Here’s why your sustainable tuna is also unsustainable

File 20171012 31408 v1oycx.jpg?ixlib=rb 1.1.0&rect=616.0%2c1039.0%2c3084.0%2c1439
Not all tuna are caught using sustainable methods.

Megan Bailey, Dalhousie University

Tuna is one of the most ubiquitous seafoods. It can be eaten from a can or as high-end sashimi and in many forms in between. But some species are over-fished and some fishing methods are unsustainable. How do you know which type of tuna you’re eating?

Some tuna is certified as sustainably caught by groups such as the Marine Stewardship Council (MSC) that set standards for sustainable fishing. But these certifications are only good if they are credible.

In late August, several media outlets published stories about On the Hook, a new campaign by a consortium of retailers and academics who have taken issue with some fishing practices allowed by the MSC. As a university professor whose research focuses on private seafood governance, including certifications and traceability, and fisheries policy, I am deeply familiar with the issues at hand. I support the campaign, but don’t stand to gain from the outcome.

The Western and Central Pacific skipjack tuna fishery is one of the world’s biggest. Some of the tuna caught here carries the MSC’s blue label, identifying it as the best environmental choice for consumers. But the same boats making that sustainable catch may also use unsustainable methods to catch unsustainable fish on the same day.

The On the Hook coalition sees this as at odds with the MSC certification, as do I. Yes, sustainable and unsustainable fish can be separated; there are people on board whose sole job is to do this. But rewarding fishermen for their sustainable catch, while allowing them to fish unsustainably, dupes consumers into supporting companies that take part in bad behaviour.

Does sorting work?

The On the Hook campaign singles out one fishery in particular: the “purse seine” fishery in the tropical western Pacific Ocean. This fishery covers the waters of eight island nations, including Micronesia, the Marshall Islands, Papua New Guinea and the Solomon Islands. Under the Nauru Agreement, these nations, usually referred to as the Parties to the Nauru Agreement (PNA), collectively control access to about one quarter of the world’s tuna supply.

Fishermen can use nets to catch free-swimming adult tuna and earn MSC certification for their catch. But these same fishermen can also use fish aggregating devices (FADs) — instruments that attract all kinds of marine life, including adult tuna, juvenile tuna and hundreds of species of sharks, turtles and other fish — to net their catch. Fishing on FADs is faster and less costly, but these devices are associated with high levels of bycatch, one of the main sustainability concerns in many fisheries. Fishing on FDAs does not earn MSC certification.

Fish aggregating devices attract ocean-going fish such as tuna.

Under normal operations, the fishermen use both methods. “Compartmentalization” is a technique that allows the unsustainable portion of the fish to be separated on board the vessel from the sustainable portion. This is supposed to provide assurance to consumers that they are making a sustainable choice. Yet the negative environmental impacts connected to FAD fishing operations should surely also be considered in an MSC assessment. Currently, this does not happen.

Compartmentalization remains necessary because there isn’t enough of an economic advantage for companies to make only sustainable catches. It costs fishermen more to fish sustainably because they have to find the tuna, instead of waiting for it to come to the FAD.

A fleet using both methods can be part of a higher value premium market and earn financial security from the high volume, yet unsustainable, fishery. If purse-seining tuna vessels need to subsidize their sustainable fishing with unsustainable practices, then MSC certification has not provided the incentive it set out to.

A holistic fishery

Millions of tonnes of tuna have been fished from the waters of the Western and Central Pacific fishery. But the countries controlling these waters have not benefited to a large extent, mostly due to a lack of cooperation in bargaining for benefits, which allowed distant nations to exploit the fishery.

In the past decade, these Pacific Island states have increased their bargaining power in regional negotiations by implementing a scheme that controls the number of boats that can enter their waters. Under the program, called the vessel day scheme (VDS), these countries can now charge higher fees to boats that want access.

For example, PNA countries used to extract between three per cent and six per cent of the value of tuna fishery in their waters. Since their bargaining power has increased, they can now extract more than 14 per cent of the value, and this number is likely to continue to rise.

This is no small accomplishment for these Pacific Island nations, and other coastal state collectives are now trying to emulate their success. But this does not mean that all of the practices they allow are commendable, including those that are not representative of the “best environmental choice” in seafood.

On my Facebook feed, a colleague recently commented: “A Pacific Islander owned sustainably certified fishery is the wrong target.”

Let me clear up this misconception. The On the Hook campaign is not targeting the PNA, but the MSC. It would like the MSC to delay the recertification — authorized by the accreditation body in September — of the PNA fishery until the compartmentalization practice has been addressed. The fishery needs to be considered holistically.

A school of tuna.
(United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization/Danilo Cedrone), CC BY

For example, the MSC could specify that to earn a certification, a boat cannot fish sustainably and unsustainably on the same fishing trip. Consumer dollars should not be supporting the very practices the MSC condemns.

Another colleague remarked that because the PNA is challenging big industry, the On the Hook campaign might benefit big industry and hurt the PNA. In fact, it is the same boats, the same fleet, the same companies that are fishing MSC-certified tuna and on FADs.

Muddy waters

My colleagues also worry that the campaign calls into question the credibility of the MSC label. But this has actually become commonplace, with many groups pointing at examples of certified fisheries that are not sustainable. For example, the WWF has recommended that seafood buyers should stay away from MSC-certified Mexican tuna.

I would argue that the MSC is tarnishing itself by normalizing the practice of compartmentalization. It is no longer clear that fish carrying the MSC label offer the best environmental choice. Many Canadian fisheries, like lobster, herring, and Atlantic redfish, are MSC-certified. The faltering credibility of the MSC is a major risk for Canadian fish harvesters who rely on the MSC label to communicate their good fishing practices.

Additionally, Canadian consumers who are used to searching for the blue MSC check mark when they shop for seafood can no longer do so thinking that the logo conveys accurate information. Consumers need to know that the waters are muddy, that seafood sustainability is a moving target, and that it is not easy to make the right choice when standing in the aisle at the supermarket.

Governments and businesses need to make that choice easier for consumers. And they could start by dealing with compartmentalization in the PNA fishery — and elsewhere.

The PNA countries could also make demands. They could allow access rights only to vessels that agree to drop the practice of compartmentalization and that are transparent about their fishing practices.

The ConversationMore than anything, the MSC needs to take a good look at itself and remember what it is supposed to represent — the best environmental choice — not consumer confusion.

Megan Bailey, Assistant Professor, Canada Research Chair, Integrated Ocean and Coastal Governance, Dalhousie University

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Geoethics – Call for abstracts

The IAPG (International Association for Promoting Geoethics) organizes/supports five sessions on geoethics at the Resources Future Generations – RFG 2018 Conference (Vancouver, 16-21 June 2018) under the Theme “Resources and Society: Social & Ethical Values”.

More information:

A certain brand of callousness

In my essay “We need to talk about this” I mention that I have on occasion been shocked by a certain brand of callousness that I have seen (too) often in Britain (both in the media and in real life). Here is one example of what I mean.


You can only justify such occurrences by applying a tweaked form of utilitarian reasoning. One person was suffering, but “wasn’t really harmed” and the number of people who were enjoying what was being done to George Cheese was greater than 1, hence these occurrences “increased overall happiness”.

The fact that utilitarianism was associated with the higher classes may have given this type of reasoning or events an unfortunate aura of “cleverness”. It could also explain why anyone who condemns the sort of things that were being done to George Cheese is seen by some as “naïve” and “not quite with it”.

Utilitarianism also attached little importance to individual persons’ rights. It would have stopped short from, say, stabbing someone like George Cheese as opposed to setting his clothes on fire and stuffing him into the trunk/boot of a car. This is the kind of background, I think, that enabled Simon Wright to say “It did not go too far.”

In reality, abuse targets like George don’t get to LIVE. All they are allowed to do is wait for their natural deaths. George Cheese said “FUCK THAT!” and stood up for himself in the only way he had left.

At least there is an inquest. That’s good.



What do you get if you cross George W. Bush, Nigel Farage, Donald Trump and Geert Wilders?

What do you get if you cross George W. Bush, Nigel Farage, Donald Trump and Geert Wilders?

Ehm… an ethics professor at Oxford University???

I have read a few of Julian Savulescu’s papers and they are certainly all very eloquently written. That said, not only did I sense a vague underlying fear as motivation for some views he expressed in a particular article (Procreative Beneficence: Why We Should Select the Best Children), those views scared me.

Then I ran into a report of a talk he gave in Japan in 2011 and it provided some clues. It appears that he is worried that the human species won’t survive much longer and believes that the solution lies in (tinkering with genes but also) ensuring that persons with so-called undesirable genes no longer come to life.

He is not wrong regarding his fears for the human species. Unfortunately, some of his argumentation is flawed, resembling the kind of reasoning that is sometimes presented by, say, the Daily Mail or the Daily Express and then attacked by scientists for being biased, incomplete and unbalanced.

This gives some of his argumentation a strongly irrational tinge and that is probably why some of his views scare me. He works at the University of Oxford (and was previously based at the Royal Children’s Hospital in Melbourne). I expect a lot more from someone in his position and I certainly expect a lot more from academic papers. He has a responsibility to do much better and is surely capable of it.

For example, eradicating the incidence of asthma by eradicating asthmatics – which he proposed in that paper I refer to above – is like making sure that house fires no longer happen by demolishing all housing.

Bad air quality – one of the factors that play a role in asthma – is generally not caused by asthmatics and so eradicating asthmatics won’t improve air quality. As I am sure he knows, other factors include stress, certain medications, and allergies for wheat and other foods. Poverty – living with mold-covered walls and ceilings – is also a major factor. We should address those issues first, also because they are linked to other negatives and would help ameliorate those as well.

I agree with him that we humans face huge challenges, but I believe that there are currently much better ways of tackling them than eugenics. As two examples, I recommend the TED Talks by his learned colleagues Jane McGonigal and Rutger Bregman. The former has very attractive – and very up-to-date – ideas for how we can boost our problem-solving skills and the latter knows how we can lift the IQs of a very large group of people by roughly 14 points and save a lot of money in the process without too much trouble. It would also help make things better for asthmatics. Both are much more elegant scenarios than the scenario of eugenics (by any name).

His Procreative Beneficence article includes a table that lists 13 traits under the heading “behavioural genetics”:

I feel it is best to refrain from comment on that table. It speaks for itself.

Next, I wanted to take a look at the book he and his Swedish colleague Ingmar Persson published in 2012 (Unfit for the Future) and my jaw dropped when I read the summaries on the Oxford Scholarship site. Literally.

In it, they use the phrase “weapons of mass destruction” many times. They list “weapons of mass destruction” under the heading “catastrophic misuse of science” and combine it with keywords like “xenophobia” and “multiculturalism” but also “biological weapons,” “nuclear weapons” and “terrorism”. They write that “the multiculturalism of current liberal democracies make it likely that they will contain groups of people hostile to their ideology.”

They appear to think that “it might be possible for a well-organized terrorist group” “or even single individuals” to construct “weapons of mass destruction” and that this should be addressed by administering the hormone oxytocin, which they consider a drug. To me, this sounds like a combination of George W. Bush, Nigel Farage, classic Donald Trump and Geert Wilders speaking. I was astonished.

Persson and Savulescu put the cherry on the icing by the following two sentences:

“However, it is admitted that research into biomedical agents of moral enhancement is still in its infancy and that it is too early to judge its fruitfulness. There is also the general difficulty that means of moral enhancement have to be administered by morally imperfect people.”

Will this be developed into the next James Bond film, I wonder?

The book summary starts with the following sentence: “It is easier for us to harm each other than to benefit each other, e.g. easier to kill than to save a life”. That statement does not sound particularly healthy to me and I wonder what a psychologist or psychiatrist might make of it. I see people save other people’s lives on a daily basis and I don’t live that far from Oxford so my environment can’t be that different from Savulescu’s, though there is likely more poverty in my neck of the woods than in and around Oxford. People saving other people’s lives may happen more frequently than he and Persson think, even in countries like Syria.

Thankfully, I found some common ground in half of the chapters. Our planet is in trouble. I agree with that. But is it true that families with babies – young parents tend to produce a lot of oxytocin – are better for the environment than the rest of us?

What would happen if you throw in a bit of extra testosterone, another hormone that seems to be taking the world by storm as a bioenhancer at the moment? Testosterone is linked to aggression, after all. Would that cancel out the effect of the oxytocin? And for women, a bit of progesterone may be better than oxytocin but then again, estrogen is better for memory even though it tends to make women cranky. Less sweet. Testosterone on the other hand generally is not that good for memory.

Coffee is, though, particularly for people at more advanced ages and coffee has a number of other benefits. It is very good for the liver, even helps diseased livers recover, for instance, and it is a mild bronchodilator that works for about four hours after administration.

What does oxytocin do for memory? And, might it cause many women to lactate?

And could the unbridled practice of eugenics negatively influence oxytocin production in parents? Would it pitch hubris (such a powerful word!) and consumerism versus humility and gratitude? Could it push society toward psychopathy on the human diversity spectrum that ranges from extreme altruism to psychopathy?

I don’t think there is a one-pill-fits-all solution for the problems the world faces, with or without administration by morally imperfect people.

I did something similar. I went the other way and wrote a deliberately provocative essay – “We need to talk about this” – that highlights some of the downsides of eugenics. (The booklet has its limitations; I am working on a second edition.) I am just an ordinary educated citizen who believes in embracing (bio)diversity – also because there are good reasons for it – and in inclusive solidarity. I am not a professor at Oxford University. Maybe that’s a good thing.

I have also communicated the above to professor Savulescu, via ResearchGate. I don’t expect to hear back from him.




I would like to add a few words about what the BBC posted on its website on 24 May. Attacks like the one in Manchester – note that this does not involve the biological or nuclear weapons of mass destruction Persson and Savulescu are worried about – take expertise that is difficult to come by and require a lot of planning and preparation, which increases the chance that agencies like MI5 will find out about such plans long before they can be executed, the BBC wrote. The type of individual required– not the type that Persson and Savulescu are concerned about, as that would be much rarer – is “very rare” according to the BBC.