Sustainable Tuna Fishing Key to Protect the Species

Tuna salad. Tuna sandwich. Tuna bake. Tuna pizza. Tuna sushi. Grilled, fried or raw. There is no doubt tuna is popular. Tuna, which is rich in Omega-3, minerals, proteins and vitamin B12, has seen its nutritional success lead to it being overfished. As the world tries to satiate its appetite for the popular meal, adult tuna fish are being caught faster than they can breed.

In 2011, the International Union for Conservation of Nature classified seven of the 61 known tuna species in a threatened category, being at serious risk of extinction. Tuna numbers have also been dwindling due to climate change, which is deoxygenizing warming oceans, threatening the survival of marine life like tuna, which need oxygen due to their large size.

2 May marks United Nations’ World Tuna Day, an event started in 2016 when the United Nations General Assembly voted in a resolution to highlight tuna overfishing.


Growing appetite

The Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) of the United Nations found that during the global lockdown of 2020 consumption of canned tuna increased. More than seven million metric tons of tuna and tuna-like species are harvested yearly, of which 33.3 per cent are fished at biologically unsustainable levels. Tuna account for 20 per cent of the value of all marine fisheries caught and over eight per cent of all seafood traded globally.

To ensure more sustainable management of tuna fisheries, the Global Environment Facility (GEF), and partners including the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP), co-financed and implemented a five-year, USD50 million programme. The programme, known as the Global Sustainable Fisheries Management and Biodiversity in Areas Beyond National Jurisdiction (ABNJ), is led by the FAO.


Supply chain risks

Many countries depend on tuna for food security, economic development, employment and generating government revenue. Over 80 States have tuna fisheries and hundreds of thousands of people rely on fishing for their livelihoods.

The Indian Ocean holds the world’s second-largest tuna fishery, offering significant potential for countries and fishing communities to benefit economically.

However, tuna fisheries are associated with major supply chain risks such as overfishing, illegal, unreported and unregulated (IUU) fishing and the bycatch (part of the catch which is not targeted and is discarded dead) of threatened and endangered species. These activities threaten the sustainability of fisheries, marine ecosystems and livelihoods.


Signs of Progress

To date, the ABNJ programme has made remarkable progress in protecting international waters’ biodiversity by ensuring tuna stocks are healthy, that the impact on the ecosystem is minimised and that the global fisheries are well managed.

For instance, the programme shows that between 2014 to 2019, the number of major tuna stocks experiencing overfishing went down from 13 to five. Rebuilding eight fish stocks to reach a healthy level is no mean feat. Additionally, bycatch and marine pollution have been reduced. On the latter, the Program developed and tested non-entangling and ocean-friendly fish aggregating devices used to attract fish. The program also carried out workshops with over 2,500 fishers from 22 countries about bycatch mitigation techniques.

Sinikinesh Beyene Jimma head of UNEP’s GEF International Waters Unit said: “The Global Environment Facility’s investments in International Waters projects and programmes such as the Common Oceans ABNJ bring together stakeholders to collaborate on science-based approaches in the conservation and management of tuna and other fish species. With events such as World Tuna Day, we hope to raise awareness of the delicate balance between our consumption and nature’s ability to keep up. We want people to be aware that they can buy fish from sustainably-managed stocks and the importance of doing this.”

Experts say that countries will need to continue working together in adopting evidence-based solutions in the tuna sector. These should focus on sustainable fishing methods that reduce the environmental impact and minimise bycatch. Consumers can also do their part in protecting tuna by ensuring the tuna they buy is sustainable.