Q&A: Tuna giant Tri Marine’s Matt Owens talks FADs, NGOs and pole-and-line

January 28, 2013, 3:05 pm

Matt Owens recently joined Tri Marine International, a tuna firm involved in trading and processing in the newly-created position of director of environmental policy and social responsibility.

He came to the tuna giant from Fish Wise, a non-profit organization focused on building sustainable seafood programs for leading US retailers.

What do you think you’ll bring to the position, and how do you think your previous experience will help?

My main emphasis academically and professionally has been market-based approaches to marine conservation.

While the importance and necessity of regulatory systems cannot be underestimated, and environmental advocacy is an important tool, I also believe in the power of the marketplace to influence positive change (versus solely focusing on profit).

Tri Marine recognizes this, and we are entering into a new era where corporate social responsibility is taken seriously and companies use their buying power to build relationships with suppliers that incorporate environmental and social objectives.

My previous experience of developing and implementing sustainable seafood policies with some of America’s largest retailers, like Safeway Inc, has been very valuable in this regard. I anticipate drawing from this and other related experiences to lead efforts at Tri Marine that strengthen our commitment to responsible resource use and social responsibility.

Coming from an NGO background, what do you make of the tuna sector and its sustainability in general at the moment?

In regards to the sustainability of the tuna sector in general, there are serious concerns we need to tackle, yet there are opportunities to reverse troubling trends and create a sustainable industry.

Outside of the Arctic and Antarctic and their receding icepacks, we are talking about the final frontiers of wild capture fisheries; the last great hunts.

Unfortunately, we as humans typically fail to learn from history and seem unable to compromise our positions for the greater good, so tuna fisheries, like many others, are likely to succumb to the tragedy of the commons, become overfished, and have ecosystem impacts that we struggle to fully understand.

“It is important to recognize that different NGOs have different approaches, just like different seafood companies do, and having specialization and multiple angles is a good strategy”

The problems are particularly acute in areas beyond national jurisdiction, i.e. the high seas where so much tuna is caught.

More and more vessels with better and better technology are entering the tuna fisheries, but are shooting themselves in the feet. Catch per unit effort climbs, hits its peak, then declines towards commercially unviability.

Obviously this is a huge generalization, as each tuna fishery is nuanced depending on region, species, and gear type, but for the most part each is somewhere along this spectrum.

One of the challenges in getting tuna fisheries management right is that it is very difficult, if not impossible, to isolate regions, species and gear types. Each affects the other. This is the fundamental issue with FADs. Industrial purse seiners using drifting FADs are primarily targeting skipjack stocks that are healthy, but catching significant amounts of small yellowfin and bigeye, negatively impacting stocks that are becoming overfished in some areas.

Because their target is skipjack when setting on FADs, and they can also market the yellowfin and bigeye they catch, there is no economic incentive aligned against them; economic impact on the other catch sectors that are targeting adult yellowfin and bigeye is not their concern.

Then there are the poorly understood, broader ecosystem impacts that can result from the heavy use of FADs, such as potential to affect tuna behavior and reproductivity, and the bycatch of sensitive non-target species.

All that said, FADs are not inherently bad. They have been used in some form or another almost since humans began fishing. Just like any other fishing technique, their overuse is what is bad, and not understanding their overall impact is bad. We can get a handle on this by using economic incentives, like encouraging and supporting market demand for free school purse seine caught tuna or pole and line caught tuna, and in the case of FAD caught purse seine tuna, institute cap and trade measures for the number of allowable FAD sets. And of course there is the need to invest in and respond to scientific advice, which is an ongoing struggle.

Finally, I think pole and line fishing is fantastic and has room to grow.

“One of the challenges in getting tuna fisheries management right is that it is very difficult, if not impossible, to isolate regions, species and gear types. Each affects the other. This is the fundamental issue with FADs”

It will never replace purse seine fishing or longlining (which I guess is a conversation for another day) but it can and should make up a larger proportion of tuna catch in areas where it makes sense (availability of baitfish, proximity to fishing grounds, etc.).

The socio-economic benefit to fishermen and fishing communities is substantial, it is a selective gear with negligible by-catch, and the baitfish upon which it depends can be sustainably managed.

This is why Tri Marine has made direct investment into revitalizing pole and line fishing in the Solomon Islands. The International Pole and Line Foundation (IPNLF) is also a great resource for advancing these fisheries and their markets.

Can you say anything specific about what Tri Marine hopes to do regarding sustainability this year, or in the future? Has the size of Tri Marine given you hope that it could make a significant difference to the industry?

Tri Marine has been working toward becoming an environmentally responsible company for some time, which is what attracted me to them in the first place, and of course this will continue.

We are a founding member of the International Sustainable Seafood Foundation (ISSF), and are playing a role in pushing forward a number of their environmental resolutions that apply to the bulk of global tuna purse seine fisheries.

These include protections against illegal, unregulated and unreported fishing (IUU), capacity reduction, bycatch reduction, FAD management, a ban on pelagic gillnets, a ban on shark fining, and traceability measures.

Skipjack Tuna in East Pacific Ocean

We have also taken a lead with scientific expeditions on Tri Marine purse seine vessels to test bycatch mitigation measures, one of which is underway now.

Furthermore, we have and continue to develop more environmentally responsible tuna products for our customers, such as a free-school purse seine caught skipjack for Safeway’s private label in the US and Canada, and pole and line caught and school caught skipjack for major European brands.

In 2013 and beyond, we plan to formalize these and additional efforts into transparent company policies that promote best practices both environmentally and socially, and institute verification tools that ensure compliance throughout our supply chains.

The size of Tri Marine should help ensure that these policies will be respected and result in a substantial positive impact.

It is also the philosophy of Tri Marine as a company that can help make a difference. We believe our policies should be built together with our partners in a mutually beneficial fashion.

It’s important to understand that no company can single-handedly change the world’s tuna fisheries. We believe strongly that tuna should not be exploited as a low value commodity, but should rather be respected and utilized as a high value, high quality food source. This will help us harvest tuna more selectively.

We also believe that while tuna is globally traded, we should work to add value locally. These are all important factors in creating a more sustainable and equitable industry.

Do you think you, as part of your role, will try to work with NGOs? Some seem to be open to co-operation with companies and others, such as Greenpeace, will not – what’s your take on that?

Absolutely, and though there are varying opinions about Greenpeace, I would not say that they are not open to cooperation with the private sector.

It is important to recognize that different NGOs have different approaches, just like different seafood companies do, and having specialization and multiple angles is a good strategy.

There are very few NGOs, if any, where I cannot find some area of merit and common ground, whether it be the importance of public awareness, scientific research, fisheries improvement projects, policy advocacy, or major buyer engagement.

Depending on what area we may be focused on at the time, a range of different NGOs could be an important resource for Tri Marine. At the end of the day, we all want and are working toward the same thing, and that’s a vibrant and sustainable fishing industry and a healthy marine environment.

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