x Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 22 July 2017

Store takes action to save the tuna

Marks & Spencer commits to using only skipjack and yellowfin caught by pole and line as experts say the fish is on verge of extinction.

DUBAI // One of Europe's biggest retail groups is switching its policy on tuna amid growing concerns worldwide over the future of the fish. Marks & Spencer said that by the end of this month it would sell only pole-and-line or line-caught tuna for its fresh foods, from sandwiches to fresh steaks.

Conservationists say these two methods cause less damage to other marine species than using large nets, which kill turtles, dolphins, sharks and non-target fish. The UK-based retailer said it hoped to implement the same criteria for its canned tuna by the end of the year in all UAE stores. The public's taste for tuna is about to be severely examined by a new documentary investigating the environmental impact of industrialised fishing. The film, End of the Line, may make many seafood dishes unpalatable. It shows that many commercially exploited fish species come at a heavy extra price - the death of millions of other marine creatures, discarded as by-catch.

While the film, released nationwide in Britain yesterday, focuses on many fisheries, it is tuna that will attract the greatest attention. It charts the decline of bluefin tuna - which M&S has never stocked, but which is on the verge of extinction in the Mediterranean owing to demand for sushi and sashimi. Apart from a private screening at the premises of the Environment Agency - Abu Dhabi, the documentary is still little-known in the UAE, but the British debate has already had some impact here: M&S outlets in the Emirates will follow the UK's procurement policies.

"Since we source our products from M&S UK, the Gulf stores will also move over to stocking only pole and line-caught tuna at that time," said Dubai-based Natasha Tulsi, marketing manager for the brand. The changes will apply only to canned tuna as the retailer does not offer fresh tuna here. The restaurant chain Nobu has insisted it will keep serving bluefin while advising diners to choose more sustainable dishes.

Princes and John West tuna brands were criticised by Greenpeace last year for buying most of their fish from boats using purse seine nets, which snare other species thrown back into the sea dead. In the pole-and-line system, tuna attracted by bait thrown into the water are hooked on-board. Targeted line fishing is similar to angling. Both systems eliminate by-catch. Fast swimmers, tuna roam the ocean in large schools. Some species, such as the endangered bluefin, can reach up to several metres in size and individuals weighing as much as 900kg were common until the middle of last century, when industrialised fishing began.

Five tuna species are the most commonly targeted by fishermen. Skipjack is the most harvested, followed by yellowfin, bigeye, albacore and bluefin. Of the five, bluefin is by far the most expensive but also the one most at threat of extinction. "The majestic bluefin only represents 1.5 per cent of the landed volume of tuna, but its dollar value is astronomical. In 2001, a single bluefin tuna set an all-time record when it sold for US$173,600 (Dh637,550) in Japan," says Greenpeace on its website. Bluefin is usually eaten fresh, mostly in sushi and sashimi.

In November last year, Greenpeace activists dumped five tonnes of tuna heads in front of the Ministry of Fisheries and Agriculture of France, in protest over the imminent collapse of the Mediterranean bluefin tuna fishery. In April the World Wide Fund for Nature warned the fishery in the Mediterranean and eastern Atlantic will be wiped out in three years if current fishing practices continue. The conservation status of the other commercially important tuna varies according to the species and the area where they are being caught.

The International Union for Conservation of Nature classifies yellowfin tuna as lower risk, while bigeye is considered vulnerable. Albacore tuna is listed as vulnerable in the North Atlantic but critically endangered in the South Atlantic. Skipjack, says Greenpeace, is not yet overfished, but it will not be able to sustain itself if fishing continues at current rates. The organisation also warns on by-catch. "Numerous other marine life are hooked and netted in the global tuna fisheries with 100 million sharks and tens of thousands of turtles killed every year, causing devastation to the entire marine ecosystems," it says.

A lack of information on where fish or fish products come from makes it difficult for consumers to weigh up the environmental impact if they buy tuna or order it at restaurants. The National surveyed supermarket aisles in Abu Dhabi and Dubai. Besides the tuna's price, nutritional value and - sometimes - the country of origin, no other information was on the packaging or in displays. In Carrefour, Spinney's and Lulu hypermarket outlets in Abu Dhabi, none of the fresh-fish sellers or supervisors knew what species of tuna they were selling. The same was true for sellers at the fish counter at Waitrose in Dubai Marina Mall.

An official from EAD said most fresh tuna sold in the capital was imported from Oman. There is, however, little information of just how the tuna is fished. Several tinned brands including Diamond, American, Rio Mare and Chef Way label their tuna as "light meat" which may mean skipjack, yellowfin or bluefin. None specified what kind of tuna the tin contained or how it was caught. One way of making a sustainable food choice is to look for the logo of the Marine Stewardship Council. The UK-based MSC has so far certified 47 sustainable fisheries from around the world. But this is still not sufficient to cover all the products on the market, let alone in the UAE where tuna products bearing the MSC's label are not available.

So what can consumers do? "I would avoid bluefin tuna, which is offered and clearly labelled at some expensive sushi restaurants here," said Barbara Lang-Lenton, a marine biologist and eco-diving instructor. "As a consumer you can never know for sure what is it that you are buying, so it is best not to indulge in tuna too much. Try to diversify your food choices and learn about other fish." vtodorova@thenational.ae