Pacific Islands pushing the envelope on tuna conservation

Feature Story - 10 December, 2010
Right now, Honolulu is host to the annual meeting of the Western and Central Pacific Fisheries Commission (WCPFC) – the international body responsible for managing and conserving fish stocks in much of the Pacific Ocean.

Greenpeace banner hang in Honolulu at the annual meeting of the Western and Central Fisheries Commission (WCPFC)

As countries sit down to negotiate the fine print of fishing management, time is running out. Fish stocks are plummeting, marine life is under attack and Pacific Islanders' food and economic security is at stake. But while foreign fishing nations typically have the upper hand, it is the less powerful Pacific Island countries that are taking a stand.

The issues

The Commission is the major platform where the tuna-rich Pacific Island countries make decisions about tuna fisheries with foreign fishing nations - namely, the US, Japan, Korea, China, EU and Taiwan. These nations own more than 80% of the fishing vessels in the region.

While most of the tuna swim in the waters of the Pacific Island countries, these countries have relatively small economies and very little investment capital to benefit from the bounties that lie in their waters.

Foreign fishing fleets often take advantage of this situation. Aid and development assistance is used as a bargaining tool for greater fisheries access and lower fishing fees. The Pacific Island countries are paid paltry access fees, which amount to approximately 5% of total revenues, estimated now at $US3 billion.

But it gets worse.

The world's favourite fish - tuna - is in serious trouble. Tuna fisheries in all the major oceans are on the verge of collapsing.

Bluefin Tuna is critically endangered. Pacific Bigeye Tuna is heavily overfished with the population now down to just 17% of its original size. Yellowfin Tuna is in dramatic decline. There are also fears that a once, highly resilient tuna species Skipjack Tuna, is actually in rapid decline with stocks down by 50%.

Our appetite for tuna far exceeds the ocean's ability to regenerate, giving rise to a fisheries crisis.

Pacific Action

Pacific Island countries are watching as the destruction plays out in their backyards, desperate to save what is often their only significant economic resource.

When scientists started to show how tuna stocks were swiftly plummeting and running the risk of collapse, many Pacific Islanders decided to take action and change the status quo.

Groups such as the PNA (Parties to the Nauru Agreement) are now demanding increased conservation measures to end tuna overfishing and give Pacific Island countries greater control of their fisheries.

Eight Pacific Island nations (The Federated States of Micronesia, Kiribati, Marshall Islands, Nauru, Palau, Papua New Guinea, Solomon Islands and Tuvalu) earlier this year made a historic decision to protect their fisheries. The eight countries unilaterally agreed to close off over 4.5 million square kilometres of international waters adjacent to their Exclusive Economic Zones (EEZs) to purse seine fishing, a destructive fishing technique that uses deadly fish aggregation devices (FADs) to catch tuna. FADs are responsible for wasteful marine destruction, as the fishing process also kills juvenile tuna and endangered animals such as sharks and turtles.

These countries denied fishing vessels access to their waters unless their demands were agreed to. A bold move, as these island countries stand to lose virtually millions of dollars in their bid to conserve tuna stocks decimated by foreign fishers.

The same group of countries have also agreed to reduce fishing in their waters by 30% and are negotiating on ways to ban FAD fishing in their EEZs by up to 9 months. Already one small nation - Nauru - has closed its EEZs to purse seine vessels for the remainder of the year. This is just one of several bold sacrifices made by this group in the name of conservation.

2010 Fisheries Meeting

These Pacific Island countries are meeting in Honolulu this week to stand up to the powerful fishing nations. They seek a decision that will ensure these measures are recognised by all countries in the region and lobby for a level playing field to reach consistency across the management authority. Fishing nations must comply or risk losing access to these valuable grounds. However, as negotiations have shown in the past, nothing is ever that easy.

Last week I was joined by a team of international oceans activists inspired by this act synonymous with a David vs Goliath face-off. Together we stand alongside the small island nations in their call for strengthened conservation and management measures to protect the fisheries and livelihoods of Pacific Islanders.

Our activists delivered a big, bold message to the commission by scaling the iconic Aloha tower in Honolulu to unveil and hang a 60ft banner reading "WCPFC - Don't Let Time Run Out on Tuna".

Our peaceful action called on the Commission to take urgent action now in Honolulu to turn the tide on the Pacific tuna crisis. We're also calling for the establishment of marine reserves - essential for a healthy ocean  - especially in the four high seas pockets of international waters in the Pacific.

The steps needed

Greenpeace is in Honolulu demanding that nations meeting at the WCPFC:

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