Before biting into that tuna fish sandwich, take a moment to recognize the remarkable creature that helped make it. Beyond a powerhouse of essential nutrients, such as omega-3 fatty acids, tuna travel in huge schools, are warm-blooded, can jump high out of the water, and have been known to team up with dolphins to protect themselves against sharks. Tuna also play an important role in oceanic ecosystems.
“The tuna’s role as a top predator means they help structure food webs around the world,” says Dr. Sarah Glaser, associate director of OEF’s Secure Fisheries program.
Tuna get around. Over 40 species of the fish can be found in the Atlantic, Pacific, and Indian Oceans, as well as the Mediterranean Sea. They are highly migratory and tend to ignore national borders; their routes can connect distant ocean basins. Yet, their meat is universally enjoyed.
A Giant in the Fishing World
“Tuna is a global staple,” writes Paige Roberts, a project officer at Secure Fisheries. “World tuna catch is worth more than $42 billion annually, making the tuna industry a giant in the fishing world. It supports millions of jobs and provides food security for people in developed and developing countries alike.”
In the Somali region, where migratory fish, like tuna, make up more than 40 percent of the catch, OEF’s Shuraako program has facilitated investments for 22 businesses in the fishing sector, an industry that has the potential to boost the Somali economy and ensure long-term growth and stability in the region.
The species contributed $6.5 million to the Somali economy in 2010. Globally, yellowfin catches are worth $1.2 billion annually. The introduction of more efficient fishing gear, like drifting longlines and floating object purse seines, helped the tuna industry meet the global demand for tuna; but they also threaten its existence. In 2015, the Indian Ocean Tuna Commission, a regional fisheries management organization of which Somalia is a member, declared yellowfin tuna stocks in danger of collapse. Other populations, like bluefin, are also threatened.
“Unfortunately, the world’s appetite for tuna means their populations are at risk from overfishing,” says Dr. Glaser.
Celebrating a Threatened Species
The United Nations General Assembly took notice and in 2016 voted to observe World Tuna Day on May 2nd in order to “raise awareness of the value of tuna, the threats facing tuna populations, and economic and social benefits of sustainably managed tuna stocks.”
Still, there is much work to be done to protect this important fish. Roberts, who has developed Project Badweyn, an interactive tool that maps Somali coastal resources, believes that strong reporting systems could help protect tuna migrations as they move across country boundaries.
“Regional cooperation and compliance is the only way to ensure everyone can get a piece of the tuna steak,” she writes.
Additionally, commercial fishers must realize that if they continue to overfish they will permanently lose their industry.
“In response, fishing companies and supermarkets are partnering with NGOs in a call for a 20 percent reduction in catch,” writes Roberts.
Observing World Tuna Day Everyday
It is our responsibility to be more conscious about where our fish is sourced. Apps like the Monterey Bay Aquarium’s Seafood Watch help make it easy to choose products that have been sustainably fished or farmed. When it comes to yellowfin tuna, Seafood Watch recommends hand-line caught fish from the Western and Central Pacific Ocean. The app suggests avoiding bluefin tuna altogether.
“On World Tuna Day, I hope consumers take a minute to learn more about their favorite piece of sushi!” says Dr. Glaser.
Text by Jean-Pierre Larroque