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An End To Bargaining: Science On Tuna Should Come First

Within the global tuna science and business community Dr. James Joseph is regarded as the best scientist in the world on tuna stocks management and conservation. Having retired as Director of the IATTC – after having led the organization for 35 years – Dr. Joseph is an important voice within the tuna community.

The recently established International Seafood Sustainability (ISSF) has appointed Dr. James Joseph as head of the ISSF Science Committee and is also chair of the board of directors. ISSF carries the motto of science-based decisions towards sustainable tuna as one of its differentials from other organizations.

ISSF – which consists out of some of the world’s leading tuna companies - officially stated that its initiatives will be based on recommendations from the independent ISSF Science Committee, being lead by Dr. James Joseph.

In this interview for Dr. Joseph explains how the heavy task of putting science first for tuna conservation is going to be done. How is ISSF going to help the RFMOs to have more accurate data?

Dr. Joseph: All the Regional Tuna Bodies are dealing with the issue of data gaps and difficulties acquiring information from some of their member countries. What ISSF proposes to do is have its members talking to government and industry representatives in the countries – in which most of them have business relations - to provide data to the RFMO.
Take the example of the tagging programs in the Western Pacific and Indian Ocean, where large quantities of fish were tagged to estimate population growth, movements, mortality rates, etc; the tags need to be recovered so the information can be used by the scientists, and that has been a problem because many recovered tags are not reported to the RFMOs.
Therefore, what ISSF is doing is working with the processing plants to hopefully have someone from the plant explain to the employees how important the tags are to the scientists of the RFMOs, and what to do when they find the tags so the information can be given to the RFMOs. This is one important thing that ISSF will do, in fact, it has already started. I know that Susan Jackson, the President of ISSF, has set up a meeting with scientists from the Western Pacific and some cannery personnel in American Samoa to discuss that project.

That’s a very good example in how the one part of the industry is reaching the other part of the industry, but do you believe those actions will reach a governmental level as well?

It will reach a government level by the industry talking to their colleagues in government. The industry representatives have to deal with government officials on a daily basis and will encourage them to comply with the request of the international bodies for data. The process would be one of diplomatic persuasion.
Well, if the industry is taking actions in that direction, it would be insensible for governments to block it, right?

Yes, but most times it happens the other way around. Most countries already have the legal responsibility to provide data to the RFMOs to which they belong. However, many times the government fails in meeting that responsibility, so the ISSF member can remind them of their responsibility and encourage them to work with the RFMOs.

How is the ISSF scientific committee work flow between the two annual meetings with the board?

The RFMOs evaluate the status of the tuna stocks usually once a year or once every two years, so the ISSF science committee will examine that information, put it in a form that is understandable to the board, and give its recommendations to the Board concerning the status of the stocks. In addition, the ISSF scientific committee will be monitoring information from the RFMOs as to which conservation measures are being complied with or not being followed by the governments.
This includes the issue of by-catch impacts on the ecosystem; we’ll be monitoring available information on how much a tuna fishery may be impacting other species, and encouraging countries with tuna fleets to collect and provide information on bycatch to the RFMOs. Meeting twice a year gives enough time for the Committee to examine and evaluate all of these issues, and of course to communicate with the other scientists on how well the tuna stocks are being managed.

What is the source of the tuna stock status showing on ISSF’s webpage?

The sources are the RFMOs stock assessments up to 2007.

What are the best criteria to evaluate if a certain stock is overfished or not?

You want to look at both biomass, or spawning biomass, and fishing mortality.  The biomass of the bigeye stock in the Western Pacific Ocean, for example, is greater than what it would need to be in order to support the maximum sustainable yield (MSY). However, the fishing mortality is also greater than that needed to harvest the MSY. Therefore, that stock is not overfished, although it’s developing to that state if no conservation measures are taken, but overfishing is occurring.

Does the ISSF have any plans on making the standardization of stock assessment in all RFMOs?

Well, some of the key scientists from the RFMOs are also on the Science Committee of ISSF and there will be discussions on that matter, but there is already a lot of standardization, so to speak, among the Regional Bodies in terms of the models they use and how they are applied. You don’t want all the RFMOs using only one model; that would frustrate innovation and the development of better analytical techniques. However, when it comes to categorizing the status of the stocks, it would be nice to use similar reference points or levels for each of them: most of the RFMOs are already looking at biomass and fishing mortality ratios, among other things, to evaluate the status of the stocks.

Do you think that poor data is the major factor compromising the stock assessment by the tuna RFMOs?

Ok, why aren’t the stock assessments perfect? More data would always be helpful; biological parameters – for example, natural mortality, is a very difficult parameter to estimate, if we had perfect data on that the assessments would be better. There are uncertainties in a lot of the assumptions on mortality rates and other biological parameters.  More and better scientific information will reduce uncertainties, but there will be always doubts that will be introduced by the lack of data, or poor data, as well. Nevertheless, the best available science on the assessment of tuna comes from the RFMOs, it’s not perfect by any means, but it’s the best available.

Does the ISSF have any official position on fishing capacity?

The Foundation, although concerned about this issue, doesn’t yet have an official position, but I do. I’m very concerned about fishing capacity; in my opinion, it’s one of the biggest issues facing the world tuna fisheries. There’s been a lot of concern about overcapacity; the FAO has concluded that there’s far more fishing capacity in the world fishing fleets than needed.
In fact, FAO initiated the international plan of action on fishing capacity in which they are encouraging nations to develop a plan for reducing capacity that they hoped would have been implemented in 2005, but that didn’t happen for most nations. FAO also set up a technical committee on fishing capacity specifically for the world tuna fleet.
We met three or four times, basically attempting to define what fishing capacity is and whether it is excessive; the conclusion was that there’s more fishing capacity than necessary to harvest the available supplies of tuna, and this is also my opinion. For example in the Eastern Pacific it’s estimated that the optimal fleet capacity in terms of cubic meters it is 158.000 cubic meters. There’s a capacity limitation program in the EPO but the current fleet is 225.000 cubic meters. Therefore a major reduction should be made; how that will be achieved is difficult to say since it involves fishing rights and the desire of some coastal and developing states to develop their own fleets.

Do you intend to present the overcapacity issue to the ISSF board?

Yes, absolutely. ISSF doesn’t have an official position on that yet, but it will address the issue.

Is there any action being taken in the near future that you would like to share?

The main focus now is to monitor the RFMO studies on the status of the stocks and for ISSF to work as a facilitator with the RFMOs in their efforts to implement management measures when called for by their scientific advisers. So ISSF will be paying close attention to the status of the tuna stocks and to what the RFMOs are doing with the scientific advice they receive. As I said before, we will be closely monitoring the issue of by-catch and FADs as well, and hopefully we’ll be addressing overcapacity soon.