Karli Thomas leads efforts to rescue tuna, for the sake of the Pacific Ocean and the people dependent on it.
Last week's meeting of the Western and Central Pacific Fisheries Commission ended in a sad day for the tuna, for the whales and whale sharks, and those whose livelihoods depend upon the Pacific Ocean's resources.
Until recently the Pacific was the home to the world's last abundant tuna fisheries, but there are now serious problems facing Pacific tuna. Bigeye and yellowfin tuna are already in serious trouble, and even skipjack, once thought of as virtually limitless, is now in decline and being caught at a rate that is not sustainable in the long term. Wasteful fishing methods are widespread in Pacific fisheries, including the use of fish aggregation devices (FADs) and even setting nets around endangered species like whale sharks and cetaceans. Almost all the money from fishing is being made by foreign countries that send industrial fleets to the region, with little financial return for
Pacific Island countries themselves – just 5-6% of the value of the tuna catch goes to Pacific countries through license fees.
In response to this unsustainable and unfair situation, Pacific Island countries have come forward with a range of proposals to better manage the region's fisheries. These included:
- Closing off areas of international waters to reduce fishing pressure and assist in management and surveillance to stamp out pirate fishing.
- Reducing fishing effort in Pacific Island waters by limiting the number of days that can be fished to reduce the pressure on bigeye, yellowfin and other tuna stocks.
- Banning purse seine fishing around whale sharks and cetaceans, which are targeted as they attract fish, but are sometimes killed in the process.
Unfortunately none of these measures made it past the powerful bloc of fishing nations at the commission. European Union and Korea were opposed to closing additional areas of international waters; and even after photos of a whale shark caught by a purse seiner shamed the room to silence, Japan eventually spoke up demanding to continue this disgraceful practice.
Frozen tuna on a Taiwanese vessel
So where does that leave us, the tuna and the people of the Pacific who depend upon this resource?
The glass half empty version is that once again the vested interests of insatiable industrial fishing fleets have bowed governments into submission and they have blocked vital progress. In a Commission that operates by consensus, it can seem like an impossible task to get every country around the table to support, or at least keep quiet about, an agreement on new conservation and management rules when it is within reach.
The glass half full version is that there is solidarity within the region and a determination to make these fisheries sustainable and fair. The measures above will be unilaterally implemented by a group of eight Pacific Island Countries called the PNA, or 'Parties to the Nauru Agreement'. These countries have the richest tuna resources in the region, making their fishing licenses highly sought after. From the start of next year, all licenses from those eight countries will be issued with these strict conditions, meaning that vessels that sign up to fish in PNA waters agree not to fish in five large areas of the high seas.
The coming year will be crucial to build on Pacific solidarity and ensure these rules are adopted by the Commission when it reviews the conservation and management rules for bigeye and yellowfin tuna at the end of 2011.
This was the precedent-setting agreement reached in 2008 that put two pockets of international waters off limits to all purse seine vessels.
We have done it once, we can do it again!
Karli Thomas is an oceans campaigner in Greenpeace New Zealand’s Auckland office.