December 1, 2012 |

Albacore Tuna Fishery Faces Challenges

By most measures, the North Pacific albacore tuna fishery is thriving.

Abundant stocks and environmentally-friendly fishing practices with very little by-catch have earned the albacore fishery off the shores of Washington, Oregon and California sustainability certification from the international Marine Stewardship Council (MSC) and “best choice” rating from the Monterey Bay Aquarium’s Seafood Watch. But fishery leaders say commercial trollers face a mix of potentially formidable challenges beyond the usual concerns about weather, costs of operation and marketing.

During an October 20 dock and waterfront media tour in Newport, Oregon, Oregon Albacore Commission Executive Nancy Fitzpatrick, Western Fishboat Owners Association (WFOA) Executive Director Wayne Heikkila, and Wild Pacific Albacore spokesperson Solveig Johnson discussed some of those challenges.

One main concern is overcoming public perception about levels of mercury in albacore tuna, which has for some time been the focus of consumer worries and environmentalist complaints. Environmental groups of all stripes have sounded the toxic tuna trumpet for years, and scientists and government officials have responded with ongoing studies and recommendations.

Since 2004, the federal Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) have recommended limiting canned white tuna to six ounces per week for pregnant and nursing women, women who may become pregnant, and young children. Light tuna – made from skipjack – generally contains less mercury, but the government agencies still recommend no more than 12 ounces per week.

In September, “Scientific American” and other publications added to the controversy by publishing stories and editorials based on the latest report from the Mercury Policy Project (MPP).

Derived from what researchers say is the first-ever study to test the mercury content of tuna brands purchased by schools, the report recommends that all children avoid eating canned albacore tuna, and advises parents with children weighing less than 55 pounds to limit light tuna to one meal once a month – twice a month for children weighing more than 55 pounds.

The key findings from lead researcher Edward Groth’s paper:

Seafood varies widely in average mercury content, so consumers’ mercury exposure depends on the fish species they choose. Tuna contributes 37 percent of the overall mercury in the seafood supply. Canned light tuna contains “above average” mercury levels, while canned albacore and tuna steaks have even higher levels. In fact, it stated that albacore mercury levels were much higher than in federal analyses, prompting a recommendation for the US Department of Agriculture to phase out tuna subsidies and find alternatives for schools.

Groth advises folks who eat fish more than twice a week to opt for low-mercury fish as a vital health regimen, noting that two-thirds of the seafood supply – including nine of the 11 most consumed fish species – are low or very low in mercury content. His report features a chart of 51 fish species divided into six groups based on their mercury levels.

He adds that “most consumers have no idea” which fish to avoid and which are safe to eat.

“Based on these new findings, tuna is the number one mercury exposure risk,” said MPP Director Michael Bender, noting that canned tuna is the top fish product for U.S. consumers at about three pounds per person per year. Nine other advocacy groups co-sponsored the study, which focused on mercury concentrations in six brands of light tuna and two brands of albacore white tuna sold to schools. The samples were from 35 large cans (66.5 ounces) and 24 large foil pouches (43 ounces). Mercury levels varied widely between samples.

Fishery leaders point to a different key aspect of the study: 50 of the 59 tuna samples were imported, and the nine samples of tuna caught in US waters contained the lowest levels of mercury. The report does suggest avoiding tuna from Latin American countries, especially Ecuador, and instead buying US or Asian tuna.

Heikkila noted that the albacore harvested by Oregon fishermen are younger (three to five years old), weigh from 10 to 30 pounds, and are higher in beneficial omega-3 fish oils than larger, leaner, older albacore snagged in the central Pacific. Because they are young, Heikkila added, mercury accumulation is not a concern.

He and Fitzpatrick also point to results from a Hawaii seafood project study supported by NOAA that indicate tuna is an excellent source of selenium – an essential element in human diets that protects against cancer and can detoxify metals, including mercury. The researchers discovered that all tuna species contain a healthy excess of selenium.

“Regardless of the amount of mercury in fish, if the selenium level is higher, the fish is safe to eat,” notes the Western Pacific Regional Fishery Management Council. “All of our popular ocean fish are an excellent source of health-promoting selenium, as well as high-quality protein and omega-3 fatty acids. Our favorite fish are more likely to protect against mercury toxicity than cause it.”

Despite the shrill warnings, tuna remains Americans’ favorite food fish. Folks still eat twice as much tuna as salmon, the second-favorite. Even so, marketers say demand for tuna has dropped off during the past 25 years, and trollers endure the same whims as any other ocean fishery.

The ebb and flow of the 2012 albacore season proved nearly as capricious as the ocean itself. Fitzpatrick said the season, which usually lasts from May to October, started a little later than normal and ended early for many commercial fishermen. Most called it average, but their experiences ran the gamut from good to fair to mercurial.

Landings were reasonably good, but Fitzpatrick and Heikkila said overall lower prices translated into lower value.

Market prices fluctuated, with processors paying as little as $1.10 per pound and as high as $1.35, while fishermen selling fresh tuna off their boats were getting $2.50 to $3.50 per pound. Only about 200,000 pounds is sold directly off the boats each year. The remainder goes to processing plants or is exported.

Few other fish species are found in the waters where temperature-sensitive (they prefer 58 to 64 degrees) albacore run. That and the hook-and-line, single-fish method keeps bycatch low.

Counting everyone who brings in 50 pounds of tuna or more, Heikkila said the albacore tuna fishery has about 600 to 700 individual boats, but maybe 200 to 300 are “serious tuna fishermen.” The best tuna trolling, he noted, takes place off the Oregon coast from Coos Bay northward to the Columbia River, with some available off Washington’s southern coast. Albacore trollers or jig boats tow 10 to 20 lines of varying lengths from the outriggers and stern, with a lure (jig) attached to the end of each un-weighted line. Boats range from 38 to 100 feet long, and carry crews of two to three fishermen. Catches can range from none to as many as 300 on a good day.

Collectively, the US and Canadian fisheries catch 15,000 to 20,000 metric tons of tuna annually. About 60 percent goes to Asia and Europe, 10 percent to United States canneries, and the remaining 30 percent is sold in US and Canadian markets for domestic consumption.

Albacore tuna is marketed as fresh, fresh-frozen and canned, with most of the annual catch going into cans.

The non-profit WFOA, which represents more than 400 family-owned albacore fishing vessels, fishermen and supporting businesses, is immersed in fishery management issues at the state, federal and international levels.

In 2009, the association forged a collaborative funding agreement with the Canadian Highly Migratory Species Foundation to undergo full assessment by the international Marine Stewardship Council (MSC) to earn its blue seal of eco-certification for North American North Pacific albacore tuna. They received it, taking a vital step toward opening up more market niches worldwide.

“It’s a global market, and the MSC logo is an internationally-recognized symbol of good management and sustainability,” Heikkila said. “Our members have long known that this is a sustainably managed fishery, but having it successfully reviewed against the certification standard provides us with the opportunity to promote our albacore tuna as MSC certified.”

The WFOA followed in the wake of its smaller cousin, the American Albacore Fishing Association (AAFA), which – with its 26-vessel membership – became the first tuna fishery in the world to earn the designation in August 2007. On top of that, Oregon’s Choice Gourmet Albacore – a family-owned and operated seafood business based in Otter Rock on Oregon’s central coast – was the first tuna vessel worldwide to earn the MSC chain of custody certification in August 2008. That means the albacore tuna they land is certified “from the dock to the can” in an evaluation process that’s separate from vessel certification.

By adding the MSC eco-label to their tuna products, albacore trollers hoped to enhance their already high standard of sustainability and consumer awareness and recognition of those efforts. “While it does open some markets, we have seen no noticeable price differences,” Heikkila said in October, noting that it’s “a convoluted, complicated process” and they face recertification in 2014.

Beyond the concerns about mercury (along with recent discoveries of trace amounts of radiation in albacore tuna from the Japanese nuclear facility wracked by the 2011 tsunami), the fishery faces rising competition, a dwindling fleet and changes in regulatory oversight that fishery leaders consider unnecessary.

Heikkila said the Chinese tuna fishing fleet is “expanding exponentially,” and Japan’s 20,000 boats easily eclipse the maximum of 1,000 commercial US tuna boats.

This season, competition between US and Canadian fishermen was nil. A 1981 treaty between Canada and the US that allowed cross-border fishing expired in 2011, and American tuna fishing groups called the existing arrangement unfair. Negotiators decided to have no reciprocal fishery in 2012, pending additional negotiations toward re-signing the treaty, which meant Canadian fishing vessels couldn’t catch albacore tuna in American waters, and the American boats couldn’t venture into Canadian waters.

The problem, said Heikkila and Fitzpatrick, is that the agreement – amended in 2002 and codified by law in 2004 – is too lopsided and requires some modifications to make it fair.

The treaty allowed US vessels to fish for albacore tuna in Canadian waters to 12 miles from shore while allowing 110 Canadian vessels the same privilege in US waters. It also allowed Canadian and US boats to use certain of the other country’s ports to offload fish or take on fuel and supplies.

“For many years, everything was fairly equal,” said Fitzpatrick.

In fact, it worked quite well until the past decade, when changes in weather and water conditions skewed the balance. Fizpatrick said in seven of the past 10 years, Canada’s boats have drawn 80 percent of their catch from US waters, with an annual albacore tuna harvest of about 12,000 tons. US fishermen take less than 1,000 tons of albacore from Canadian waters each year. The 110 boats allowed 31 years ago, she added, “were mostly family boats and smaller private boats. Now they’re much larger and have way more capacity, meaning they’re harvesting more fish.”

The US government suspended the treaty for 2012, but negotiations are ongoing. Heikkila and Fitzpatrick want to renew the pact, but with terms that even things out in determining long-term reciprocal privileges. They would also like to forge an agreement that doesn’t require renegotiation so often.

Competition is also fierce between commercial and recreational fishing interests, and Fitzpatrick noted, “There are entities out there that want all commercial fishing off the ocean.”

Regulatory efforts are also on the rise, along with the costs to comply. Heikkila pointed to a focus on international management efforts for albacore and the looming possibility of limited entry.

The last albacore tuna stock assessment took place in 2011 after a two-year delay led by Japan. The next assessment is set for 2014.

“Our fleet is shrinking, so there’s no need for limited entry,” Heikkila added, noting that the discussions about capping fishing effort involve a lot of politics and turf battles. “Everybody is looking out for their own interests, and we’re just one little group of fishermen on the West Coast.”

And the group is getting smaller.

“Albacore is one of the last fisheries with open access. All others have limited access with x number of licenses,” Fitzpatrick noted. We’re not an expanding fishery. A lot of guys are just running out the clock. Some won’t bother anymore and leave the fishery.”