Wageningen University & Research: Sustainable Tuna Fishing and Empowering Local Fishermen in the Western Pacific
“Sustainable tuna management is a long-standing and well-known challenge in the Pacific,” says
The program was born after Lida Pet Soede, former representative of WWF’s Global Marine program, brought together potential partners in Wageningen. She organized a Tuna Think Tank, in which INREF researchers, representatives of WWF, INREF and policy makers reflected on these questions. One of the results was the BESTTuna program. Pet Soede: “We have been active in some countries in the Western Pacific region to improve tuna fishing and the protection of coral reefs. We wanted to stimulate a regional approach. BESTTuna helped answer the research questions that arose from this wish.
If we had only looked at the biological side, we would have found beautiful but inefficient systems.
It was therefore a transdisciplinary program from the start. In the end, more than 100 researchers – MSc students, doctoral students and post-docs – were involved. In addition to WWF Indonesia, there have been collaborations with other NGOs, companies and governments.
Countries involved, WUR disciplines and partners
Animal Sciences: Aquaculture and Fisheries (AFI) Environmental Sciences: Aquatic Ecology and Water Quality Management (AEW) Social Sciences: Business Economics (BEC), Environmental Economics and Natural Resources (ENR),
Visit the BESTTuna website
Certification and traceability
BESTTuna has covered stock allocation issues between Pacific Island States and deep-sea fishing nations. In addition, he focused on the MSC certification of fisheries, the fishing methods used and the traceability of the fish caught.
The program started at a time when sustainability was becoming increasingly important in tuna value chains. This was a market-driven development: consumers increasingly demanded sustainable fish. This has led to an increase in initiatives to improve the sustainability of tuna fishing, all of which have made their own sustainability claims, and which in turn have led to an emerging risk of coordination failure between the claims of fishermen and those of buyers. Additionally, if claims are found to be false or inappropriate, this could potentially impact the credibility of all sustainability claims, even for large labels like the
Empower anglers with data
BESTTuna solved these problems by making an inventory of ongoing fishing improvement projects in the area, as well as helping local fisheries meet data requirements. Bush: “Before, local fishers often couldn’t prove they met certification criteria. These fisheries had their own monitoring system which often did not correspond to certification requirements.
“There was hardly any listing of their activities. Using BESTTuna, we were able to empower anglers by allowing them to take control of their own data.’ To do this, the program has helped set up systems that allow often illiterate fishers to track their activities and thus prove to potential certifying bodies that their fish has been caught in accordance with sustainability and fair trade requirements. “It put them in a better negotiating position, and they are now MSC and Fair Trade certified.” This success story served as an example. “The system we helped develop is now being implemented in other countries.”
This research idea did not come from science; it came from both NGO and corporate practices
To make these systems work, an interdisciplinary approach was important. “If we had only looked at the biological side, we would have found beautiful but inefficient systems,” Bush says. Also focusing on social dimensions has allowed researchers to understand how tuna value chains are organized and how information is passed through them, which is essential for understanding and developing effective market-based approaches.
Another focal point of the program was the traceability of tuna stocks. The underestimation of fish landed is a worldwide problem for tuna. A BESTTuna research team used a combination of methods, ranging from desk research, expert interviews and data analysis to field surveys, to get the real number. They found that in Indonesian waters around North Sulawesi, catches were up to 38% higher than reported.
“Interdisciplinarity for this program didn’t necessarily mean that everyone would work across multiple disciplines,” Bush continues. “That meant taking a systems approach for everyone involved; Master’s students who went to
Due to its high economic value and impending scarcity, the stakes for tuna are high. Bush and his team experienced this first-hand during the program: “We published quite a few articles with conclusions that disturbed both companies and NGOs, even those who were partners in the program.
Pet Soede, who represented WWF at the time of BESTTuna, points out that the research results weren’t always positive for WWF as a partner either, but values this as an important research finding. She cites the results of the MSC certification as an example. These were of particular interest to WWF as a co-founder of the MSC. “The research has highlighted the limits of what certification can do and made it clear that certification is not the answer to all problems in this area. We learned from that as an organization.
One result that attracted a lot of attention was their research on Dolphin Safe Tuna certification, an example of how high stakes became tangible during research. “One of my PhD students and I were taken to an integrity investigation by the lawyers of the company that launched this label, because our findings were critical of the Dolphin Safe Tuna label. We assessed their way of working and essentially concluded that the label was less credible than other labels such as MSC. This meant that their label was less effective than they claimed. Of course, they weren’t happy with that, so we were challenged and had to account for every result and every method we used. It really made us realize the value of having our data well organized,” Bush jokes.
The system we helped develop is now being implemented in other countries
Pet Soede says the program has been invaluable to WWF in terms of research results. “It generated a lot of information that we could use in policy advice, for example. But it also created a lot of buzz around the topic, which you can’t do as an individual organization. Bush, too, recognizes the power of such a broad research program: “Because of the high stakes, our publications have received a lot of attention. A lot of people in the industry have seen our diaries, which is why we were able to have such an impact.
Bush concludes, “We have certainly contributed to the development of sustainable seafood markets. In addition to this, many students who participated in BESTTuna now have jobs in the sustainable seafood sector and are spreading this knowledge. I can no longer go to an industry conference without bumping into a whole bunch of Wageningen alumni.
Bush has some recommendations for future projects: “Be very active in allowing constant dialogue between supervisors and students. Students from different disciplines at BESTTuna had constant discussions, which was very valuable for the program.’