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Walking the talk in St Helena

A look back at IPNLF and TunaSolutions’ busy week in St Helena – on a mission to deliver a better return to St Helena’s one-by-one tuna fishery while conserving its incredible marine ecosystem.

Day 1 – Touchdown! St Helena’s shiny new airport was a welcome sight after several hours of flying over a radiant South Atlantic Ocean. From above, you can see why they call St Helena the copper rimmed emerald – dramatic barren sea cliffs conceal a lush and equally majestic interior.  

In the evening, we gathered around an impressive spread of locally-caught seafood (and the famous fish cakes) to introduce ourselves to local fishermen, staff from the St Helena Fisheries Corporation (SHFC), and key stakeholders from within the St Helena Government (SHG).

Day 2 – Today we had a meet-and-greet with the local residents, above and below the water. Did you know St Helena is the only place in the world where mature whale sharks gather in a 50/50 ratio of males and females? Experts from the Georgia Aquarium suspect these gentle giants are breeding around the island. 

Day 3 – IPNLF and TunaSolutions held a workshop with fishermen to share lessons learned from other one-by-one fisheries, including fishing strategies, fishing gears, and ways to treat the catch so to maximise quality and value. Thomas de Kock, Founder and CEO of TunaSolutions, joined his Dad, Nic de Kock, who pioneered the high-value yellowfin tuna fishery in South Africa. Their experience and perspective made an invaluable contribution and will help St Helena push the boundaries to secure a better return for the local fishermen’s high-quality catches. The dialogue between the fishermen made for a rich discussion, and laid the groundwork for our days spent on the water with them. 

Day 4 – IPNLF was invited to speak at St Helena’s first-ever international conference, titled “St Helena Conference 2018; Diverse Island Environments”. Julie and I welcomed the opportunity and presented information about the IPNLF project and launched the video “St Helena Tuna: the one-by-one philosophy”. The message of conserving the marine environment while supporting the sustainable local fishery resonated with the audience, as did the approach of “quality over quantity”. Other presenters included the SHFC and the UK’s Centre for Environment, Fisheries and Aquaculture Science (Cefas) – both of which have representation on IPNLF’s St Helena project steering committee. Robust science and high quality processing are both key to the future of St Helena’s tuna fishery. 

Later in the afternoon, we met with several Councillors – St Helena’s decision makers – to introduce IPNLF and share the vision for the project. Their support will be crucial; as St Helena requires sound legislation and policy frameworks to make all of this possible. 

Day 5 – The team was up at 3:30am for a splash of coffee before heading out to catch baitfish. These fishermen use dip nets to selectively scoop the day's baitfish, and then head out to the fishing grounds. Within minutes, we were catching tuna, and the de Kocks were demonstrating different ways to treat the catch to ensure it arrives at the factory in tip-top condition, therefore maximising the potential value that the fishermen could receive. We also had the opportunity to tag several tuna, further contributing to St Helena’s strong track record of fisheries science in support of responsible management.  

At the end of the day, we offloaded our catch and headed up to Plantation House to meet one of St Helena’s most famous residents – Jonathan the tortoise – the oldest living animal on planet Earth. Still looking sharp at 187 years young!

Day 6 – Another day on the water with St Helena’s fishermen. The training continued, and we were treated to another good catch of yellowfin and skipjack tuna. A whale shark paid us a visit and it was fantastic to know that we were using a tuna fishing technique that posed no threat to this magnificent creature. St Helena is the only fishing zone in the world that only allows tuna vessels using one-by-one methods for its entire 200nm fishing zone. This means no nets or longlines threaten the impressive variety of marine life in St Helena’s waters, keeping their turtles, whales and whale sharks safe. 

After unloading the catch to the SHFC, we headed into town to meet with local chefs and Saint FM Radio to further spread the word about the project. The chefs were extremely excited to get their hands on some of the high-quality tuna and expressed an interest in helping spread the word about St Helena’s fantastic local fishery to restaurant patrons and tourists alike. Our visit to Saint FM – one of St Helena’s two radio stations – allowed us to introduce our project to the entire island over the airwaves.

Day 7 – The final day of the trip was spent with the team at the SHFC, where we prepared the fish that we caught earlier in the week for the market. Thomas of TunaSolutions guided the SHFC staff though a tuna grading workshop, explaining the importance of colour, texture, and fat content, and taught them how to identify their highest quality tuna for premium markets. The staff were quick to learn, and in no time were applying their newly acquired knowledge.  

This day’s tuna were mostly going to the local market, but some were packaged up for the island’s nascent fresh export market. In both cases, final products are tracked using a top-notch traceability system that links each fish (or piece of fish) to the specific fishing trip that it originated. Strong traceability is a key part of all seafood supply chains as it gives assurances to buyers and consumers that the fish was caught legally and sustainably.  

That’s a Wrap  Following an action-packed week in St Helena, IPNLF and TunaSolutions were more optimistic than ever about the future of this unique one-by-one tuna fishery. There are clear opportunities to bring a better return to the fishing community in a way that reinforces St Helena’s long-standing commitment to protecting the marine environment and promoting responsible tourism. Now that the airport is open, fresh St Helena tuna will be available in certain markets, and our objective is to ensure that the fishermen are duly rewarded for their efforts to deliver high-quality products. For this vision to become a reality, we will need continued collaboration across our project partners. Legislation must be adopted to formalise the policy framework for the fishery; enforcement needs to follow; and all along the way, sound science needs to inform the responsible management of St Helena’s one-by-one tuna fishery. The fishermen and factory have the tools to deliver high-quality tuna to local and international markets, and we will be working together in the coming months to find the right partners in the marketplace.

A major Thank You to everyone in St Helena for welcoming IPNLF and TunaSolutions with open arms and open minds. None of this would be possible without the support from Oceans 5 – a collection of philanthropists with a common inspiration for collaborative, results-oriented grant making to secure tangible improvements in global ocean health, while also strengthening ocean conservation. Thank you for believing in us.