09 May 2018 Story Ecosystems

Targeting tuna

UN-sponsored World Tuna Day 2018 promotes sustainable tuna fishing and highlights the importance of preserving marine ecosystems for this vital food source.

The “Coral Triangle” in the western Pacific supports large populations of tuna, fuelling the multi-billion-dollar global tuna industry. But the fish’s numbers in the region are declining at an alarming rate, primarily due to human greed, according to the World Wildlife Fund.

The region – which includes the waters off Indonesia, Malaysia, Papua New Guinea, the Philippines, Timor-Leste and the Solomon Islands – is home to at least six tuna species and accounts for half of the tuna landings from the Western and Central Pacific Ocean, with an estimated annual landed value of $2 billion dollars, says WWF. The region also serves as a spawning ground for skipjack, yellowfin, and bigeye tuna – fish that feed millions, provide livelihoods and jobs, sustain economies, and help maintain healthy ecosystems.

Tuna caught in the Triangle are delivered to Indonesia, the Philippines, Papua New Guinea, and the Solomon Islands, where tens of thousands of people – many of them women – are employed to process them.

But overfishing due to illegal, unregulated, and undocumented fishing, significant juvenile tuna catches, and the capture of endangered, threatened, or protected species has severely depleted tuna populations in many areas.

Current levels and methods of harvesting fish and other resources are not sustainable and place the Triangle and its people in jeopardy, says WWF.

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Photo by The Ocean Agency / XL Catlin Seaview Survey / Richard Vevers

Two main products drive tuna production, according the UN Food and Agriculture Organization: traditional canned tuna and sashimi or sushi.

The canned market, entirely supplied by wild fish, mainly targets skipjack and yellowfin, whereas in the sushi and sashimi markets, bluefin and other red meat species like bigeye are preferred.

According to the UN, many countries depend on tuna for both food security and nutrition. More than 80 countries have tuna fisheries, and their capacity is growing.

Ocean warming and ocean acidification could also affect tuna resources in the longer term, in part by changing the location of preferred tuna habitats, according to a 2013 WWF Factsheet.

Furthermore, an increasing number of coral bleaching incidents have been reported globally in recent decades, and reefs are also being degraded by pollution.

“While tuna spend their time in open water, tuna species as well as tuna fisheries depend on healthy coastal ecosystems such as coral reefs,” says UN Environment corals expert Jerker Tamelander.

“Tuna feed on fish that live on or depend on coral reefs, and these fish are also used as bait in some tuna fisheries… Degraded coral could eventually also affect the tuna fishing industry,” he adds.

Progress towards improvements in tuna fisheries management in the Coral Triangle (WWF):

  • The skipjack fisheries of the Parties to the Nauru Agreement coalition, of which Papua New Guinea and the Solomon Islands are founding members, have been Marine Stewardship Council certified.
  • Most Coral Triangle countries have undertaken various policy reforms through their respective Tuna Management Plans.
  • Fishery improvement projects are ongoing in Indonesia, the Philippines, and Viet Nam.
  • With the collaboration of Traceall Global Ltd, an electronic catch documentation scheme prototype has been developed to collect important fisheries information, enabling the tracking of tuna from the boat to the point of retail sale.
  • A Payment for Ecosystem Services model has been developed. The aim is to test this as a mechanism to solve the problem of juvenile tuna capture.

World Tuna Day, first observed on 2 May 2017, aims to spread information about the possible impact of drastically declining tuna stocks and highlight the economic and social benefits of establishing more sustainable fishing practices.

For further information: Jerker.Tamelander[at]un.org or Janna.Hamilton[at]un.org