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The fight to stop overfishing

Photography: Shutterstock

Professor Simon Bush from Wageningen University & Research (WUR) has a dual goal that may at first sight seem contradictory: to protect tuna and to help the fisheries sector keep going. “The fact that not everyone is happy with our work shows we must be having an impact.”


Overfishing is a problem that directly threatens the survival of fish species. At the same time, fishing is an essential source of income for whole populations. A thorough understanding of supply chains is needed if a balance is to be found between ecology and economy.


In this project, a dataset and an app made it possible to indicate the precise origin of tuna from Indonesia caught by small-scale fisheries. This tuna is sold on the American market for a premium price because consumers can be sure the tuna they are buying was caught sustainably.

Overfishing is a hard nut to crack. The Pacific Ocean, where about 60 per cent of all tuna is caught, stretches over many thousands of square kilometres and dozens of different countries, each with their own system of governance. Many of these local economies are largely dependent on their fisheries. “For some islands in the Pacific Ocean, 70 per cent of the national revenue comes from tuna fisheries,” says Simon Bush. “Moreover, some of the larger fisheries have nothing to gain from becoming more sustainable. They have grown big and rich thanks to this fishing system.”


Bush and his team are studying how agreements on sustainability are reached, and also what effect such agreements have. That approach deviates from the way most research groups outside WUR work. “They might study the maximum that fisheries can catch, and which fishing methods work best to avoid getting unwanted by-catch. But this is not purely an ecological problem. You might know which fishing methods are best, but you still cannot do much if they are not implemented.”

Ensuring that tuna is not only traceable but contributes information for sustainable management is a challenging proposition.

Bush is monitoring developments in the fisheries policy very closely and interested in how the various businesses in the supply chain collaborate. In the BESTTuna research project, a study was carried out on the traceability of tuna sustainably fished by small fisheries in Indonesia. “Previously it was not known exactly how much tuna, or what species, these fisheries catch. They are very small, often with just one boat, so it is very hard to obtain all that data. But they do catch an awful lot of fish between them.”

Martijn Meijer and Karlijn Steinbusch, Adessium Foundation

‘Nice example of a multidisciplinary approach’

Bush was convinced it ought to be possible to obtain data from these fisheries. “The chain is capable of a complex level of organisation as their fresh fish reaches American supermarkets in no time. So why would it be impossible to produce the figures?” The project started by persuading small fisheries to collaborate and provide data on the fish species they catch. “To persuade them, you have to be able to show that it is important for their long-term food security not to over-fish now, and that selling fish which they can prove was sustainably fished will ultimately generate a better income.”

Sustainable caught tuna. Photo: Alamy

This extra information brings dilemmas with it too: To whom does all the information collected belong? While Bush thinks that it should all be freely available, he recognises that data can be misused. It could, for example, tell illegal fisheries precisely where tuna can be found. And the information could affect competition among companies. “I think this will be the big bone of contention in the future.”

Bush nonetheless believes that public-private partnerships and better traceability can help make fisheries more sustainable. “Since fisheries and environmental organisations have been playing a big role themselves, the attitude of the governments has begun to change. At first, countries mainly sought to hold on to their maximum catches. Now there is a much more dynamic process which also looks at how much tuna can be caught and by whom.”

A fisherman shows a skipjack tuna. Photo: Pacifical

Bush works a lot with fisheries and environmental organisations in his research, partly to gather information. As a result, those partners get the chance to learn new things in turn. “Our research is obviously taken into account when new policy is developed. The stakeholders do not always like what we do but what we do is valid which, in the end, is appreciated. And if you notice that not everyone is happy with what you are doing that also means your work is having an impact.”


The scientists developed a system in which the tuna caught by small fisheries can be traced throughout the entire chain. Using an app with a barcode, consumers can now see precisely where their tuna comes from. The system can also be used to check whether a fishery is overfishing.

Meanwhile, there are several other systems in use which are intended to reduce the pressure on tuna stocks. A lot of fisheries in the Pacific Ocean work with a maximum number of days they are allowed to fish. These tradable fishing rights are linked to an information system with data about the size of the catch on a given day, which is then used to improve the regulation of the fisheries.

This is a revised version of an article that previously appeared in Wageningen World.



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