Why Western Central Pacific Ocean Tuna Fisheries’ certification is under threat

Photo: WWF

Approximately half of the world’s tuna catch comes from the Western Central Pacific Ocean. However, the long-term sustainability of these important stocks could be at risk if governments cannot agree joint strategies to prevent them from ever becoming over-fished. To resolve this, progress must be made on harvest strategies for tuna fisheries at the Western Central Pacific Fisheries Commission (WCPFC) annual meeting from 27 November to 03 December 2022.

What is the issue?

Harvest control rules (HCRs) are important fisheries management measures which set pre-agreed reductions in fishing effort should a currently healthy stock decline below a sustainable level. These measures form part of wider harvest strategies which are due for negotiation at the upcoming annual meeting of the WCPFC, the Regional Fisheries Management Organisation (RFMO) responsible for tuna stocks in the Western Central Pacific Ocean (WCPO). 

Tuna fisheries in the WCPO have been certified as meeting the minimum requirements for MSC certification on the basis that the WCPFC was working towards implementing HCRs. However, the rationale for meeting these minimum requirements is now being undermined by a lack of progress towards delivering these important management measures. 

Without progress towards harvest strategies, we are likely to see the suspension of certification of all 33 MSC certified tuna fisheries in the region.  

Additionally, all MSC certified tuna fisheries in the WCPO have the same time-bound condition of certification to implement well-defined HCRs by June 2023. Providing these fisheries continue to meet the minimum requirements for HCRs following the WCPFC meeting, the new version of the MSC Fisheries Standard provides a route for these fisheries to maintain certification with an additional five years to deliver state-of-the-art harvest strategies and requirement to meet a higher overall bar of sustainability. 

Challenges in setting harvest strategies for tuna

Tuna stocks present significant challenges to manage because they are highly migratory and subject to variations in the natural ecosystem where they live. The migratory nature of these stocks also means they are shared by many different nations, meaning international cooperation is needed to effectively manage them and prevent overfishing. 

To respond to these challenges and to account for fisheries designed to harvest surplus components of the population, it is essential to have pre-agreed harvest strategies that can be triggered quickly and reliably.

RFMOs, who are responsible for making management decisions, are made up of independent government delegations who must reach a consensus for decisions to be made. Given the varied priorities and interests of the many nation states that can share a single stock, this situation can slow down decision making by many years. Without these management measures in place, the delay in reducing catches once fish stocks begin to fall can result in further decline. However, consensus is often easier to achieve when stocks are healthy because no nation state has to face immediate reductions in landings for its country’s use. 

What will be discussed at the meeting in December 2022?

Negotiations will take place on harvest strategies for skipjack and South Pacific albacore tuna.

To enable WCPO fisheries to avoid suspension from the MSC program, the WCPFC members must demonstrate a clear commitment to implementing harvest strategies. This includes agreeing to harvest strategies for skipjack tuna and demonstrating that significant progress has been made on plans for the implementation of such strategies for other stocks (yellowfin, albacore, bigeye). 

Specifically, members are due to negotiate two Conservation and Management Measures (CMMs), submitted by the Pacific Island Forum Fisheries Agency:

*Draft Conservation and Management Measure on a Management Procedure for WCPO Skipjack Tuna

* Proposed Amendment to CMM 2014-06 on Establishing a Harvest Strategy for Key Fisheries and Stocks in the Western and Central Pacific Ocean

Negotiations on yellowfin and bigeye tuna have been delayed until 2024, however if sufficient progress is made in the December 2022 meetings these fisheries would be able to remain in the MSC program. To avoid suspension, they would need to apply the revised harvest strategy requirements developed for the new version of the MSC Fisheries Standard. 

What are the potential outcomes from the meeting?

 There are several potential outcomes for WCPO fisheries depending on the progress made.

The optimal outcome would see agreements reached on harvest strategies for skipjack tuna and progress made towards implementing harvest strategies for other stocks. This may provide a route for assessors to close conditions of certification for WCPO skipjack fisheries by the June 2023 deadline. It would also ensure all other certified WCPO tuna fisheries can remain in the MSC programme with the potential to adopt the new requirements for harvest strategies set out in the MSC Fisheries Standard version 3.0, which allow an additional five years for the implementation of state-of-the-art harvest strategies.

If harvest strategies for skipjack are not agreed, but sufficient progress is made towards in their implementation, WCPO skipjack fisheries may be able to avoid suspension in June 2023, by implementing our new requirements on harvest strategies. 

However, if the WCPFC fails to adopt harvest strategies or to demonstrate a commitment to implementing them, then all WCPO tuna fisheries will be at risk of suspension from the MSC program ahead of the June 2023 conditions deadline. In this scenario, suspended fisheries would not be able to apply the new requirements in version 3.0 of our Standard. 

What is at stake?

Failure to agree to harvest strategies could put the future of these currently healthy populations of tuna at risk. 

Without effective harvest strategies, sustainable fisheries cannot ensure the stocks they fish will remain sustainable in the future. For instance, the Maldives pole and line skipjack tuna fishery in the Indian Ocean lost its MSC certification for the yellowfin component in 2016. This was a previously healthy stock on which governments failed to agree a harvest strategy (in 2016/17). The stock has since been overfished due to the lack of harvest controls in place to reduce catches.

WCPO tuna fisheries account for 85 percent of all MSC certified tuna and so suspension would also lead to a significant loss of certified sustainable products and the loss of accepted ways to document sustainability to consumers. The demand for MSC certified tuna is growing, with the volume of products sold with the MSC ecolabel increasing from 48,000 to almost 139,000 tonnes in the past five years.  Fisheries in the WCPO have led the rise in volume of tuna products sold, which has seen the proportion of global catch engaged in the MSC programme double since 2019. 

MSC certification also drives fisheries to make improvements to their practices and recognises these achievements – an incentive which would also be lost if these fisheries are suspended from the programme. For example, the Fiji Albacore and yellowfin tuna fishery took steps to reduce bycatch by switching from wire longlines, which can accidently entrap sharks, to monofilament traces which sharks can bite through. The fishery also fishes in deeper waters to avoid sharks and has increased transparency and accountability through methods such as electronic monitoring systems and installing onboard cameras on more than 50 of its boats.

What happens now?

The MSC and its partners, including international retailers, tuna brands, the certified fisheries and NGOs, including the International Sustainable Seafood Foundation, have long been calling for the WCPFC to make progress. 

We are currently urging all WCPFC members to support both of the relevant conservation management measures proposed at the December 2022 meeting. Partners in the supply chain can support this call by signing a joint letter to the WCPFC Heads of Delegation.  This call to action follows previous campaigns by coalitions of NGOs, commercial organisations and the fishing industry. In October 2021, 112 global retailers and supply chain companies wrote to the Heads of Delegation at the WCPFC, requesting they make significant progress towards agreeing harvest strategies across all tuna stocks. These calls were coordinated by the NGO Tuna Forum and included and have been supported in a campaign by the Global Tuna Alliance, an independent group of retailers and tuna supply chain companies, responsible for tuna purchases worth USD$1.27 billion in 2020.