Opinion

Q&A with Kate Johnston on tuna and questioning sustainability

Ahead of AGRIFOOD XXI Kate Johnston talks sustainable tuna and whether Australian consumers care.

Image by Stijn Nieuwendijk, Sourced: Flickr CC

Kate Johnston, one of the presenters and organisers of the AGRIFOOD XXI conference, answered all our questions about sustainable fishing practices and which tuna we should be choosing in the supermarket. She’ll be a part of the AGRIFOOD special session Can the Oceans Feed Humanity? It’s a particularly hot topic at the moment, on the back of the SBS documentary What’s the Catch?

How would you explain a three-pillar model of sustainability for anyone who might not know?

We often reference a three or four pillar model of sustainability – it’s an idea that dates back to the 80s and is linked to sustainable development. So the three pillars are economic, environmental and social with the fourth pillar being cultural. That model is still used a lot. My project aims to interrogate it a little bit and elaborate on the socio-cultural aspects.

We use this word sustainability so much but it’s really hard to pin point what we actually mean by sustainability. The reality is we often focus on one of these pillars more than the others because it’s a very difficult model to actually achieve. There are very few examples where you can say “this is attending to economic, environmental, social and cultural realms”.

How do culture and sustainability come together when it comes to food?

It’s very complex, but I think it’s helpful to look at a specific example. My fieldwork has mostly been in traditional Italian fisheries, where I was looking at how economic and environmental pressures intersect with a fishing method that is deeply rooted in culture.

Tuna has been an important food source in the Mediterranean for thousands of years, and in the communities that I was working with there were some very elaborate practices around how they caught and processed tuna into various food products. It’s an example where sustainability and food culture come together, because there’s knowledge around managing resources and around the biology of the fish and then there are cultural practices around the fishing.

One process that I was looking at is called La Mattanza. It’s quite a dramatic and gory harvest ritual. There’s actually only one of these fisheries left in Italy, in Sardinia. The practice has attracted some criticism lately because this traditional method has become a part of broader Bluefin tuna farming in the Mediterranean, specifically in Malta, and some say that the traditional aspects are really just to attract tourists now – and that’s partly true. The Mattanza is part of a fishing system called La Tonnara which involves a series of traps under the water that the tuna travel through. Tuna have a tendency to travel with the coast to their left, so the traps are set up to take advantage of that. The tuna hits the trap and then they’re forced into a series of rooms. When it is time for Mattanza, the fishermen move the tuna into the final room, where they draw up the net so that they have less and less water, before they spear them. Then a prayer is said for the fish.

Once the tuna catch is on land they’re gutted and there are a lot of traditional practices around preserving tuna organs – like Bottarga which is the roe made into a salted dried gourmet product. There are also cultural practices around the way the tuna is cooked. You’ll notice that the tuna is well cooked in a lot of these Italian coastal towns, as opposed to Japan where it’s all about the fresh raw sashimi. So when it comes to food and culture and sustainability it’s all about those kinds of relationships, meanings and knowledge of food and the surrounding resources in different communities.

In your experience, when there’s a strong cultural connection to a method of food production or agriculture is it – generally – more sustainable than modern industrial techniques?

It is really hard to generalise on that. It comes back to how we want to measure sustainability. So, one of the issues with Bluefin tuna is that the state of the many stocks is so low that there are some groups that will say there’s absolutely no such thing as sustainable tuna fishing. But, a lot of groups agree that in terms of the key issues of sustainability this traditional practice is more sustainable. First, it’s a fixed net and they allow the tuna to spawn without disrupting the reproduction cycle too much, also it’s seasonal so they’re only fishing for tuna between the months of May to July. On those accounts, some would say that’s a sustainable system.

However, where it gets complicated in this example is that there’s such a global pressure on Bluefin tuna stock, and economic competition around tuna, that this old system has had to adapt to be competitive in the market and work within a quota system. So now, it really can’t be considered traditional in the way that we think about tradition because it’s connected to the farming in Malta. Greenpeace has actually said they can’t support this system because of the cages they use; they see it as having various elements that are unsustainable. It’s a hard thing to say that traditional practices are more sustainable – but you can make some generalisations. You’ll find traditional practices work more with the seasons, and use less impactful technologies.

When Australian consumers are in the supermarket deciding what kind of tuna to buy, what would be your advice? Is there such a thing as sustainable tuna?

I question the word sustainability. I think if we’re going to go back to that three or four pillar model then you’ll find that things can be sustainable on one level but entirely unsustainable on another. But, if you’re in the supermarket, the first thing to know is that it’s very rare to find Bluefin tuna anyway. Most of the tuna that you’ll find out in a restaurant will be Yellowfin tuna, but canning is a whole different thing.

In terms of canned tuna and sustainability, there are some really interesting things happening. Apart from in Italy where they have this tradition of canning Bluefin tuna you won’t find that variety canned anywhere else in the world. So then the issue shifts slightly when you’re talking about other species. Recently, there have been movements towards sourcing tuna more sustainably for the canned tuna industry. Canned tuna is such a massive industry – it’s the second highest in value and volume of all the seafood products traded globally. The issues around fishing practices are often the first thing people think of when they think of sustainability.

There’s work going on to source canned tuna from the Pacific Islands and the Maldives, especially, because there’s potential for them to develop a traditional pole and line method. There’s a huge movement being led by sustainability certification groups, as well as Greenpeace and other NGOs, to improve the sustainability credentials of canned tuna. Actually, the pole and line tuna fishery in the Maldives has been certified as sustainable. So, if you want to talk on that level you can look for certified sustainable tuna in the supermarket.

But, I think you have to keep asking that question – what is sustainability? I guess the answer is that, in this case, the fishing practice is sustainable. However, in a can of tuna there are so many other resources and places around the world that are tapped in to in order to create that can of tuna – even the tin itself, and there’s not really a discussion about that, despite the fact that tin mining is quite a big social and environmental issue. Canned tuna relies on a thin coating of pure tin over the steel to make a tinplate, so if you want to broaden idea of sustainability – balancing the environment, the economic, the social and the cultural – then you have to look beyond just the fishery. There’s a contradiction going on here because tin mining globally is actually contributing to the destruction of ocean ecosystems. For me, sustainability needs to be more holistic.

Do you think Australians care about whether their seafood is sustainable?

I think that as a whole, we lag behind Europe, in terms of awareness campaigns that lead to policy and labelling. I don’t think it’s a huge priority for Australians, I don’t think it’s been in the public debate much. Hopefully, the documentary ‘What’s the Catch?’ on SBS will help bring the issue into the public arena. One of the main issues the documentary highlights is that we’re a net importer of seafood. We import 70 per cent of our seafood. Mathew Evans makes the point that in doing so, we are exporting our environmental damage. That in itself is something that very few Australians will know.

There’s this idea that in Australia we manage our fisheries sustainably, but if we’re not actually utilising them and getting our produce from there then how sustainable are we really being? So no, I don’t think it’s in the conscience of that many Australians. There have been a lot more movements around land based agriculture with things like “eat local” but there really hasn’t been that much attention towards the sea.

What can we expect from the AGRIFOOD XXI sessions on sustainable seafood and fisheries?

The special session Can the Oceans Feed Humanity? organised by Elspeth Probyn wants to get people to start thinking about the ocean as a major source of protein production. The title is taken from an article by Carlos Duarte (et al) that queries the possibility that much of food production would be better done through marine rather terrestrial forms of farming. We recognise that this is controversial and have a great array of papers from different disciplines to interrogate this.

Many of the papers offer an opportunity to elaborate on the models of sustainability that I spoke about earlier, in particular how ecological and social realms intersect. For instance, the paper “Marine protected areas– thought for food” asks us to consider what a model of conservation might look like if it were to incorporate food security. Many of the papers also offer detailed case studies. Sonja Ganseforth’s paper “Property Rights and Sustainability in Japanese Fishing Communities” addresses these overarching issues of social and ecological sustainability through a regional focus on coastal fishing communities on the Japanese island of Kyoshi. My own paper will also take a regional focus drawing on research into sustainable certification in the Maldivian tuna fishery to think through the sustainability framework.


Kate Johnston is currently research associate for the Sustainable Fish Lab at the University of Sydney and lead researcher on a pilot project with Taronga Conservation Society. Kate is a PhD candidate from the University of Sydney. Her thesis, titled Sustaining More Than Fish: tradition and transformation in environmental conflicts, analysed the discursive and material relationship between culture and sustainability through the case study of tuna and la tonnara – a tuna trap fishery used for centuries in Southern Italy.