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Albacore Fishermen Need To Pay To Prove 100 Years Of Sustainable Fishing

The market pressure on tuna fisheries around the world, to prove their sustainable catching methods, is mounting. No longer century long traditions of responsible fishing methods are taken as a guarantee for sustainability.

Global traditional pole and line and hand line fisheries are getting the message from larger market players that their sustainable methods will only be recognized – if they can stick a reliable eco-certification logo on their product.

To promote sustainable fishing methods, third parties organizations such as Marine Stewardship Certification (MSC) have established different sets of regulations to fisheries and started to grant certificates to those abiding to those rules, but at a considerable cost!

This practice has gained momentum over the years , but it’s still questionable whether eco-certifications are really changing the tuna industry’s catching methods or are they are just pushing already sustainable fisheries to get certified in order to reach retailers’ demands.

The Western Fish Boat Owners Association (WFOA) and the Canadian Highly Migratory Species Foundation (CHMSF), have sealed a funding agreement to undertake a full assessment for MSC for North American North Pacific Albacore Tuna.

The fisheries under assessment are defined as the Albacore Tuna (Thunnus alalunga) North Pacific stock fished by WFOA and CHMSF vessels members using troll and jig and pole and line as fishing methods.

The fisheries have been explored for over a 100 years using the same methods, which results in very little by-catch and discards.

The WFOA director Wayne Heikkila talks about the ongoing certification process and shares his views on fisheries eco-labels as a world tendency. What are the major characteristics of the fleet fishing at the Albacore fisheries?
Wayne Heikkila: The U.S. Albacore fleet is generally made out of family owned boats, not companies. The boat range size is from 30 feet to 125 feet at the largest, with one to three people on board, including the crew. Then, we sell our tuna to local processors located in Washington, Oregon and California. We’ve sold tuna for the major U.S. tuna canneries in the past, not so much anymore, but we always keep that option opened. The majority of our fish is exported to Europe – Spanish canned market - and Asia – Japanese sashimi market. Local consumption is still low, but it’s growing. Around 20% of the catch gets canned or sold as value-added products for the high-ends markets here in the U.S.
Pole and Line and Trolling are fishing methods considered to be sustainable for a while. Why the interest for the MSC certification now?
Just getting the word to the consumer that our fishery is sustainable and the MSC is a good vehicle to do that. We had some mixed feelings about it, but we see a lot of demand from U.S. consumers and retailers asking for a certification. Even though our fishing method has been the same for the past 100 years, only now we felt this pressure for the third party certification.
Why MSC among all other Eco-labels?
We asked ourselves the same question, but it seems that MSC is the most caught on with the public, the most recognized worldwide. Right now they are the number one certification if you are looking to get a fisheries certified and the public to recognize it.
Could you share some of the “mixed feelings” about going ahead with MSC certification?
In the past, before the MSC caught on with the public, we were wondering if it was worthy to spend the time and the money to get it if the public didn’t recognize it as a reliable measure of sustainability of fisheries. Since there’s more and more demand for it today, we came around to the conclusion that we needed the certification.
What were the reasons to have the CHMSF as a partner in the certification?
The main reason in doing this with the Canadians is cutting the costs of it. Our fisheries are almost identical, same types of boats, markets, etc. However, some Canadian laws and regulations make two different certifications needed.
But you’re also sharing the same fishing grounds for Albacore, and being certified by the same company, correct?
Yes. That’s why we are working in coordination, to make it more efficient.
The Albacore Fisheries is already in Full Assessment on MSC certification. Did you have to implement many changes to reach that stage?
No, the fishery itself didn’t have to go through any changes, but it took us some years to come under management regimes, both international and then on the federal level here. Until that was achieved, there was no way to get the MSC certification. But the Albacore Fishery has been well managed for years now under the RFMOs regulations and fishing effort has been under control.
How long between the decision to get certified to the full assessment?
I believe it took us 4 to 5 years. We had a pre-certification done before, but it’s been a very long process debating whether go through with this or not. We always thought that the U.S. Government under the Department of Commerce should be the ones promoting sustainable seafood, but they pretty much dropped the ball in that. They have mechanisms taking place, but they don’t want to go through with a government certification system, which would be a very fair and equitable way to do it, we think.
You mean fair considering MSC costly assessment?
Yes, and now we have to proceed with MSC just to be “in the game” here because it seems that all the fisheries around the world are jumping on board. Whether that’s good or bad I don’t know (laughs), we are in now.
Do you believe that fisheries demand for certification is already a tendency?
Yes, I think they caught on. I see more and more fisheries applying for certification, whether it’s MSC or something else, mainly MSC. As I said before, I think the U.S. Government was on the right road, they could have done something, maybe used FAO requirements and code of conduct. I really don’t know why MSC caught on, it’s just one of those things stealing the product for something else and just keeps on going you don’t know why. It seems to be the one everyone is going for, but there were probably better ways, easier and more reasonably costs methods to do it.