Quest for a Natural Currency Standard for Pacific Tuna

by Ronald Toito'ona | 19 October 2018 | News

A tuna cannery. Image: Francisco Blaha

Ronald Toito’ona reporting from the Thriving Pacific Workshop

Pacific leaders from fishing agencies, industries and businesses, conservationists and academics participated in a workshop this month to determine the next steps needed to realise a vision for a thriving Pacific economy, built around a healthy tuna fishery and marine ecosystem.

Peter Seligmann, chairman of Conservation International, moderated the Thriving Pacific Workshop. He is also the Founder and CEO of Nia Tero, a global collaboration to advance indigenous peoples and local community stewardship of vital ecosystems.

Peter Seligmann from Conservation International and Nia Tero moderated the Thriving Pacific Workshop. Photo: Stephan Röhl

The goals of the Workshop were to deepen a shared understanding, adoption and commitment to sustainable fisheries by transforming the value chain and establishing a Natural Currency Standard for Pacific Tuna. Tuna is a key ecological resource deeply intertwined with the lives, livelihoods and ocean health of one of the largest fisheries on Earth.

The former Parties to the Nauru Agreement (CEO) Executive Officer and Workshop participant, Dr Aqorau said in an exclusive interview that the idea of a “National Currency Standard” is an initiative that is being developed by Nia Tero with the support of Walmart Supermarket in the US. He hopes this will lead to a strategic partnership either with the PNA as a collective group or individual PNA members.

The idea of a National Currency Standard finds its inspiration in having a Standard that reflects the values and aspirations of the indigenous communities of the Pacific region for whom tuna is a vital source. For Walmart, the largest purchaser of tuna on the planet, it is about securing a sustainable supply of tuna and supporting Pacific Islands communities.

“This will build on the progress of ratings and programs but go further in supporting cooperative governance for these shared resources,” said Dr Aqorau. “It is about securing supply and ensuring equitable benefits accrue to the communities who own the resource.”

“The idea is to link the standard to the Sustainable Development Goals [SDG]. The Standard should recognise and support regional aspirations as reflected in the Regional Roadmap, Blue Economy, Blue Pacific and the region’s shared goals. The region’s goals are to support the cultures and socioeconomic development aspirations of the Pacific Islands, which are encompassed in existing regional strategies.”

Transform Aqorau Photo: RNZ / Philippa Tolley

“The Standard should be backed up by full transparency and traceability, using existing Chain-of-Custody protocols and taking advantage of available technologies. The Standard should be built on the foundational principles, of environmental sustainability and social accountability, and drawing on the Marine Stewardship Council (MSC) principles. But the Standard will apply it in a more robust manner, taking a broader, more comprehensive view in terms of the application of the principles, with full transparency to address weaknesses,” Dr. Aqorau said.

The former PNA boss said, in establishing and assessing against these principles, the Standard should draw on best practices from globally established ratings and certification systems for fisheries. The Standard should also incorporate criteria developed specifically for tuna by other organisations, such as the International Seafood Sustainability Foundation.

Dr Aqorau further stated that these are exciting times in the global tuna industry as well as challenging, given the social and cultural issues coming to the fore in the global discourses on tuna.
“I am a fervent believer in the reshaping of our fishing rights to empower our peoples who are the custodians of the largest and healthiest tuna stocks in the world,” said Dr Aqorau.

Meanwhile, according to Dr Aqorau the next steps will be to sensitise the idea with our peoples so that is actually driven from within the region.

Background: the desire for long-term sustainability in the Pacific Islands

As the population of earth grows toward 8 billion, sustaining renewable sources of protein becomes more critical. The importance of the Pacific tuna fishery to the security and prosperity of Pacific Island countries requires an intense focus on sustainability to ensure ocean ecosystems are kept healthy and continue to provide benefits to Pacific Islanders.

Building upon the work done in Regional Roadmap for Sustainable Pacific Fisheries, a small group recently developed a draft blueprint for a Thriving Pacific, focused on bringing together proven innovations to reward sustainability in the marketplace and support effective governance that benefits Pacific Island communities. This blueprint relies on collaborative efforts among business, non-profits, and governments. We know from other conservation initiatives that only by working together with local stakeholders can a truly sustainable solution be found.

Photo: Francisco Blaha

Thriving Pacific Workshop

Convened by Conservation International, Nia Tero and Emerson Collective, this workshop on Thriving Pacific brings together leaders from across the Pacific Island tuna supply system—fisheries management entities, supply chain companies, fisheries conservation experts and retailers. It aimed to provide insights and perspective to form a practical, market-based approach to account for the full value that Pacific tuna represents for the people who depend on it as a food, whose well being and livelihoods are affected by it, and the ocean ecosystem with which it is intrinsically linked. The discussion at this Workshop will inform the work ahead including a set of regional meetings in the Pacific Islands in 2019.

Theory of Change

To realise the vision of the Roadmap, a small number of aligned resource owners, value chain companies, and retailers must envision and act in a coordinated way on three things:

  • A definition of sustainable tuna that includes the highest standards of cultural, social, environmental and economic best practices (“Natural Currency Standard”)
  • A concurrent strategy to hit the ‘reset’ button on consumer awareness of ‘sustainable tuna’ in the USA and other major markets to drive consumer demand and market penetration of the Natural Currency Standard (e.g., ‘Got Milk?’, ‘Pork, the other white meat’ campaigns)
  • A practical, economically viable approach to rethink the supply chain by improving supply chain efficiencies, reducing waste, and ensuring transparency and traceability to scale and support a product portfolio that adheres to a Natural Currency Standard
A Natural Currency Standard

Although the present economic value of Pacific Island tuna fisheries is well understood, the broader natural capital value of these species is not embedded in the market and governance systems for these resources. Furthermore, existing ratings and certification programs have been developed without incorporating the aspirations of indigenous cultures, experience of private sector partners, and support for cooperative governance of a shared resource. Harnessing these experiences can help incorporate the true value of tuna species and help ensure sustainable management of this critically important resource. We propose to develop a Natural Currency Standard (NCS), establishing a globally recognised set of criteria to support environmental sustainability, social responsibility, and cultural perpetuation.

Community Fishing. Photo: Pierre Boblin

Environmental Sustainability

We will draw on best practices from globally established ratings and certification systems for fisheries, such as the Marine Stewardship Council, and incorporate criteria developed specifically for tuna by other organisations and platforms. These environmental best practices will consider the broader ecosystem role of tuna and incorporate predicted climate driven shifts that will affect management, ensuring that a healthy fishery and ocean ecosystem will continue to produce tuna indefinitely.

Social Responsibility

A new, comprehensive social responsibility standard is encompassed in the Monterey Framework, which has three core components:
(a) Protect human rights, dignity, and access to resources;
(b) Ensure equity and equality, and
(c) Improve food and livelihood security.
The NCS will incorporate these social responsibility dimensions, addressing egregious practices such as slavery and other labor/human rights abuses and supporting social improvements in tuna fisheries.

Cultural Perpetuation

The Pacific Islands’ shared goals to support the cultures and socioeconomic development aspirations of the Pacific Islands are encompassed in existing regional strategies that have been developed and approved by all Pacific Island leaders.3 The NCS will incorporate the regional aspirations encompassed in these guiding frameworks and strategies, as well as a full range of sociocultural values.

Creating consumer demand for sustainability

Commodification of tuna presents major challenges to the sustainable seafood movement, particularly where canned tuna is concerned. Consumers have higher expectations and demands for sustainability and companies that incorporate sustainability into their business have outperformed their peers in the marketplace. To better support sustainability in Pacific tuna fisheries, we need to learn and understand more about the desires, attitudes and trends of consumers. Given that many consumers are confused about their choices when purchasing seafood, there is an opportunity to shape the space favourably to support sustainable practices.

There are many opportunities to explore marketing high quality skipjack tuna from the Pacific Islands to support a transformation in practices and benefits for local economies. In the USA, entire protein, dairy, nut and fruit categories have been successfully rebranded, awakening the category from a flat to declining market-share to margin and sales growth. Much like pork, milk and almonds prior to concerted marketing campaigns, we believe that sustainable skipjack is not getting its deserved status in the marketplace despite investments in fishery management and is being overlooked as one the world’s most healthy, tasty, nutritious and sustainable forms of protein.

A tuna cannery. Photo: Francisco Blaha

Rethinking the supply chain

Market pull-through is essential for the success and durability of systemic change in a supply chain. In the Pacific Island tuna value chain, aligning the sustainability principles of major retailers with the development aspirations of the Pacific Island region generates significant opportunities to rethink the supply chain.

Technology will be key to improving efficiencies and solving key sustainability issues in the supply chain. Building on proven approaches, technology can improve monitoring and traceability along with lowering the cost of energy and water that benefit producers, processors, brands and consumers. Process innovations and local investments that shorten time to market, improve access to labour pools, and/or improve the ability to store product can also play an important role in supply chain improvements. These improvements lower cost of handling and bring more financial benefit to local islands.

Ultimately, properly aligned incentives can help to encourage responsible management for long term benefits. There are a range of bright spots and long-term investments that can be scaled, as well as a set of frontiers in innovation and business models that can be explored to re-think and re-imagine the tuna supply chain of the 21st century.