Monday, October 31, 2011

Tuna: Big Fish, Big Problem

It's Hallowe'en tonight, so I thought it appropriate to tell you a horror story of sorts. For many years, I've been unhappy about how much damage is being done by the fishing industry; this is an often overlooked topic because when we think of food production we think of farms first. The problems with fishing bother me so much that I wrote about them within a few days of starting this blog! A few months ago I also explored the issue of mercury contamination in big fish. Needless to say, these days I'm quite picky when it comes to my consumption of fish and seafood, and I'm always on the lookout for more information and news. So today I give you four sad truths about the canned tuna industry (originally published by Grist) in hopes that we will all make smarter choices on our next trip to the supermarket.

1. Fish Aggregating Devices

These contraptions are appropriately named because they manage to attract a lot of fish to one area, making their capture almost insultingly easy. It turns out that fish aggregating devices, or FADs, are almost like ecosystem creators: a fishing vessel will drop a big floating object onto the surface of the ocean, leave it behind with a radio beacon for later retrieval, and soon enough small plants root themselves onto the object, which attract small fish seeking a hiding place, which attract larger fish seeking a food source. Tuna in particular love to hang around beneath this floating world of activity. And so it comes to pass that fishing vessels net entire schools of skipjack tuna... but the FAD also gives them sharks, dolphins, other fish, and juvenile yellowfin and bigeye tuna. In other words, two types of tuna that are already disappearing at an alarming rate now face an even greater challenge because we're killing their young before they've had a chance to breed. Just so that we can spend no more than a couple of bucks on a can of skipjack tuna. What a teensy price to help bring animals closer to extinction!

2. Longlines

What matters about longlines aren't that the lines sometimes stretch as far as a few miles between buoys, but rather that the leads dangling from the main line have baited hooks attached at the end. As with FADs, longlines catch more than they should. Instead of reeling in only albacore tuna, the typical variety found in cans marked "white tuna", fishing vessels will find a bycatch of turtles, albatross, sharks, and numerous sea birds attracted to the shiny metal of the hooks and the food dangling from them. Shockingly, the non-targeted animals killed by longlines account for about 30% of the catch! I can't think of any other industry in which such a large margin for error is tolerated. And it's not just error, it's unnecessary death. I guess the albacore fishing industry makes so much money that it just doesn't matter.

3. The Wild West on the High Seas

Every island nation in the Pacific is entitled to an exclusive economic zone (EEZ) in the sea, in which limits are set on how much fish may be caught. In order to manage tuna stocks sustainably, countries must be able to impose and enforce strict quotas, otherwise all ocean wildlife will be fished until there is nothing left. What is a greedy company to do to make more money? Set sail for the high seas pockets outside of the the 200-mile boundaries of neighbouring island states' EEZs. These pockets are unregulated and unpatrolled, allowing fishing vessels to net as many fish as they'd like without having to stay within a maximum limit and without having to pay any fees to the nearby countries. The companies multiply their profit margin, the fish stocks get decimated, the Pacific nations are stuck with less healthy and robust tuna stocks that they must manage with less money. The fishing companies win, and everybody else loses.

4. Social Injustice

To add insult to injury, the Pacific island states that can't afford to defend their waters fall victim to bullies: large, wealthy nations like Taiwan, Spain, and the United States in conjunction with tuna corporations that lack an ethical code. Their fishing vessels literally take what isn't theirs inside of these nations' EEZs with no regard whatsoever for the desperate need of islanders to make a living off of tuna, as it is their only resource. In response to this bullying, some of the Pacific island states have decided to join forces to better defend themselves and maintain their tuna stocks. This new collaborative is called the Parties to the Nauru Agreement (PNA), and it involves Micronesia, Kiribati, the Marshall Islands, Nauru, Palau, Papua New Guinea, the Solomon Islands, and Tuvalu. 25-30% of global tuna stocks are managed within the EEZs of these eight states, so there is a lot to lose if the Nauru Agreement isn't better supported by fishing companies.

What Can You Do?
  • If you're looking for light tuna, make sure it's labelled as pole-and-line or FAD-free skipjack.
  • If white tuna is on your grocery list, what you'll want is the pole-and-line albacore variety.
  • Support companies that make it a point to avoid fishing in the high seas pockets.
  • Buy only from companies that publicly support the Parties to the Nauru Agreement (PNA).

Image of yellowfin tuna used under Creative Commons from Roro Fernandez (flickr).
Image of albatross used under Creative Commons from marj k (flickr).
Image of fishing vessel/coast guard used under Creative Commons from Coast Guard News (flickr).
Image of pirate flag used under Creative Commons from Chris Evans (drumminhands/flickr).


  1. It is such a massive problem. If fishing trends remain unchecked, some scientists have said that we will have outfished every population by 2050. It is a shocking reality that we are just not taking seriously. I don't eat much fish these days, just becuase I don't know what is good/bad/horrible.

    I hate that people who fish sustainably in little boats, who need these fish to feed themselves, who have no other options, are being pushed out by the big companies.

    Have you watched the documentary "End of the Line". Sad, but excellent.

  2. Wow, 2050 is not that far off. How is it even possible for one species (humans) to eradicate so many other species? And the oceans are so vast... there are so many fish... and still we could accomplish this in the next 40 years. Frightening.

  3. I heard a couple years ago on CBC radio about the shark deaths resulting from the tuna industry and the resulting effects the shellfish industry. Fewer sharks means that there are fewer to predate on the ray populations resulting in higher ray populations. This in turn results in higher predation by rays on bivalves and crustaceans. I have not bought tuna in any shape or form for over two years.

  4. Thanks for this great example of how screwing up one thing actually screws up a whole bunch of things. Especially in such a complex ecosystem like the ocean! As usual, humans are messing with things they don't fully understand, all in the name of profit.

  5. The news about tuna is depressing... and important, of course.

    Allow me my moment of moral superiority here for a moment: Trout. Sustainably farmed or fished, it really is fantastic (and local!). Now if I could just find somebody who cold smokes them... but I digress.

    There's an unfortunate Catch-22 going on with tuna: if we stop buying it, then companies will be desperate to find ways to drop the price (meaning that more and more will resort to even worse methods of fishing the depleted stocks). If we DON'T stop buying it, then the stocks deplete at their current unsustainable rates! Thank heavens that there are some companies that are making moves into fishing sustainably... by giving them our hard earned dollars we can send a message to those fisheries that are too profit-driven to make such moral decisions at this point.

    Whether that will make enough different soon enough or not... hard to say.

  6. The catch-22 is pretty depressing, I agree. And while supporting companies using sustainable practices is a great alternative, it's not an option everywhere. Sadly, I don't hold out much hope for tuna, and I'm scared to think about the long-term repercussions of wiping out such a large ocean predator, as Susan alluded to in her comment.