Can shoppers save the tuna? | National Times
National Times, 7 April 2010 Can shoppers save the tuna?

It's your science against mine. At least that's how the tussle over tuna is shaping up in Australia, where canned tuna is worth more than $330 million a year to supermarkets.

For sushi aficionados, the picture has sharper lines because experts agree on estimates that say bluefin stocks sit at dangerous levels. Bluefin is so rare that a single individual caught off northern Japan sold in January for the astronomical sum of $US177,000.

For those of us who buy tinned tuna for sandwiches and salads, the picture is blurry.

Greenpeace has published a guide ranking popular brands for sustainability, selectiveness, and corporate social responsibility.

Sustainability refers to the health of stocks of a particular species. Yellowfin and bigeye, for example, are considered to be under threat.

Selectiveness refers to the method of catching tuna. An unselective method, such as purse seining, can also net turtles, sharks and other threatened species. A selective method, such as pole-and-line fishing, does not result in such "by-catch".

"In tropical areas the by-catch on longlines can be 35 per cent," says Greenpeace tuna market campaigner Genevieve Quirk.

Conservationists are not alone in wanting intelligent management of tuna. I spoke with Casson Trenor, a San Francisco sushi bar operator and author of Sustainable Sushi, who says what is needed is for companies to buy directly from the fisherman . . . "the Fijian fishermen, the Papua New Guinean fishermen that are fishing in a way that will allow them to continue fishing in 10, 20, 50 years. If we allow these distant-water fishing nations to keep operating the way they are, using these purse-seine nets with fish-aggregating devices, and destroying all the other tuna stocks around there, and not rewarding the people who own this tuna, everybody will lose except for 0.0001 per cent of the population that happens to be living in a beach villa in Spain and owning a tuna company".

It's stirring stuff, to be sure. In the northern hemisphere, debate on tuna is vociferous. Big fleets operate out of such countries as Malta, Spain, France, Italy and Greece. Limits on catch sizes have been broadcast in the media. And last year a film, End of the Line, appeared making a strong case for protecting wild fish which, it says, will completely run out by 2048 at current extraction rates.

"At the moment the scientific assessment every year is basically saying that the [tuna] stocks are continuously declining," says Greenpeace oceans team leader Lagi Toribau. "But the catch is increasing. Last year saw one of the highest animal catch of tuna in the Pacific. It doesn't really say much when the scientists are recommending what needs to be done and the industry is actually still fishing there."

Assessment and certification of the health of fisheries can be done by the Marine Stewardship Council (MSC), an organisation jointly established by Unilever and the WWF. Men and women from the WWF and fishing companies, as well as scientists, sit on its board of trustees.

Aldi, for example, recently began selling a line of canned albacore with the MSC certification logo on the tin. But the experts are, predictably, at loggerheads.

"Both the Northern Pacific Albacore Tuna and the Yellowfin Tuna from the Indian and Pacific Oceans in [Aldi's] 'Ocean Rise' range are overfished," says Greenpeace in a recent press release. "It is important that Aldi moves to sustainable sources of tuna as it has done for its entire 'Port View' range." But the MSC said in a recent press release: "The MSC confirmed today that tins of MSC-labelled Albacore tuna sold in Aldi stores across Australia, is sourced from a well managed fishery that has met the world's most rigorous, scientific standard for sustainability.

"The latest scientific information (September 2009), based on an independent assessment of the [American Albacore Fishing Association] Albacore tuna fishery, confirms the stock are at abundant levels. Current abundance is at one of the highest levels seen over the last 40 years and the stock is not overfished."

Trenor is critical of the MSC.

"When the MSC first started, they needed to gain purchase within the industry. And so they went out of their way, I think, to accommodate industry. I'm not saying they bent their standards, necessarily. I'm just saying that they went out of their way to accommodate industry so they could get some initial interest.

"But those days are long gone. The MSC has plenty of interest. It has entire national governments signing up, saying, 'By this year we will only buy MSC seafood'. There is no reason that the MSC has to continually, to this day, make it so easy to get the stamp of approval and to keep the stamp of approval, even though you don't meet your benchmarks."

Greenpeace is pushing for better labelling as part of a campaign to "bypass the MSC" and to get shoppers to ask their retailers to stock brands that demonstrate good management.

"We're trying to educate consumers to know, so that they don't have to worry about the certification," says Greenpeace media manager Elsa Evers. "We're educating consumers to say, 'Well, what in Australia is considered sustainable is pole-and-line caught skipjack from the Pacific'. So if the label says that, then you can pretty well know that it's sustainable."

Patrick Caleo, the MSC's Asia-Pacific commercial manager is adamant: "The science and rigor behind each fishery assessment to the MSC standard, is second to none."

As in the case of anthropogenic climate change, not all scientists say the same thing. Comment threads on stories about tuna published in the UK bristle with polarised opinion.

"I think that 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 Quirk. "Unlike other countries, we're very much orienting our education system to make sure that people understand these issues. I think people are relatively well-informed."

We'll see.

Matthew da Silva is a freelance journalist.