Finding the pathway to seafood sustainability

08:00 | 04/07/2020
The seafood sector and tuna fishing in particular are facing obstacles regarding the consumer market, with traceability and sustainability considered the best way forward in a post-pandemic Vietnam. Keith Symington, marine and fisheries advisor to WWF Vietnam, dives into the issue.
finding the pathway to seafood sustainability
Keith Symington, marine and fisheries advisor to WWF Vietnam

World Tuna Day, established on May 2 by the United Nations in 2017, highlights the importance of sustainably managing this remarkable fish that is so vital to humanity and the ocean ecosystems we depend on. While this year’s World Tuna Day will certainly be low-key, it falls at a point in history when humanity may finally come to its senses in recognising just how intertwined people and ecosystems are.

Like anyone in the environmental world, I remain an eternal optimist. But as alluring it is to imagine that the COVID-19 crisis, despite the unprecedented suffering and cataclysmic disruption to society, will usher in a new era of environmental enlightenment, exactly what lies ahead for the future sustainability of tuna – and all seafood – is by no means certain.

What is clear is that the entire seafood industry has been shaken to its core, with small-scale fishing communities – already the most vulnerable and usually the least resilient – having suffered the most. Thus, the situation for tuna has been mixed.

The industry has generally avoided the worst, experiencing relatively fewer negative impacts from the reduced demand that has characterised all seafood export markets. This is particularly true for canned tuna, where there has even been a surge in demand due to stockpiling.

Many companies are shifting gears to focus on direct online sales and delivery as a replacement strategy for loss of access to restaurants. With sushi bars closed down the world over, some companies are finding ways to set up chilled sections in local markets offering a variety of popular seafood items.

For Vietnamese yellowfin tuna, impacts have been more nuanced. The majority of the industry – those exporting to western supermarkets and other retailers (for example frozen tuna steaks and loins) – have certainly lost business, and with increasing volumes being held in cold storage.

However, these companies are faring better than those supplying the restaurant and foodservice industry, where the last two months have witnessed cancellations and an absence of new orders.

Processors and suppliers that offer canned products as well as yellowfin have been able to weather the storm a bit better. Companies specialising in fresh, sashimi-grade tuna have been hit especially hard.

Question of sustainability

When the COVID-19 crisis hit, the state of play for tuna in Vietnam was much like the cautious optimism currently afoot as the nation eases lockdown and social distancing measures. The Vietnam yellowfin tuna Fishery Improvement Project (FIP) collaboration between the WWF, VinaTuna, and the Vietnamese government completed a comprehensive progress review in January, highlighting significant improvements.

These included implementing a FIP traceability system and applying new regulatory and legal requirements for onboard monitoring of tuna fishing vessels.

Logbook programmes are expanding, an eLogbook has been piloted, and years of effort in reducing impacts on endangered, threatened, and protected species are also demonstrably delivering conservation impacts on the water.

So then, in a post-coronavirus world, what will be the prospects for sustainable tuna in Vietnam, and how can we protect this recent upward progress (and build on it)? While the certain bet is that uncertainty abounds, the pandemic has reminded us again how livelihoods and food security are umbilically linked to sustainability.

And so, while people may one day look back at this time as a pivot point for major transformation in how humans interact with the ecosystems that support them, this is not necessarily a prerequisite for future seafood sustainability.

The fact is, we already have a good inkling of what works, today and (especially) in the post-pandemic reality: solutions that deliver both socio-economic and conservation benefits, or “win-wins”.

We should not pretend that trade-offs between rationales for sustainability and the difficult choices that they entail will not be required; they will. We also know all too well that in the immediate times of economic crisis, sustainability can be and likely will continue to be a harder sell to business and consumers.

But sustainability win-wins have been within our grasp, and indeed already demonstrated, long before the virus hit, and they seem even more compelling today.

A case in point can be found with the steady transformation to the use of circle hooks in the Vietnamese tuna industry. Circle hooks, or C-hooks, have been globally proven to reduce sea turtle catch by 80 per cent or more in tuna fisheries, compared to traditional J-hooks. They are a relatively simple way to significantly reduce mortalities to endangered sea turtles.

But they are also rather efficient at catching tuna – and because they are less likely to be swallowed deep into a fish’s digestive tract, they help improve the overall quality of tuna and reduce the loss of hooks. This increases the value for fishers and provides an incentive for their continued use. This is nothing new for many tuna operators in other parts of the world that have been utilising C-hooks for decades, for the simple reason that they are better at catching tuna and keeping the fish in a higher-quality condition.

Traceability is another area where the potential for win-wins has already been well established. Traceability is the ability to fully trace a product from the point of final sale back to its point of origin, with information available about all transactions and movements in between. For the seafood sector, traceability has become essential to prove legality and verify food safety. Once considered an optional aspect of seafood, traceability has become the norm and a market access imperative. Since traceability systems, by definition, allow for improved collection of data that is vital for fisheries management, they connect to key requirements of sustainability too. It is a reasonable bet that in the post-pandemic world traceability will become even more centre-stage, receiving even further support and resources. Such incentives for industry and government to ramp up traceability efforts will only be enhanced by the increased anxieties around transparency in food supply chains and protecting overall public health in the wake of the pandemic.

The path forward

None of this is to say that a transition to C-hooks alone, in the absence of other measures, for example a sound tuna harvest management strategy, will secure sustainability – nor that traceability systems, in the absence of other accountabilities from industry and government, will automatically solve all problems.

Furthermore, what might work for the sustainability of Vietnamese tuna is not a cure-all prescription for other fisheries, far from it in fact. The challenges facing small-scale and artisanal fisheries in Vietnam are a completely different case. But remember too that sustainability is a pathway as much as it is a destination.

While it may sound like a cliché, it is true that with every challenge lies an opportunity. A perfect example of this lies in the reprieve that nature has received as a result of everybody staying home – most apparent in the remarkable improvements in air quality levels witnessed in major cities from Los Angeles to Delhi to Hanoi. While this hopefully raises the bar in terms of the expectations from a society that has now been given a glimpse of what a cleaner environment looks like, on a practical management level there is so much we can learn and that can be applied.

For example, with many areas of the world’s oceans experiencing significantly reduced fishing pressure, this offers a clear opportunity to assess what effect such “temporal closures” may have on the status of certain overfished stocks. Such data could provide immeasurable insights on how to best manage fisheries.

This World Tuna Day, with so much uncertainty about what lies ahead, let us take stock in what we have learned and what remains relevant. As we have in the face of climate change, let’s strive harder to be adaptive and to build resilience for marine ecosystems and for fishing communities.

While ensuring that industry and government do not lower their sustainability standards in the current crisis (and indeed working with them to strengthen those standards) let’s find inspiration from fishers, managers, and companies that have found ways to meet changing realities in the face of adversity. In an era where people will need employment more than any other time in history, let us articulate smart investments to drive sustainability.

And if indeed our post-pandemic reality is one where an interconnected world finally wakes up to the imperative of sustainability, then imagine just how good that will be. Let us pursue that with an open-heartedness and wisdom that exposes the best in us. But in the heart of uncertainty, at no time should we lose sight of what we know.

By Keith Symington

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