Reconsidering that can of tuna: Albacore helps sustain diverse fisheries livelihoods on the US West Coast

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Author: Timothy Frawley
Fellow Type: California Sea Grant State Fellow
Year(s) of Fellowship: 2019
Host Agency: NOAA Southwest Fisheries Science Center

Tim Frawley was a 2019 California Sea Grant State Fellow, placed with the NOAA Southwest Fisheries Science Center, where he joined a project exploring the impacts of climate change on West Coast fisheries, specifically the albacore tuna fishery. The research he did as part of his fellowship was recently published in the journal Fish and Fisheries.

Please tell us about your role in this research as a California Sea Grant State Fellow.

After wrapping up my PhD I applied to the California Sea Grant State Fellows program because I was interested in learning about the nuts and bolts of marine policy and management, and how to make my research more accessible to those who might actually use it. Lucky for me, the State Fellows program matched me with NOAA Fisheries' Southwest Fisheries Science Center where I was able to join a project already in progress evaluating the impacts of climate change and identifying climate-resilient management strategies. As part of the “Future Seas” initiative I worked with an interdisciplinary team of ecologists, economists, and oceanographers and was given the opportunity to develop my own research questions focused on one of their focal species and fisheries, albacore tuna.  

What was your motivation for this work?

I grew up around the lobster industry in Maine and before pursuing a graduate degree in marine science I spent a handful of years working on commercial fishing boats in Alaska and California. Both of these experiences gave me a deep appreciation for the men and women who make a living out on the water and the challenges inherent to what they do. What was true yesterday may not be true tomorrow, but it is my hope that this type of collaborative research can help ensure that the people and places who have helped shape who I am have a place in our collective future.

Your paper talks about the ways fisheries are changing, specifically the Pacific Northwest albacore fishery. What are the major changes that albacore fishers might have seen in the past 35-40 years?

When we are talking about changes impacting fisheries systems, climate change is the big one in terms of altering the distribution and the abundance of target species and the structure of ecosystems. But climate change doesn’t happen in a vacuum. Coastal fishing communities are also being impacted by economic changes that influence  what markets are available for their catch and how much it is worth, in addition to regulatory changes that determine who gets to fish where and when.

How have fishers adapted to these changes?

One of the big ways that fishers are able to hedge their bets and mitigate against risk and uncertainty is by maintaining diverse harvesting portfolios which provide flexibility concerning what species to target. When faced with a weak salmon run during a particular summer fishing season, having the flexibility to switch species and target something like albacore can go a long way towards making sure everyone is still able to earn a living and take home a paycheck. 

You say that "alternative approaches to management and licensing may be needed to maintain the viability of small-scale fishing operations worldwide." What kind of approaches would these be?

For the past several decades the prevailing approach to fisheries management has been focusing on maximizing economic revenue and efficiency one species at a time. While these traditional approaches have been effective in sustainably managing many marine resources (at least from a biological perspective) one of the side effects has been the consolidation of fishing fleets across the west coast. In many regions, individual owner-operators can no longer compete with corporate-owned fishing enterprises. As fishing boats get bigger, access rights become more costly, and target species continue to move beyond their traditional home ranges, it seems likely that this trend will continue. This doesn’t just mean fewer fishing boats and jobs—there are also cascading impacts for the boatyards, harbors, shipbuilders, mechanics, and maritime supply stores that have historically been the lifeblood of coastal fishing communities.

One of the ways forward, at least as I see it, is to begin managing for the social and cultural benefits of fisheries in addition to their economic ones. Perhaps managing fisheries via transferable, single-species permits doesn’t make as much sense as an area or community-based permit if your goal is to support small-businesses, enhance food security, and to build the attachment to place that comes from local, seasonal seafood consumption. With the development and growing popularity of community supported fisheries, fisheries apprenticeship programs, and community-based fishing associations, there are examples out there of alternatives that prioritize people and places rather than profits. The current COVID-19 pandemic is a good example of how, in some ways, these types of structures may be better suited to promote flexibility and resilience in the face of disturbance.

Why should people care about this work?

If we as a society are going to tackle climate change and some of the other big problems of our age then I think we all have an obligation to better understand the individuals, systems, and processes responsible for putting food on our plates and roofs over our heads. Much of what we have taken for granted in the past will need to be re-assessed and/or reconsidered. What better place to start then something as simple as a can of tuna?

Interview conducted and edited by Katherine Leitzell, California Sea Grant Communications Director

The scientific results and conclusions, as well as any views or opinions expressed herein, are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of NOAA or the Department of Commerce.