7:00 am; Labuhan Lombok, Indonesia. It’s offloading time on the 30-foot-long M/V Nusa Indah 2. Crewmen pop the lid off the hold and pull yellowfin tuna from the icy pool below. The silver-skinned behemoths weigh 150 pounds apiece, and it takes three men to move one fish across the boat deck to a waiting factory truck. But the actual reeling in of each fish from the ocean is done by a single man using nothing more than his two hands, a hook, and 15 feet of millimeter-thin plastic line, explains Hasdi, a Nusa Indah 2 crewman.
“The fight can take five minutes,” he says. “It can also take an hour!”
Handline fisheries like these are the surest way to avoid landing bycatch, and therefore are the most sustainable form of tuna fishing, argued John Burton, president of the International Pole and Line Foundation, at the opening of the International Coastal Tuna Business Forum held last month in Bali, Indonesia.
Crews are made up of six to seven men. Fishing trips last between 10 and 14 days. The men work from dawn to dusk. The crew sits on the stern, monitoring fishing lines buoyed by plastic jerry cans. When a can bounces, a single crewman hauls in the line. Everyone else moves to the front of the boat to get out of the way. If a turtle or shark comes up on the hook, the crew simply cuts the line and off the animal swims. Handline crews can catch as many as ten tuna in a day — or as few as one.
By Burton’s estimate, Indonesia — the world’s largest source of tuna — lands 100,000 tons of tuna with such small-scale, low impact techniques. That’s just under a tenth of national tuna landings. But little of it is sold under eco-labels, which earn sustainably harvested seafood a premium price in U.S. and European grocery stores.
The reason is that eco-labels typically require catch tallies and fishery stock assessments to show that a fishery can support the amount of fish being caught, but here in Indonesia these are not done systematically or at all. Effective fishery management depends on quality data, which does not exist in Indonesia, and without which claims of sustainability cannot be made.
Western consumers are increasingly concerned about buying sustainable fish, and in recent years, the private sector has tried to increase the traceability of where and how their canned and filleted products were caught. This is a requirement for fisheries to earn Marine Stewardship Council (MSC) certification, the premier seafood eco-label. Currently no Indonesian fisheries have MSC certification, and getting the certification is a high priority for suppliers sourcing fish from here.
“A lot of retailers have made a commitment to sell 70 to 90 percent MSC-label fish by 2015 or 2016,” explained Helen Packer, science coordinator at Florida-based tuna processor Anova Food, a subsidiary of tuna giant Bumble Bee Foods. Packer told mongabay.com she thinks the market is inevitably going to require MSC certification for all tuna products. “Deadlines are approaching and we have to keep up with them in order to secure our market share.”
Anova initiated a Fishery Improvement Project (FIP) for their handline yellowfin tuna (Thunnus albacares) fishery in 2010. Bumble Bee adopted the FIP when they took over ANOVA in 2013.
To distinguish themselves as sustainable sources of fish, suppliers may pursue MSC certification. And if they can’t get that immediately, they may pursue a FIP — often a several-year commitment to achieve goals towards MSC eligibility. However, a recent policy paper in the journal Science showed that many companies enrolled in FIPs are slow to attain MSC certification, and some seem unlikely ever to make it.
Civil society organizations can also run FIPs, and small FIPs can feed into larger FIPs. For example, in Indonesia the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) orchestrated an MSC pre-assessment of Indonesia’s tuna fisheries in 2009, then created what it called a tuna “Action Plan” FIP that offered companies and civil society groups a road map for sustainability gaps they would need to tackle if they want to achieve MSC certification.
With their FIP, which feeds into WWFs broader one, Anova, and now Bumble Bee, took on Indonesia’s dearth of tuna stock data. Today, Indonesia’s national tuna stock assessments are compiled from periodic scientific expeditions; numbers gathered by locals for the regional and national government on a volunteer basis; numbers compiled by companies pursuing data-gathering FIPs, like Anova; and numbers gathered by NGOs dockside or in factories.
Anova set up data-collection points at five sites in eastern Indonesia, including at Labuhan Lombok. With their purse-seiners and longliners elsewhere in the Pacific, they are trying to make sure logbooks are kept and each boat has on-board observers. But data collection is proving difficult across all tuna fishery types, frustrating efforts to improve fishery management.
“Handliners aren’t filling out their logbooks and instead a third party is, once the fish come into port,” Labuhan Lombok harbormaster Herman Effendi told mongabay.com. Effendi’s job entails certifying the legality of catches. “It makes my job confusing. If the numbers on the document are false, who am I supposed to hold accountable, the third party signer of documents? Or the fishermen themselves?”
Even among fishermen who can read and write, the dockside fish counters are considered a hindrance. “People here don’t see the point of collecting data,” Riza Baroqi, the Labuhan Lombok site supervisor for Masyarakat dan Perikanan Indonesia, the civil-society organization that runs data collection with donations from Anova. “They say, ‘why measure the fish? What will I get from measuring?’ They want profit from the moment we arrive. They don’t look at the future. Often this means we only gather complete information on every third fish.”
The smaller the buyer, and the further from sales to western markets they are, the more reluctant they are about participating in data collection for FIPs.
Baura, a Labuhan Lombok-based company that buys the Nusa Indah 2‘s handline-caught tuna, grudgingly allows enumerators in to count fish. But the company does not see the advantage. “They don’t explain the effect for the fishermen so we don’t want to join in a FIP,” Askar Daeng Sila, Baura’s junior manager, told mongabay.com.
This difference in level of concern and willingness to comply comes down to incentives. Retailers can directly ask consumers for two to five dollars more per can or fillet of eco-certified tuna, but they don’t pass this markup on to suppliers, let alone fishermen. Instead retailers offer pressure. They munch on carrots while waving a stick.
Packer from Anova acknowledged this criticism. “Retailers don’t help with FIPs and they don’t offer suppliers a price premium. I understand why they only give us pressure. If they started to help, they’d have to help with all twenty species in their supermarket outlets,” she said.
But her counterparts from smaller Indonesian companies are less understanding. “We just want appreciation for what we’ve done so far,” Pt. Intimas Surya general manager Ivan Hans Jorgih, told mongabay.com. Intimas Surya, an Indonesian fish processor, has two FIPs. It has placed government fishery observers on all seven of its longline vessels, which account for half its landings, to collect scientific data for stock analysis and train crews to collect catch data. It has also hired dockside fish counters in the Maluku islands to tally its handline catch. This accounts for an additional one-sixth of the company’s landings.
Intimas Surya has gone ahead and created its own label, “responsible harvesting,” that it sells in Safeway and other American supermarket chains. “Thankfully, our efforts don’t yet entail a per-kilo additional cost, but nonetheless we would like a price premium for our efforts,” Jorgih said.
At the International Coastal Tuna Business Forum in Bali last month, which was attended by the likes of Chicken of the Sea and UK-based grocery giant Sainsbury, suppliers like Intimas Surya were told that is not going to happen.
As it stands, the burdens on fishermen and local suppliers for better fishery management outstrip the incentives, but this situation could change if the Indonesian government gets involved, at federal and local levels.
“If FIPs go well, we can hope for more reliable information, better managed stocks, more legally compliant companies,” the Director General of Marketing and Processing for Indonesia’s Ministry of Fisheries, Saut Hutagalung, told mongabay.com. “FIPs are a step towards managing fisheries responsibly and sustainably.”
The ministry’s Director General of Capture Fisheries, Gellwyn Yusuf, said he strongly supports better stock assessment data, borne out of his fear that Indonesia’s skipjack tuna fishery could collapse the way the American Atlantic cod fishery did in 1992. But he said these efforts will only be successful if local governments take part.
“When we invite involvement of local government, we see a reluctance,” said Yusuf. “We have to be patient in convincing them of what is the benefit for doing this in [the] long term.”
Like the local suppliers, he said, “they want more instant results, income.”
|CORRECTION: An earlier version of the story incorrectly stated that Bumble Bee is trying to get MSC certification of its Indonesian handline fishery by the end of this year.|
- Sampson, G.S., Sanchirico, J.N., Roheim, C.A., Bush, S.R., Taylor, J.E., Allison, E.H., Anderson, J.L., Ban, N.C., Fujita, R., Jupiter, S., & Wilson, J.R. Secure sustainable seafood from developing countries: Require improvements as conditions for market access. Science. 348(6234): 504-506 (2015).