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“Tuna!” was all I needed to hear to wake up.

We’ve been wet and cold for 12 hours, looking for yellowfin tuna along the coast of Occidental Mindoro in the Philippines. It is 4 a.m. and pitch black – but around us, three other vessels are using powerful strobe lights to turn night into day. Everyone pumps circular hand-reels, hoping for a bite. The reels are occasionally exchanged for long-handled nets, used to pluck out fast-moving squid lured by the light. It’s a colourful carnival in the middle of the sea.

Splash! The first tuna is landed. It’s a handsome 36kg yellowfin, dazed after being pulled up from the depths. It glitters and gleams in gold and green.

Our skipper, 60-year old Kapitan Johnson Peralta, barks orders. He’s been fishing since 1971. “Tuna like darkness. The best time to hunt them is when there’s no moon,” he shares. Soon, we reel in another. Employing proper techniques, both fish are hauled aboard and gently placed in an ice-box to preserve meat quality. We head back before the sun rises. The night’s fishing is done.

One of every five tuna is caught in the Coral Triangle, a 6-million kilometre expanse that covers the waters of the Philippines, Indonesia, Malaysia, East Timor, Papua New Guinea and the Solomon Islands. The region generates 40 per cent of the Western Central Pacifics total tuna catch and employs millions of people, fuelling the economies of several nations. Next to Indonesia, the Philippines is Asia’s largest tuna exporter.

However, rising demand coupled with decades of intensive fishing threatens the country’s tuna stocks. “Unless we closely manage and protect remaining populations, our tuna industry might collapse,” warns Joel Palma, President & CEO of WWF-Philippines.

© WWF-Philippines / Gregg Yan

WWF launched the Public Private Partnership Program Toward Sustainable Tuna (PPTST) in 2011 to improve yellowfin tuna management practices for 5,000 fishers in 140 tuna fishing villages.

PPTST harnesses market power and consumer demand to support sustainable fishing gear and methods such as artisanal fishing, hand-line reels and circle hooks. “Hand-line fishing is done aboard small boats. Fishers use single hooks to catch one tuna at a time. This ensures that only mature, high-quality tuna are caught while minimizing the problem of bycatch – unintentionally catching other species,” says Palma.

The deployment of revolutionary C-shaped circle hooks has also reduced sea turtle deaths by as much as 90 per cent. “When turtles bite down on these hooks, they just fold inwards. Altering the shape of the hook was all that was needed to minimize turtle bycatch for tuna fishers,” adds Palma.

© WWF-Philippines / Gregg Yan

PPTST also works to improve meat handling practices. All fish theoretically start as Grade-A tuna. Poor handling degrades meat quality. A fish caught just three hours before being sold can have Grade-B or Grade-C meat if it is badly bruised.

“Low-grade tuna sells for about a third or even a quarter of the price of sashimi-grade cuts. Due to current practices, almost 70 per cent of all sold tuna is classified as Grade-C,” explains WWF-Philippines PPTST Project Manager Joann Binondo. This project aims to promote responsible fisheries management and establish long-term market access for high-quality, selectively-caught tuna.

“The secret is to add more value to tuna, rather than forcing people to fish more. We must secure quality tuna without seriously increasing fishing effort. We aim to reach Marine Stewardship Council (MSC) certification by 2017,” concludes Binondo. “Our goal is to ensure that our tuna stocks last for many more generations. Through the support of our allies and the hard work of artisanal fishers, PPTST will strike a balance between ecology and the economy.”