Where have all the sustainable tuna gone?

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By Megan Bailey

Where have all the sustainable tuna gone, long time passing?
Where have all the sustainable tuna gone, long time ago?
Where have all the sustainable tuna gone?
You have eaten them everyone.
Oh, when will you ever learn?
Oh, when will you ever learn?

Actually, it’s not entirely true. You have eaten them, surely. But actually, you have been eating mostly unsustainable tuna for a long time. So while there may still be some sustainable tuna out there to eat, likely it doesn’t find its way to your plate too often. We will explore why that is here.

In late October, Greenpeace and Hugh Fearnley-Wittingstall (for the non-UK crowd, read about him here) launched an art installation to protest tuna importer John West and its parent company Thai Union. In 2011, John West committed to sourcing 100% of its tuna from sustainable sources by 2016. When they stay sustainable, John West was referring to sourcing from pole and line fisheries and from free-school fisheries. Greenpeace reports that they have only sourced about 2% of their tuna sustainably, leaving a whopping 98% to address in the next year. Additionally, and perhaps of more importance in my opinion, Thai Union was implicated in a New York Times exposé on slavery at sea, and thus the art installation calls out John West on this issue as well. This naming and shaming is a form of market-based governance, a growing approach to promote environmental sustainability through use of the market as a governing institution that incentivizes behaviour outside of traditional government interventions.

A little about pole and line fishing: it dates back hundreds of years. A fairly recent NGO, the International Pole and Line Foundation, highlights the mantra One hook, One man, One fish. Check out some youtube videos of the fishery in action, it is amazing to watch. Unbaited hooks on long fiberglass or bamboo rods are used to bring in skipjack tuna, while some of the crew throw bait off the sides of the boat, a practice called chumming. Chumming brings skipjack tuna to the surface and they are easily snared and flung aboard. The Maldives, Solomon Islands, Indonesia and Japan all have sizeable pole and line fisheries. The Maldives fishery obtained certification by the Marine Stewardship Council (MSC) in 2012, arguably the biggest name in the seafood eco-labeling game. The sustainability gains for pole and line fishing are purported to be ecological (due to a selective fishery with zero non-target catch, and the reason for MSC certification) and social (due to high amounts of labour required). Personally, I agree with the latter and think the jury is still out on the former.


Absolutely it is more selective than say a non-free school fishery (more on that next), but it is absolutely not the case that pole and line only catches skipjack tuna. One can find canned yellowfin tuna that is labeled pole and line caught, and in fact in the MSC certification documents it is recognized on page 20 that in the Maldives fishery, “the main by-catch species is yellowfin, which comprises about 10% of the total catch”. In this case, said yellowfin are indeed bycatch and are immature (i.e., juveniles, have not reached maturity). IPNLF also writes on their website “zero bycatch”. Perhaps when they say zero bycatch they mean only of non-tuna species? But the MSC report also mentions rainbow runners and other finfish that are retained in the pole and line fishery. So perhaps they mean only non-fish bycatch? This may not entirely be the fault of IPNLF. As another leading tuna foundation (International Seafood Sustainability Foundation, ISSF) states, “It
how the term is being used in a given context. Otherwise, people who cite a bycatch of x% in this fishery and a bycatch of y% in that fishery, too often
 and oranges because each study may be using the term “bycatch” to mean a different thing.” But NGOs communicating about sustainability, and requiring sustainable sourcing commitments from their partners, need to be transparent and realistic about what sustainability gains are in fact reachable.

But I digress. This post is about John West sourcing sustainably from pole and line and free-school fisheries. What about that second part then, what are free-school fisheries? Most of the global tuna catch (about 60%) comes from the purse seine fishery, whereby a large net is cast around a school of tuna, closed at the bottom, and the school slowly hauled in to be offloaded onto a boat. Purse seine boats have a couple of choices when they do this. They can either set their net around a school that is associated with a floating object (which can be anything from a drifting log to a large man-made structure called a fish aggregating device or FAD), or they can set it on a free-school. About 65% of the total global purse seine catch was made on floating objects in 2014. So what? Floating objects attract schools of tropical tuna, as well as other fish and marine life like rainbow runners, dolphinfish (a fish, not a dolphin…), sharks and rays, and sea turtles. PEW Charitable Trusts has a short video of how FAD fishing works. FAD fishing is thought to be a less-sustainable form of tuna fishing than free-school fishing and pole and line fishing because of the high catch of non-target species, and is specifically villanized for its catch of immature yellowfin and bigeye tuna (although as we just read, pole and line also catches immature yellowfin). Notably, if we combine the numbers above, purse seine fisheries setting on FADs make up 40% of all tuna caught, traded and consumed. Additional to that is the fact that pole and line and handline fisheries also catch fish on FADs, so demonizing FADs is a blanket way of demonizing the majority of tuna catches worldwide.

The point of all is this is just that expecting to have your sustainable tuna and eat it too might not be possible. There just isn’t enough sustainable tuna on the market. And actually, it might be disingenuous of NGOs to name and shame companies into making sustainable sourcing commitments that they will absolutely never be able to keep. Rather it needs to be a conversation. Do you want to sell (insert eat here if you are a consumer) tuna? If so, you have choices. You can commit to sourcing only sustainable tuna (but I’m still not convinced what that is…) and drop your supply by half. Or you can acknowledge, as John West has been forced to do here, that in fact the methods by which you wanted to source will not allow you to meet the demand that you have for tuna, and you need to make a revised and more credible sourcing commitment.

For starters, how about committing to slave-free tuna, also demanded of John West by Greenpeace? That commitment ought to be easy to meet, right? Actually, not likely, but more on that in a future post. In the meantime, it’s time for consumers, civil society and the seafood industry to (wo)man up. Sourcing and eating only sustainable seafood is hard. It can be done, but it will require sacrifice and putting your money where your mouth is. Statistically speaking, the fish and seafood you eat is probably not sustainable, because the majority of the world’s fisheries are not managed in a sustainable way, are not operating on healthy stocks, do not employ labour rights or standards in their operations, and are not transparent in communicating practices to regulators and consumers. Sustainability means having fish in the future oceans and having fish harvesters exploiting said fish. If honest conversations and transparent credible commitments are not forthcoming, the next song we sing won’t just be about the missing sustainable fish, but the missing fish harvester too.

Where have all the fish harvesters gone, long time passing?


Harriet Bulkeley, Accomplishing Climate Governance – now out with Cambridge UP


Looking forward to reading this.

Originally posted on Progressive Geographies:

Harriet Bulkeley, Accomplishing Climate Governance – now out with Cambridge University Press.


This book provides a new approach to thinking about the politics and geographies of climate governance. It argues that in order to understand the nature and potential of the range of new responses to climate change emerging at multiple scales we need to examine how governance is accomplished – how it is undertaken, practiced and contested. Through a range of case studies drawn from communities, corporations and local government, the book examines how climate change comes to be governed and made to matter as an issue with which diverse publics should be concerned. It concludes that rather than seeking the solution to climate change once and for all, we need to engage with the ways in which we can channel our intentions to ameliorate the climate problem to more progressive ends. The book will be of interest to…

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The UN’s most inclusive body at a crossroads

By Matheus Alves Zanella and Jessica Duncan

Posted also at http://globalsoilweek.org/areas-of-work/sustainable-development-goals/the-uns-most-inclusive-body-at-a-crossroads 

The world food price crisis of 2007/08 shook global food governance. Pressured to find solutions for unexpected prices increase of several food products, many initiatives were launched at the global level.  One of those was the reform of the United Nation’s Committee on World Food Security (CFS), who transformed itself from “the most boring UN body of all” – in the words of an experienced diplomat based in Rome – to the foremost inclusive international and intergovernmental platform for food security, with substantive participation of different actors including member states, civil society and private sector.

That was 2009 and there was a general sense of urgency in addressing claims that over 1 billion people were going hungry worldwide. The reformed CFS was well positioned in this debate, by giving voice to all actors, notably those most affected by food insecurity, and transitioning from an inactive talk-shop to a leading intergovernmental body. Through the Committee, member States were able to endorse key policy documents on two major food security issues: land tenure (the Voluntary Guidelines on the Responsible Tenure of Land Fisheries and Forest in the Context of National Food Security – VGGT) and investments (Principles for Responsible Investments in Agriculture and Food Systems – CFS-RAI).

Now, five years after the reform, the CFS just had its 42nd Plenary last week and we, as well as many other participants, sensed a change in the air. First, the initial ambition of the CFS seems to be fading away, and it appears as though the CFS is now entering a phase characterized by a lack of clarity on the future relevance of its decisions. Second, members continue to disagree about which direction the CFS should take – illustrated by relatively weak decision on Monitoring and Evaluation and the mild debates on the positioning of the CFS vis-à-vis the new development agenda launched by the approval of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). The decision will not see the CFS featuring prominently in the SDG agenda for another two years, as some have expected. Third, the multi-stakeholder format of the reformed CFS is being put into question, as demonstrated by one very important intervention of the Civil Society Mechanism (CSM) in the closing session of the CFS plenary.

It is up to debate whether the CFS is losing influence or importance, or whether it had much to begin with. Considering that undermining one of the most inclusive UN bodies would consequently further open the door to less-inclusive governance mechanism to occupy its space, we prefer to see a strong and active CFS for years to come. In order to remain relevant, the CFS could avoid two major risks:

  1. Shifting back to the Committee’s pre-reform role of only monitoring international commitments, and
  2. Failing to address controversial topics, such as agroecology or bioenergy, as its strength is based on forging consensus such as those achieved on land tenure and on investment.

In what follows we provide some initial reflections on how the CFS currently finds itself at a crossroads.

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Emmelien Venselaar reflects on attending the Committee on World Food Security


Last month I taught a course on global food security governance. As part of the course students were able to travel to Rome to observe the Committee on World Food Security and then Milan to check out the Milan Expo. In this blog post one of the students shares her experiences with us.

Originally posted on Rural Sociology Wageningen University:

As part of a voluntary course offered by Rural Sociology, 16 students visited Italy to look at two different examples of global food security in action. Emmelien Venselaar, who studies International Development, has written a short blog wherein she reflects on her experiences. Happy reading.

Students get ready to observe politics in action at the UN's Committee on World Food Security (photo by X. Jiang) Students get ready to observe politics in action at the UN’s Committee on World Food Security (photo by X. Jiang)

As part of the Capita Selecta “Global Food Security Governance” from chair group RSO, 16 students got the chance to visit the Committee on World Food Security (CFS) in Rome. This Committee is an intergovernmental body addressing global food security governance. It aims to be inclusive and thus takes the interests of states, civil society, NGO’s and the private sector into account. In practice this means that a discussion can be conducted by Coca Cola, Finland, peasants and a representative of the FAO. This conference is…

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Building a Common Food and Nutrition Policy: asking the new structures question

Originally posted on TRANSMANGO:

Terry Marsden revisits the opinion paper he wrote earlier this month on a common food policy and reflects on the ‘new structures question’. If you would like to comment on this please join us in our discussion on #commonfoodpolicy on Twitter or Facebook.

Since my first intervention calling for a radical reorganisation of the CAP, both in terms of individual responses and further reading, I am increasingly struck by the significant weight of evidence calling for more policy integration around food. This includes various EU Foresight reports. In debating these proposed changes and policy needs it is perhaps important not to rush into concerns about changes in actual policy instruments and structures, but first to more fundamentally consider and debate some of the principles which lie behind a ‘new deal for food’ in Europe. One key area is to re-position rural development concerns right at the heart of the debate…

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Political Ecologies of Conflict, Capitalism and Contestation

International Conference: Political Ecologies of Conflict, Capitalism and Contestation (PE-3C)

When: 7-9 July 2016
Where: Hotel Wageningse Berg, Wageningen, The Netherlands
Organised by: Wageningen University and School of Oriental and African Studies SOAS), University of London

We seem to have entered a new phase in the relation between violence and environment. This includes not just unprecedented surges of wildlife crime and associated military style retaliation, but also the conflicts and contestations that arise from structural unequal access to resources (ironically often exacerbated by environmental policies), and the epistemic and intellectual domination of specific ways of understanding, representing and enacting natures, animals and environments. These forms of conflict and violence are (again) becoming an ever more central aspect of the political ecologies of late capitalism and warrant renewed attention, conceptualization and critique.

This international conference aims to bring together scholars, activists, non-governmental and governmental change-makers and interested individuals to discuss and increase our understanding of the causes, consequences, natures and politics of these dynamics and so inspire and understand contested 21st century political ecologies.

A second objective of the conference is to contribute to a broader understanding of the meaning and nature of political ecology in the 21st century. Political ecology, as the study of how different interests, forms of power and politics influence and frame access to, use and understand the environment, has become a mature field of academic and activist inquiry. One of the untapped strengths of this field is that those who call themselves political ecologists work within a wide variety of different disciplines, traditions and academic cultures. The aim of this conference is to bring these different disciplines, traditions and cultures together and so connect important discussions on the political ecologies of conflict, capitalism and contestation.

Paper and Panel themes: proposals for papers and panels are invited that address a combination of the following themes and issues:

  • Resources and land use practices including but not limited to: biodiversity and conservation, agriculture, agroecology, forests, water management, marine resources, etc;
  • Drivers of violence and conflict such as inequality, resource access, capitalism, markets, governmental policies, ecotourism, militarization, climate change, science and technology, war and crisis, conservation and development programs;
  • Forms and conceptions of violence including but not limited to structural and material forms of violence, symbolic and epistemic violence as well as practices of contestation, resistance and the development of alternatives;
  • Conceptual, theoretical and methodological approaches to political ecology and beyond: (post-)structuralist, (post-)Marxist, governance studies, ANT, discourse analysis, governmentality, biopolitics, cultural studies, posthumanist, ethnographic, etc.

We invite paper and full panel proposals (with a maximum of 4 paper presentations for 1 panel) for this conference; please send these to politicalecology2016@gmail.com<mailto:politicalecology2016@gmail.com> before 15 December 2015.

Abstracts of the papers as well as abstracts describing a full panel should not exceed 300 words.