As the US presidential election cycle heats up, I’m always fascinated and a bit frustrated by how complex issues needing real solutions get dumbed down into slogans. I guess I shouldn’t be surprised given the success of twitter. People love simplistic one-liner solutions. Curiously, in the world of tuna there is a long history of eco-friendly one-liners on the can. Of course, I’m talking about the ubiquitous “dolphin safe.” Over the past year we’ve seen the introduction of new campaign slogans zealously defended as the new silver bullet: “FAD Free” & “Pole and Line.” The battle for the hearts and minds of tuna consumers is crowded with finger pointing, half-truths, fuzzy statistics and competing organizations vying for the conscientious seafood consumer’s attention; and this political campaign won’t end come next November. Yes, that’s right, the lowly tuna isle in your grocery store is ground zero for sustainable seafood mud-slinging and simplistic arguments that depict the situation as black or white.
Well aware of how this can erode the trust shoppers have in them, supermarkets have partnered with aquarium seafood guides, conservation groups and some of the mudslingers themselves. Especially in tough economic times, retailers understand well the imperative to offer consumers nutritious food at a good price. But if they can keep prices low and adopt the latest sustainable seafood slogan, that’s a win for them. It’s also a win for their advocacy group partner since they get to take credit for helping to make the seafood market “more sustainable.” I wish the world were as simple as a tagline on a can of tuna. The problem is that it’s not clear these simple solutions are improving the situation with tuna fishing in our oceans.
One group that seemed to understand the reality and hard work of making the oceans healthier has been the Sustainable Fisheries Partnership (SFP), a non-profit leader that for years has quietly worked with major unsustainable fisheries to help them set a multi-year course with clear milestones towards sustainability. Rather than divest from an imperfect fishery, they have worked closely with buyers, encouraging them to keep buying some fish while promising to buy more as an incentive for continued improvements. This moves markets toward more sustainable products and, more importantly, has a real impact in the ocean. SFP has been one of the most effective sustainable fisheries programs you have never heard of. So it came as quite a surprise when, at the Boston Seafood Show in early March, the group publicly released canned tuna procurement specifications for retailers, a la WWF in Europe, or Greenpeace.
One of SFP’s most startling recommendations was for retailers to stop sourcing tuna from vessels that fish in regions where stocks have been overfished. What ever happened to working with fishermen to be part of the solution? Stocks that have been fished too much need good fishermen to help bring them back to life. If good management measures are in place, and scientists agree that the fishery can recover, abandoning vessels means punishing fishermen that follow rules and discouraging further improvement.
Groups like the International Seafood Sustainability Foundation (ISSF) are working with the world’s major tuna buyers, WWF and fishermen to implement a global continuous improvement program. It’s tough work and it will take time, but I believe it has the greatest potential of any effort to transform tuna fishing at a global scale. To me it all comes down to a twist on an old expression: “if you’re not part of the problem, you can’t be part of the solution.” It’s a pretty straightforward and powerful concept even though it does not fit on a tuna can label. As for SFP’s new tuna procurement recommendations to retailers, I guess some business opportunities are too tempting to pass up even if that means jumping on an unfamiliar bandwagon.
Miguel Jorge is the Director of the National Geographic Society’s Ocean Initiative and a member of the International Seafood Sustainability Foundation (ISSF) Board of Directors.