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Is “sustainability” sustainable anymore?

The Maldives – a tiny island state in the middle of the Indian Ocean – is where I call home. It’s known for its pristine waters, 5-star resorts, and fisheries. Of the three, the locals most clearly identify with the fisheries, and specifically our world-renown tuna fishery. Our tuna are caught sustainably – one-at-a-time with almost no bycatch. And our tuna literally fuels the entire country. The average Maldivian eats half a kilo of tuna per day. That can be breakfast, lunch, and dinner (and maybe a snack or two in between).

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Back in 2008, our tuna fishing industry decided to obtain an internationally-recognized eco-label (the MSC Blue Tick), to let the world know what we’ve known for over 1,000 years – that our fishery is sustainable. In 2012, when MSC finally decided to award us with the MSC certificate, the President personally accepted the certificate from MSC’s CEO during the Fishermen’s Day celebrations. It illustrated the importance our leaders placed on the white piece of paper certifying what we already knew – that our low-impact fishery was, and is, ‘SUSTAINABLE’.

The main theme of this year’s INFOFISH Tuna 2018 – Bangkok Conference, the largest tuna industry gathering in the world, was “Braving Challenges: Towards Traceable and Sustainable Tuna Industry”. The agenda was filled with tuna businesses, tuna processors, market analysts and technological innovators. There was little focus on fishermen and fish workers. I have always believed that sustainability and traceability of tuna industry should come from the back-bone of the industry – the fishermen and fish workers.

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The opening remarks by the chairman of the Conference was a stunner!! Speaking about the sustainability of purse seine fisheries using FADs, he claimed that the media has exaggerated the impact of FADs on the environment and that the real impact is minimal. Imagine that! The opener of a conference about ‘sustainability’ saying that one of the most environmentally impactful fishing gears is actually not a problem. I was simply beyond words!

And that presentation set the tone of the rest of the meeting. For the next two days, one presentation after the next, (barring a few notable exceptions), explained how tuna sourced and/or tuna processed were sustainable. Based on what I heard, the FAD purse seine fishery was sustainable, the free school purse seine fishery was sustainable, the pole and line fishery was sustainable, the longline fishery was sustainable, the fishery that was not sustainable, but has ambitions of achieving sustainability through a Fisheries Improvement Programme (FIP) was sustainable, tuna sourced from overexploited stocks was sustainable, fishing vessels supported by huge subsidies from governments were sustainable, and, finally, fair labour standards in fisheries were also a mechanism to establish sustainably sourced products. When I got out of the conference room on the second day, I was asking myself, are any tuna products ‘NOT SUSTAINABLE?”

Following Bangkok, I flew to Indonesia to participate in the Bali-Tuna Conference in Indonesia. It was a Government-Industry-NGO gathering to address the issues of sustainability of tuna resources in one of the largest tuna fisheries in the world. The main discussion point in the conference was the drive by the International Pole and Line Foundation, the fishermen associations, and the industry to achieve MSC certification for the pole-and-line and handline tuna fishery. One of the questions posed by an attendee to the panel representing retailers and the processing industry was whether obtaining MSC certification was good enough. There were questions posed by the audience whether the costs and the changes brought to the fishery to achieve the targets of MSC can be recovered and finally whether the average fisherman will benefit from the MSC certification. The panel replied that the market demanded sustainable products and if the Indonesian fishermen did not meet those demands, the markets would stop sourcing products from Indonesia. But the remaining two questions were hanging in the air, with no clear answers.

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If every product in the market was sustainable based on the fish processor’s definition of sustainability, how confused will the consumer be? Moreover, if the third party certification body aims to maximize their profit by expanding their eco-label on every product, how can the consumer decide whether it’s genuinely sustainable? Unfortunately, sustainability has turned into such a big fat lie in the realm of tuna! How will the markets react when the consumers find out that hundreds of endangered sharks have been caught along with their ‘sustainably’ sourced fish?

It’s true that consumers in developed nations are demanding more and more sustainably sourced tuna. The only way to guarantee and show to the consumer that the tuna is sustainable is to obtain an eco-label such as Fair Trade, MSC or others. However, the level of burden for small scale fisheries to obtain these eco-labels is much higher than that of an industrial fishery. Imagine what it takes to manage and collect data from thousands of widely dispersed fishing boats in a developing country compared to a handful of industrial fishing vessels. Secondly, the costs of obtaining and maintaining an eco-label is enormous from the perspective of a small scale fishery, and only a drop in the bucket for the big boys. An eco-label does not guarantee a premium, but only guarantees access to the market. Thus the bottom line is, if the small-scale fishermen want to sell their products they need to obtain an eco-label, but may end up with a loss!

With all this at the back of my mind, I feel that sustainability needs to be graded in the future. There needs to be a mechanism to differentiate between the most sustainable to least sustainable! For example, a fishery catching tuna one by one, with almost no interaction with endangered, threatened, and protected species (so-called ETP) and having the wealth of the fishery being distributed among the local community should be differentiated from a fishery catching thousands of tuna from a single scoop with huge by-catch of ETP species and no support to the local community. A fishery that catches hundreds of endangered sharks as by-catch and a fishery with almost no bycatch need to be differentiated.

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For me it has always been that a fishery can only be sustainable if the fish was caught within scientifically supported limits, and with almost no by-catch of vulnerable marine life or habitat damage. But I wonder, what about the human element in it? Should that ‘sustainable’ classification also include labour conditions and welfare? Food security and livelihoods? After all, fisheries management is about managing humans rather than the actual fish. Shouldn’t we be sure those catching the fish are part of our sustainable future? What is a sustainable fishery for you?

Extended reading:

Bailey M, Packer H, Schiller L, and Tlusty M. 2018. The role of CSR in creating a Seussian approach to seafood sustainability. Fish and Fisheries https://doi.org/10.1111/faf.12289

Miller A, and Bush SR. Authority without credibility? 2015. Competition and conflict between ecolabels in tuna fisheries, Journal of Cleaner Production,Volume 107: 137-145,
https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jclepro.2014.02.047

 

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