How long until governments clamp down on irresponsible tuna fishing?

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Feature Story - 8 May, 2013
During my time at sea with the Greenpeace ship Esperanza in the Indian Ocean, I’ve had the opportunity to speak with a number of fishermen who make a living on these seas.

Each of them told me the story I’ve heard many times before: there are too many boats and trying to make a living from fishing is increasingly difficult.

Too many boats, too few fish

When I spoke with the captain of Japanese tuna long liner, Fukuseki Maru No 7, he said (without a hint of irony) “There are too many foreigners here these days.” The captain was explaining his dismal catch and the ever increasing challenges he has to face as a skipper whose job is to bring back full holds of tuna for the Japanese sashimi market. Around us were several fishing boats from France, Spain, Korea, Taiwan and China.

The Japanese captain was angry.  If it wasn't bad enough that he had to deal with Somali pirates, bad weather, another poor season. Now he had to deal with Greenpeace looking over his shoulder. 

“You should be chasing the purse seiners, " said the captain. "Didn't you see that big French one down south? The 80 metre Spanish one just to our west? They take all the fish.” Purse seining involves setting a large circular ‘wall’ of net around fish, the ‘pursing’ the bottom edges together to capture them.

Fishermen are often reluctant to admit that they are part of the overfishing problem. However this captain had a point. Just a few purse seiners can catch as many tuna as hundreds of line fishing boats.

Destructive fishing methods are ruining the industry

Here in the Indian Ocean, purse seine fishing almost always means fishing with destructive Fish Attracting Devices (FADs).

FADs are devastating because they lead to a huge increase in by catch of other species and especially the catch of juvenile yellowfin and bigeye tuna – two species that are globally depleted.  The average size of a yellowfin caught by a purse seiner using a FAD is only about one third of the size as when caught without a FAD. When smaller juvenile fish are being caught, there’s potential to wipe out those long-lived species.

I witnessed the haul of a French purse called Trevignon (below) after fishing on a FAD just after parting ways with the Fukuseki Maru. The number of small fish caught in its nets was worrying.

Juvenile Yellowfin tuna hang in the purse seine net of the French fishing vessel Trevignon after setting on a fish aggregating device (FAD) in the Mozambique Channel.  Greenpeace is on patrol documenting fishing activities in the Indian Ocean.

The long line captain is upset because he wants to wait until the high-value yellowfin and bigeye are bigger and more valuable.  More importantly, by catching juvenile fish, they risk wiping out these long-lived species.

Ultimately, no single fishery bears all of the blame. But if anyone should wear less blame, it's the smaller-scale fishermen of nearby Madagascar, Mozambique, Mayotte and Mauritius who've been sailing these seas for centuries. They certainly didn’t catch all the tuna, but they are forced bear the cost of overfishing.

Now that I'm ashore, I’m with over a hundred delegates at the Indian Ocean Tuna Commission. It's time for all the folks in suits - foreign or local - to rescue this fishery for the sake of fish and fishermen everywhere. My message to them is simple: fewer boats and no FADs means more fish and more fishing jobs.

You can follow the proceedings of the Indian Ocean Tuna Commission on Twitter using #IOTC and @Sariusly and @SavageNatPelle. You can also follow the Greenpeace Esperanza on Facebook.

By Nathaniel Pelle, Oceans Campaigner for Greenpeace Australia Pacific.