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How American Albacore Business Benefited From MSC

Interview with Natalie Webster, Director of Operations, American Albacore Fishing Association (AAFA)
“My father and grandfather skippered tuna boats, and my husband Jack is a tuna fisherman too, so I know all about the ups and downs. In the 1980s, imports of cheap tuna put most of the San Diego canneries out of business and, by the 1990s, the tuna fleet had begun to shrink. We thought the fishery would cease to exist because most fishers were in their mid to late 50s. The next generation wasn’t coming through because of instability and low prices.
The first thing we did, in 2004, was set up our association to give a voice to pole-and-line, and troll9 tuna fishers. Both fishing methods we use are ‘clean’, catching one fish at a time. By-catch is rare, but any there is can be released quickly from barbless hooks.
Despite this, we were going nowhere. The fishers didn’t think they had true representation of their sustainable harvest method.
We knew that, if we told our story, we could find new markets and stabilise prices. Ours was a niche product, but it had never been pushed. US buyers just rolled it into tuna commodity trading programs and we were left short.
At about that time, we heard about the Marine Stewardship Council. We believed it would be one of the building blocks in telling our story to an international forum, so we entered the programme and got certified in 2007.
Even before that, we’d built good relationships in Europe, educating buyers about the uniqueness of our fishery, the families and the human story behind it. Confident of a market, we set a stable price of USD 2,260 per tonne for the whole season, instead of USD 1,700 on the volatile dockside market. Before, fishers never knew what price they would get until they returned to harbour.
It was an example of people unifying and saying, ‘We need to create a better future, we need to be able to repair our boats in the off season so we and our crews can be safe’. We couldn’t have done that without the MSC.
Five years later, all the big UK supermarket chains stock our products and we have market penetration in Switzerland, Germany and France. Those products include not just canned tuna and frozen whole round tuna, but also smoked tuna and blast-frozen steaks, medallions and sashimi-grade loins. The more markets we build, the more we are creating stability for our fishery.
By preserving our livelihood, we are preserving one of the least intensive fishing methods – and fishing pressure is well below levels likely to cause overfishing. At the last annual surveillance, albacore stock was determined to be at high abundance and stock biomass was well above precautionary limits.
It’s an incentive for other fisheries to take a look at their harvest methods and say, ‘Hey, what can we do?’ Let’s at least have the conversation with MSC, or WWF or another NGO, so we can bring our fishery into the realm of sustainability, market that, and be part of the new chapter in seafood.”