save our oceansEvery year, Pacific Ocean fisheries experts gather to review all of the current scientific data and make recommendations to the Western and Central Pacific Fisheries Commission (WCPFC) on what us scientists call “conservation and management measures” – measures that should protect not only the target fish species of tunas, marlins, and swordfish, but also ocean life that is all too often caught and killed while fishing for them, such as sharks, seabirds and turtles.

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A core group of these scientists spend a considerable amount of their time each year collecting and processing all the data on fishing activities in the region, and running a variety of computer models to try to estimate population sizes and to predict future trends for these fisheries.

Every year since its first meeting in 2005, the WCPFC’s Science Committee has advised the Commission to take action to protect our Pacific tuna. And yet every year there are more boats fishing for tuna, many of them fishing illegally, and the tuna populations continue to decline further.

Three years ago, the Commission finally agreed some measures aimed at reducing fishing for bigeye tuna by 30 percent and to put a limit on yellowfin tuna fishing. Ultimately this was to keep the tuna fishing at levels which the Commission considers ‘healthy’ (which Greenpeace and many others think is far too low, but that’s a whole other blog).

So at the 2011 science meeting, a key goal was to review how well these conservation measures had been followed and how well they actually worked. I was not surprised to learn that, despite relatively good implementation, there were so many exceptions granted to different tuna fleets that the agreement was doomed to fail before it even started. And the scientists stated that even if the measures were implemented without exceptions, this would still only reduce the amount of overfishing by about half the level required.

I learned last year that the purse seine tuna fishing fleet, which catches most of our Pacific tuna, had increased fishing by 18 percent compared to 2004 levels, and early data for 2011 shows that there has probably been a further increase of 11 percent.

The bigeye tuna population is now down to about 35 percent of its unfished size, and possibly even as low as 23 percent. In the area where most bigeye fishing occurs it’s down to just 17 percent. The fishing rate continues to be very high – possibly as much as double the rate of the Commission’s target.

Yellowfin, a more abundant tuna species than bigeye is in a little less trouble. But in the region where most fisheries operate the population is down to 30 percent, a large proportion of the catch are juvenile tunas, and there is no sign that the Commission will get this fishery under control in time to prevent it getting into real danger.

The Commission can and must turn this around next week when it decides what to do about the current management failures.

Key measures, like the closure of two Pacific Commons areas to purse seine fishing and the 3-month ban on the use of fish aggregating devices (FADs)- floating objects meant to attract tuna into nets but bring in far more than just tuna- by purse seine fisheries, have been relatively well implemented, but they need to be extended in order to be more effective. In fact, the core tuna scientists stated that reducing the use of FADs by purse seine fisheries is the most effective way to end overfishing. And Greenpeace agrees.

Greenpeace will be at the WCPFC next week calling for:

1. A 50 percent cut in fishing rate for bigeye tuna to allow a quick recovery to a truly healthy and fish-able levels.

2. A total ban on the use of FADs to reduce the catch of juvenile bigeye and yellowfin, as well as the accidental catch, or bycatch, of non-target species like sharks; and

3. A permanent closure of all four areas of the high seas known as the Pacific Commons, to reduce illegal tuna fishing and provide further protection for all the tuna species in the region.

Dr. Cat Dorey is a Greenpeace International oceans campaigner based in Sydney, Australia.