For a fish that evokes comforting simplicity—whether in a classic lunchbox sandwich or on a pristine sashimi platter—tuna exists in a complex and often troubling reality.
It’s one of the species we eat the most: tuna is the third-largest seafood commodity in the world. It’s fished in international waters and most species are migratory, which together make fisheries management a challenge. Several major species are overfished or maxed out (though Skipjack and Albacore stocks are healthy). And the most common fishing methods can create unacceptable by-catch levels. At the same time, tuna is important culturally, nutritionally, and economically to communities around the world—especially small island nations.
Add all this up, and the result is that we have to get to sustainability but there are no easy fixes. That makes the tuna sector ripe for innovation.
Frozen Tuna ready to ship
In search of consensus
Tuna fishing is managed by a tangle of international regulatory bodies, in a process often marked by tilted power dynamics and the jockeying for advantage that comes with a product that fetches $6.2 billion at the dock and $28.5 billion at the cash register.
Five regional fishery management organizations (RFMOs) oversee tuna stocks within international legal frameworks. Statutes demand decision-making by consensus among up to 40 parties with divergent interests, so scientifically set limits sometimes can’t survive the highly politicized negotiations. In 2017, an estimated 22 percent of tuna came from unhealthy stocks. And illegal and unregulated fishing may account for more than half the total catch volume, adding to the problem.
Groups of Pacific Island states have been working around this complex management system by banding to together to create sub-management groups that improve sustainability along with the islands’ bargaining power. Still, illegal practices like ship-to-ship transfers that get around dockside compliance measures remain common. Change is happening, but regulatory management fixes are unlikely to work without business and technology innovations alongside them.
The tuna innovation opportunity
Better technology that brings transparency to the oceans may lead to a quicker fix. Monitoring and detection tools that can catch illegal and unregulated fishing; data capture, analysis, and visibility tools that allow boats to provide real traceability information; waste reduction processes; and gear that cuts down on by-catch are all needed.
Don’t be fooled by “dolphin friendly” labels—they don’t mean “zero by-catch.” Unintentional capture of marine life is still a serious byproduct of the two main methods for catching tuna. Long-line fishing has a by-catch rate of 28 percent globally and particularly affects vulnerable seabirds, turtles, and sharks. Purse seining, which nets an entire school of fish at once, uses floating devices (FADs) to attract tuna. But FADs attract other species too, and while many are edible or necessary for balanced ocean ecosystems, they often end up as marine trash.
Even a quick survey brings up a range of ideas for solving these problems. Just a few examples: Researchers propose coordinating data on by-catch species’ locations by using geospatial information from boats’ automatic identification signals, so fishers can place FADs away from hot spots. Open data platforms that allow tracking and visualization of vessel movements, like Global Fishing Watch, can help identify illegal fishing activity. Fishing gear modifications—often developed by fishers themselves—can help select out non-target species, as can changing where and how bait and gear are placed. Improved tuna canning methods, coupled with traceability systems and sustainability criteria, can allow commodity tuna factories to move into higher-end markets, improve profitability, and increase benefits to surrounding communities.
Bringing home the value
Capturing more value for the communities where tuna are caught is a necessary fix. Doing so would strengthen the hand of regional fisheries managers and empower island states to better guard their largest natural resource: 66 percent of tuna is caught in the Pacific, Pacific Island countries get up to 40 percent of their GDP from fishing licenses alone, and tuna is a major food source. But more than 90 percent of the fisheries’ value leaves the region with foreign fleets that take their catch away. Investment in local processing facilities and value-added product creation is key to ending that dynamic, along with giving higher-value, sustainable products access to global markets.
Tuna is an iconic species, and ubiquitous in stores and restaurants, which leads many to imagine it will always be here. That’s true only if we act to make it so. Fortunately, we don’t have to wait to untangle the management knot—there are plenty of investable ideas that could increase the value of tuna fisheries without increasing the catch, and reduce the impact on ocean health. (This Fish 2.0 investor briefing on tuna digests the details.)
I encourage ventures working on these ideas to apply to the Global Tuna track in the Fish 2.0 competition, where they can bring their ideas to the world, refine their business models, and meet investors and partners who can help them give the tuna business new life.