Where are all the tuna boats?

Feature Story - 3 October, 2011
Over the next three months the crew of the Esperanza will be campaigning in the Pacific to stop the plunder of the region’s diminishing tuna stocks. Right now there are too many fishing boats trying to catch fewer and fewer fish. In the past when I’ve written that statement I’ve imagined the Pacific being as busy as a shopping centre carpark on a Saturday afternoon. Forget that. So far it’s been more like 2am on a Sunday.

There are almost 6000 vessels licensed to fish for tuna in an area that starts from Papua New Guinea in the west and extends across to French Polynesia in the east. Now that I’m here in the middle of the vast ocean, with an unobstructed view 12 kilometres in every direction, I can see why spotting these boats is like finding a needle in a haystack.

Not only are there a lot of boats, even if they are hard to find, they’re also very good at what they do – too good. These boats aren’t pretty. Some are not even very big but every day they’re catching tuna by the tonne using fishing lines many kilometers long (Esperanza crew who have been here before report seeing lines up to 100 kms in length). Longlines are designed to catch albacore, yellowfin and bigeye tuna but they also catch other sea life like sharks and turtles.

Many of the illegal fishing activities exposed in the Pacific are attributed to longline vessels, which also regularly engage in the controversial practice of shark-finning. It is estimated that between 21-46% of the fish caught in the Pacific is taken by pirate fishing ships.

In the last few days we’ve found a handful of longliners on our route. At the moment we’re in a pocket of international waters – one of four areas we call the Pacific Commons which we want designated as a marine reserve so there’s no fishing at all.

Yesterday we documented a Taiwanese longliner and were invited aboard by the captain. Through our translator he told us tuna fishing was getting harder. He agreed that turning areas of international waters into marine reserves, off limits to fishing, would help his industry. I can’t be sure of his exact reasoning but I’m giving him the benefit of the doubt and guessing he sees marine reserves as a good way of giving tuna stocks a chance to replenish. He even posed for photos holding our ‘Marine Reserves Now’ banner along with us on his ship the Yu Long No.10.

As we move west we’re likely to encounter vessels using another fishing method, purse seining. Although these vessels are fewer in number, they are capable of massive hauls of fish and take around three-quarters of the Pacific tuna catch. And speaking of catches, there is a definite catch to their operations – many of these vessels set their huge nets around floating objects known as fish aggregation devices (FADs), which lure in not just the target tuna but also baby tunas, other fish species, sharks and even the occasional turtle. All this is then scooped up in the large purse seine nets, with the other species then discarded.

Purse seine fishing around FADs is not a sustainable fishing methods. This is born out by the scientific evidence showing tuna stocks are under pressure from overfishing.

Pacific tuna is key to the region's food security and economic prosperity. The way to protect valuable tuna stocks is to create marine reserves, ban destructive and wasteful fishing methods and to reduce tuna fishing by half.

Over the coming weeks we’ll be involved in highlighting the issues and solutions. Stick with us. There’s still 5900 and something tuna boats to go.

By Phil Crawford, Communication Officer, Greenpeace New Zealand

Phil is the onboard Communication Officer for the first leg of Defending the Pacific 2011 - find out more.