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Oregon's Albacore Tuna Fishery Hooks 'Green' Credentials

One of the clearest signals that grocery stores are going “green” is the proliferation of products touting “sustainable” credentials. Lately, that label has hooked the West Coast’s tuna fishing industry. But what does “sustainable fishing” mean? Rob Manning has more. 

Tuna Fishing - Photos by Rob Manning


Mark Schneider has caught all kinds of fish over the last 20 years. He’s given up crabbing because hauling in the pots was too hard on his shoulders.

And Schneider used to sail hundreds of miles from the Oregon Coast to San Francisco for the opening of salmon season.

Mark Schneider: “The last year we caught fish, there was a small opener in 2006 that we were able to fish 75 salmon. We caught 75 salmon that year, that was the last time we fished salmon.”

In the years since, the salmon season closed twice due to the paltry number of fish in California and southern Oregon. Schneider had already switched to a more promising quarry: albacore tuna.

Mark Schneider: “We actually are a salmon boat trying to be a tuna boat.”

So how’s that working for him?

Mark Schneider: “Well, this last trip, we were half-full when we came in. We had six tons, about 12,000 pounds. We fished four days –- my wife and myself.”

That sounds like a lot of fish – but there are a lot of West Coast albacore in the sea.

And that’s a big reason why it became the first tuna certified by the London-based Marine Stewardship Council.

MSC certification is meant to assure customers that the fish they’re buying was caught in a sustainable manner. 

The sustainable practices start with fishermen. But there’s also a big middle man.

Processors cut, separate, and pack the fish, so it’s ready for supermarkets and restaurants. And if they’re handling MSC fish, they need to make sure that non-certified fish stay out of the certified products.

Christa Svenson is with Bornstein Seafood, an MSC-certified processor in Astoria. She says it took her four months to craft a plan that MSC would endorse.

Christa Svenson: “I had to sit down with everybody and say ‘how are we going to keep this separate?’.”

Svenson says tracking the fish has gotten easier this year, because virtually all Oregon tuna is MSC certified, now. She says her company – and fishermen – saw business opportunities in Europe, where the label is well known.

Christa Svenson: “Some of it was marketing. How do you gain markets, or what are the opportunities that are out there? And we kind of said ‘hey, the sustainable movement isn’t going to go away.’ You have trends and you have fads.”

But unlike the processors, fishing boat operators didn’t have to change much. That’s because West Coast albacore fishing never relied on  “unsustainable” techniques – like nets or long lines used elsewhere.

Wayne Heikkala is with the Western Fishboat Owners Association.

Wayne Heikkala: “We’ve been doing the same technique for the last 100 years. It’s just a reinforcement of what we’ve been doing, saying ‘we’re an ok fishery’.”

So then the question is – if the sustainable label isn’t improving practices, what is it doing? The label is adding five cents a pound wholesale – and even more, once the fish gets to the consumer.

MSC’s North America director Kerry Coughlin says the additional cost pays for research that backs up claims of sustainability.

Kerry Coughlin: “Everyone claims they’re fishing sustainably, but are they? It’s all very complex, and while the overall approach can be one that is generally sustainable, you really can’t know without a thorough scientific assessment, whether it truly is.”

Not everyone is sold on the idea, though, including former salmon fisherman, Mark Schneider.

Mark Schneider: “Our markets have indicated that they aren’t that interested in supporting a price increase, just to show that there’s a label.”

Schneider says the U.S. has good federal guidelines to make sure species aren’t being overfished. Those rules haven’t kept the southern Oregon salmon Schneider used to fish from declining.

But Schneider argues that’s not the fishermen’s fault.

He blames dams, pollution and predators, like the sea lions barking outside his boat.

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