improve this, naturally, and we’re looking to the technology sector to help. Ideally, someday, fishermen will have little chips that cost 2 cents that they can put onto every fish that comes into the boat, and that begins to track temperature, location and all kinds of data so that by the time it ends up at the supermarket you’d have a complete supply chain history of every piece of fish. The WEF is hoping the tech community can help solve some of these challenges.

Q: What does the future of tuna fisheries look like at the moment?

A: Most of the world’s tuna comes from the Pacific, and tuna is a big issue with respect to food security in the places in the Pacific where Conservation International works. Regarding the future of feeding people in the Pacific islands amid growing demand for fish: It has already been determined that that extra fish is not going to come out of the reefs — the reefs can’t support it. The reef is not a good place to get your dinner. But the pelagic fishes like tuna are.

So one of our goals is to transfer some of these islands’ food security over to the fisheries. We want it to be sustainable for the local communities in the Pacific, and so it’s really important that we catch the free fall of some of these tuna species now if we act.

Once you prove an ambitious target like this, there’s no reason that could not then be transferred over to other species.

Greg Stone is executive vice president for CI’s Center for Oceans. Bruno Vander Velde is CI’s editorial director. 

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