British supermarkets and brands, including Tesco, the Co-op and Princes, are stepping up action to cut yellowfin tuna catches in the Indian Ocean, amid warnings the stock is in a “critical” state.
The effort, by companies reliant on healthy fish stocks, represents a counterintuitive effort to force regulators to act, rather than the other way around.
Yellowfin, found in tropical and sub-tropical waters, is widely recognised as being overfished in the Indian Ocean and is listed as “near-threatened” by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature.
On Thursday, the Liverpool-based international food and drinks brand Princes announced it would cut its sourcing of yellowfin in the Indian Ocean by half compared with 2017 levels, to 16,000 tonnes.
Princes said it hoped the voluntary cut would put pressure on the management body that oversees the stock, the Indian Ocean Tuna Commission (IOTC), as well as its member states, fishers and vessels, to introduce cuts to catches ahead of its annual meeting in November.
Retailers and brands have backed repeated calls by NGOs, including the Pew Charitable Trusts and the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF), for the IOTC to reduce catches of the species in line with scientific advice, amid increasing concerns over overfishing.
Neil Bohannon, group director for fish at Princes, said: “In recognition of the situation we face, Princes decided to take action to reduce our use of Indian Ocean yellowfin. Our action alone however will not be enough; the IOTC needs to take action and encourage all fleets to reduce catches by 25% from 2017 levels.”
A “credible recovery plan” was needed to allow stock rebuilding, he said.
“With our voluntary reduction of Indian Ocean yellowfin in excess of the scientific advice, we are demonstrating our commitment in supporting this recovery.”
The company, which has two processing sites and 4,000 employees in Mauritius, has been sourcing alternatives to yellowfin since 2017. It has already achieved a 40% reduction, it said. Indian Ocean yellowfin currently accounts for less than 5% of the total Indian Ocean catch.
The measures follow Tesco’s September announcement that it would stop sourcing yellowfin tuna and billfish from the Indian Ocean if the IOTC fails to implement a recovery plan to rebuild stocks. The retailer said the body’s management practice had been “ineffective”. “Declining tuna populations threaten to impact the entire marine ecosystem,” the company said.
Last month, the Co-op reaffirmed its pledge not to sell any own-brand or branded yellowfin tuna in its stores. It has not sourced yellowfin tuna for seven years.
A report commissioned by the Global Tuna Alliance (GTA), an independent group of retailers and global supply chains working towards sustainable tuna, concluded a 25% reduction in catch levels would be necessary to rebuild the stock within two generations. Yellowfin stock has been overfished in the Indian Ocean since 2016, GTA said, and under management measures by IOTC, many fleets had even increased their catches.
Marcel Kroese, WWF global tuna leader, welcomed the measures taken by Princes. He said: “The species is in a critical state and a plan to rebuild a healthy stock is urgently needed.”