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Half of the canned tuna in Ecuador is imported and of unknown origin

By Franklin Vega

The figures and the origin of tuna imports made by Ecuador don't add up. Between Customs, the Central Bank and the National Chamber of Fisheries there are different data, which prevents correct traceability.


By 2021,The originof 200,000 tons of tuna, valued at 340 million dollars, is not defined. Thus, 50% of the canned tuna it is imported from other countries, of which, in turn, the origin of the fish is unknown and they are reported as "open waters"


On this, there are 12 questions that the Ministry of Production should answer before the yellow card imposed by the European Union is lifted.

Where does tuna come from? The data does not match

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The first rule to manage a resource is the quality of the data, of the information. In the case of tuna, the main input is the catch of the species that is processed in Ecuador. With reliable data on how much tuna is caught and where, fishing quotas can be set and the health of fish stocks assessed. At the same time, consumers have the right to know what they eat and where their food comes from.

Ecuador's tuna industry is one of the strongest in the world. With 107 registered purse seiners in 2021, it is the second largest tuna fleet in the Eastern Pacific; and is second only to Thailand in terms of tuna processing capacity (canned). According todata from the Inter-American Tropical Tuna Commission(CIAT), in 2018, of the 593,000 tons of tuna that were caught in the Eastern Pacific Ocean, 61% was unloaded in Ecuadorian ports.  

That means that, from the Pacific Ocean, 361,730 tons of tuna arrived according to the IATTC. However, according to data from the National Chamber of Fisheries (CNP by its acronym in Spanish) in that year, 552,334 tons of tuna were processed in Ecuador. So, the difference, that is, 190,604 tons, doesn't come from the Pacific. The origin of that amount of tuna is a mystery that remains in this article.

The National Chamber of Fisheries manages other figures

Fishing Net

Ecuadorian tuna vessels process an average of 500,000 tons of tuna each year, of which 80% is exported and 20% is for domestic consumption.Tuna represents 5% of Ecuador's GDP, only surpassed by bananas and shrimp, according to data from the National Fisheries Chamber (CNP).


Bruno Leone, president of the National Chamber of Fisheries, confirms that in Ecuador between 550 and 560 thousand tons of tuna are processed annually. The 107 tuna vessels (or purse seiners) with the flag of Ecuador catch between 280 and 300 thousand tons.“The difference comes from fishing boats, but from other flags, Colombian, Panamanian, Central American, American. Another part arrives on merchant ships in reefers (refrigerators) that come from the Indian Ocean, the Atlantic, and another part from containers, in some cases they are imports, in others they are temporary admission that comes to be processed.


The Ecuadorian tuna fleet fishes basically three species of tuna: Skipjack (Katsuwonus pelamis), Yellowfin (Thunnus albacares) and Bigeye (Thunnus obesus). According to data from the National Chamber of Fisheries (CNP), the most captured species in 2018 were Skipjack at 66%, Yellowfin at 19% and Bigeye at 13%. This proportion is maintained in the following years.

Traceless Tuna

When analyzing the figures available in the databases of the Central Bank and the Customs of Ecuador, it is impossible to find the complete trace of the 270,000 tons of tuna that Ecuador imports,considering the lower data announced by Leone. This represents 531.9 million dollars, which is calculated based on the FOB value (tax-free value on board) reported at Ecuadorian Customs for each ton of yellowfin tuna, which is 1,970 dollars (see box with the amounts ).


According to data from the Central Bank of Ecuador, only the origin of 38.911  can be established.tons of the three species of tuna, with a value of 71.87 million dollars in 2021. ECB officials, when questioned about temporary imports, indicate that “the official export and import statistics prepared and published by the BCE include in the first case the definitive importation, for the other data, it is suggested to consult the Customs”.


When reviewing the database of the National Customs Service of Ecuador, definitive imports of the three species amount to 65,337 tons. Therefore, it only remains to determine the origin of 200,000 tons that have an approximate value of 340 million dollars if the world average price per ton is applied.

Continuing with the search for tuna import data, it is possible to determine that in 2018, 188,208 tons of bulk frozen tuna; were landed. That number appears in the 2018 Port and Maritime Transport Statistics of the Ministry of Public Works. According to this document, for 2019, the amount of bulk frozen tuna that had entered Ecuador was 152,686 tons and 117,986 for 2020, but neither the origin nor the species are indicated.


Nor can it be established how much of the tuna landed at Ecuador's docks is counted among the definitive or temporary imports registered by the Central Bank or SENAE.


Regarding these inconsistencies, Leone points out the following: “The information is public for our members, but I share it with you. As I told you, not everything arrives as imports, many things come to industrial warehouses, others as maquila, so that's where the issue lies. But at the end of the day, we bring more or less between 250 thousand tons that the industry has to process”.


Weeks after Leone's interview, we received an email from the National Chamber of Fisheries detailing information on tuna fishing and importation, and we reproduce it as it was sent.

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Missing tuna

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However, after reviewing the values of imports made under Regime 21 according to SENAE data, the figures do not match either. Through this customs regime, the entry of merchandise is allowed with a suspension of the payment of import duties and taxes. This is done under the condition that the goods are exported after undergoing a transformation called "improvement". In the case of tuna, it arrives frozen and is transformed into cans. In 2021, Ecuador temporarily imported (Regime 21) 32,133 tons for a declared value (FOB) of 721 million dollars, according to SENAE data.


When reviewing the figures for the amount of tuna imported, both temporarily and permanently, we note that no total coincides with that reported by SENAE and the Central Bank, or with the landing reports made in Ecuadorian ports according to the Ministry of Transport and Public Works, nor with the data provided by the CNP.


It is impossible to know where half of the tuna that Ecuador exports comes from with certainty. The origin of the tuna that is sold in the world as processed in the country is unknown. The unknown prevails if one considers that the Inter-American Tropical Tuna Commission (IATTC) regulates a portion of the Pacific Ocean that is displayed on the following map:

In summary, there is a shortage of approximately 200,000 tons of tuna that cannot be located between the official data of SENAE, the Central Bank or the Ministry of Production. This amount represents 340 million dollars if the average value per ton of 1,700 dollars is considered.

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Yellow card from the European Union to Ecuadorian tuna

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Through the analysis of data on tuna imports in the Central Bank and in SENAE, it is determined that 80% declare their origin from international waters. In the case of temporary imports (Regime 21), 63% also originate from international waters and the rest from countries as distant as Micronesia, Samoa, Australia, Taiwan, Spain or the Solomon Islands.

Not being able to report on the origin of fishing was one of the issues questioned when the European Union imposed, in 2019, theYellow Card to Ecuador for not controlling the fishing value chain illegal, unreported and unregulated IUU.

Regarding the origin of fishing, Leone recognizes that it is an aspect to improve in Ecuador's fishing management. “It is something that we have already complained about, saying only "international waters" cannot be and that is changing. With the issue of the Yellow Card, we are working on a process of strengthening controls with the Port State Governing measures, an electronic platform and a series of things where it can no longer be possible to go out into international waters; it has to say that it comes from such a place, from such a ship, from such RFMO (Regional Fisheries Management Organization, like the IATTC) because the person who wants to bring a fish has to get what we call prior authorization”.

While fishing controls are announced in the press releases of the Ministry of Production, the shortcomings and gaps in fishing information in Ecuador are evident in terms of quality and level of access.

Last April, a Commission of the European Union carried out an inspection in Ecuador. As a result of that technical visit, an official unofficially stated the following: “The recent mission to Manta indicated that Ecuador is making progress, but there are still some steps that need to be taken by Ecuador before it can fulfill all of its responsibilities as State of the flag, coastal, port and market. The European Commission remains ready to support Ecuador in its efforts to fight IUU fishing and to continue the good cooperation it has built with the Ecuadorian authorities over the years.”

When asking about the details to improve in fishing control, the European Union official pointed out that,“During the dialogues, the European Commission analyzes public and other data provided by the third country. However, the content of the Dialogues is confidential to preserve the mutual trust built between the parties”.

Given the poverty of available data and the lack of response from government authorities, we can say that the precise origin of half of the tuna processed in Ecuador is unknown. The data in the different sources do not match and are not easily usable. The Organic Fisheries Law has not been complied with and "traceability" is still a pending task for both industrial fishermen and tuna canning industries.

Traceability is still a chimera for tuna


The journey of a fish from its capture in the sea to the final consumer's table, export or insertion in an industrial process is known as traceability. This is the first step to talk about the sustainability of a fishery resource and is a tool to combat illegal, unreported and unregulated (IUU) fishing.


The Organic Law for the Development of Aquaculture and Fisheries of Ecuador, promulgated in April 2020, includes among its principles "the traceability of hydrobiological resources, sustainability and governance". There, traceability is defined as a "set of measures, actions and procedures that allow each product or a batch thereof and its characteristics to be registered and identified, from its origin to its final destination".


In March 2022, the Regulations for the Fisheries Law were issued, whose chapter II is dedicated to traceability. The document details everything from the definition of traceability to the way in which it is verified. Seven articles list the steps to achieve this principle.

The greatest contrast with reality is in article 55 referring to the publicity of the traceability system: "The governing body must make available, within the Integrated Aquaculture and Fisheries System, public and free access to all the information on the production stages of the aquaculture and fishing chain. The adoption of the traceability system is mandatory through the Integrated Aquaculture and Fisheries System for all phases of the country's aquaculture and fisheries sector, the governing body will determine its implementation through secondary regulations.

So the traceability of fishing is on paper and far from being implemented in practice. In addition, there is a limit to traceability since, according to IATTC standards —which the FAO cites in its checklist for combating IUU fishing—,data on the origin of the catch will be kept confidential, such as the name of the ship, its flag and its owner.

This regulation is an insurmountable barrier for those who dive in the sea of fishing data. Neither in the information of the SANAE nor in the Central Bank nor in the portalOpen Data There is complete information for the case of tuna. Details about the origin of each import are not recorded.

According to a data processing specialist, without the origin of the entered data, it is impossible to track it. “If the confidentiality of the company must be maintained, it can be indicated when the registration was made and if it corresponds to one or several companies, from how many ships, where it was fished and on which ship it arrives.”

12 unanswered questions for the Ministry of Production

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​The twelve questions:

  1. doWhy, despite being provided for in the Fisheries Law and in the Regulations,Transparency and traceability are not complied withof fish products?

  2. As the highest fishing authorityshould consolidate and publish the figuresof both fishing and imports of tuna carried out by Ecuador, why is this not fulfilled?

  3. In all fishing landings, both from the tuna fleet and imports, there is an obligation for the presence of a fishing inspector. Where and how is it processedthe information that fishery inspectorscollected in landings and imports?

  4. How I knowguarantees the quality of the tuna that is importedAnd how is it verified that it does not come from transshipments at sea that Ecuadorian legislation prohibits?

  5. doHow the products differmade with tuna caught by Ecuadorian imported tuna boats?

  6. How much and howincreased processing facilitiesof tuna and the fishing fleets of Ecuador, both industrial and artisanal?

  7. If five tuna companies with 47 purse-seine vessels have the certification granted by theMarine Stewardship Council (MSC)For yellowfin tuna, does it imply that the origin of everything that is caught of this species can be explained?

  8. How many of the 107 purse-seine vessels that fish in Ecuador have theDolphin Mortality Limit (DML)What does the IATTC grant? How much tuna do they catch per year throwing their nets on dolphins?

  9. What are the totals and percentages of thebycatch?

  10. What are the species that are not the target of tuna fishing, but that are also fished with this species assharks, dorados, sailfish, manta rays, sea turtles?

  11. In the case ofsharks and dolphins: What is the percentage of survival when caught incidentally both with purse seines and with longliners or motherships?

  12. Which are theorigins of tuna fishing in Ecuador? How much is done on FADs (fish aggregating devices), how much on dolphins and how much on free schools?

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The highest fishing authority in Ecuador is the Minister of Production, Foreign Trade, Investments and Fisheries, Julio José Prado. In May 2021, Minister Prado was sent a letter (see image) requesting information on fishing and fishing fleets in Ecuador. Here are the questions that have not been answered:

Ministro de Produccion
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Values for tuna imports with doubts

The price for each declared ton of tuna fluctuates between 115 and 3,500 dollars. However, when processing Customs data for 2021,10 records of values per ton appear with exorbitant figures, which reach hundreds of thousands of dollars per ton or hundreds of dollars per kilogram, instead of 1.7 dollars, which is the international price.


We ask SENAE to verify these figures, because it could be an incorrect data or a typing error. However, until the closing of the edition, we have not received a response, only the offer that the figures would be reviewed after knowing the details of the imports with amounts that come out of the average price.


Below are ten definitive imports of tuna, out of 308 records analyzed for 2021, which present value fluctuations that exceed the average per ton:


InDecember 2021, there are two imports from the Solomon Islands with a CIF value of USD 233,468.98 for 37.70 kilos of tuna and the other of USD 63,878.07 for 9.5 kilos of tuna. This represents a value of USD 6,192 and 6,727 per kilo, when the values declared in the other imports range between 1 and 4 dollars per kilo.


Inoctober,there are two imports from the Solomon Islands. In one they declare CIF USD 122,032.06 for 20.96 kilos of tuna and in the other, USD 16,843 for 2.71 kilos.


InSeptember, there is an import from Singapore with a CIF value of USD 196,194.76 for 38.15 kilos and another from the Solomon Islands of USD 33,815.79 for 6.56 kilos.


InJune, an import from Taiwan is recorded with a CIF value of USD 57,549.49 for 11.48 kilos and another also from Taiwan for USD 289,588.21 for 60.50 kilos.


Inapril, there are two imports from Spain: one with a CIF of USD 162,841.59 for 43.85 kilos and another of USD 12,069.40 for 3.33 Kg.


In the case of temporary imports, Regime 21, there are also records that are out of the average. These correspond to two imports whose origin is international waters.


Regarding the figures of tuna imports with values that are out of the average,Leon stated: “Surely they are typing errors; it is impossible for a kilo of tuna to have the values you mention. It would be the most expensive tuna in the world. The current price (August 2022) of a ton of tuna is 1,700 dollars, and is due to global supply and demand".

“This article is part of the series of publications that are the  result of the scholarship program of the DesenreDatos project, implemented by the DW Akademie, within the framework of the Sincere Ecuador program of the German Cooperation GIZ, with the support of the University of the Americas (UDLA)”

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