Greenpeace activists hang a banner from Honolulu's iconic Aloha Tower the day before the Pacific Tuna Summit began, urging the Tuna Commission to save tuna. For the Pacific region and its people, no fish means no future.
I am in beautiful Hawaii, on Pacific shores, for this week’s important meeting to ensure the future of the Pacific Ocean’s tuna populations. It’s the annual summit of the Western and Central Pacific Fisheries Commission (WCPFC), where nations bordering the Pacific decide how to manage the Pacific and the fish that live in it. Hawaii is fortunate to have a large marine reserve in its waters - the Papahānaumokuākea Marine National Monument, which was established in 2006 by President Bush. The declaration of this reserve, encompassing all of what is called the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands, was a surprising move for the otherwise environmentally unfriendly Bush and was welcomed by the environmental movement and local communities here in Hawaii. So it is quite an ideal location for this meeting – where precedents can and should be set for effective marine conservation.
Unfortunately, there is trouble in the Pacific Paradise, with the ocean’s tuna stocks in trouble, matching similar declines in our other oceans. The world’s insatiable hunger for tuna has meant that bloated tuna fleets have set their sights onto the Pacific, previously thought to be teeming with fish. Over 60% of the world’s tuna comes from the Pacific and unless action is taken soon, we could well see the collapse of tuna stocks here. This would of course be catastrophic for the vulnerable small island states that depend on tuna for food and as a major part of their economies. Here in Honolulu, Greenpeace is demanding that nations meeting at the WCPFC:
- Close the four high seas pockets to all fishing,
- Ban Fish Aggregation Devices (FADs; man-made objects used to attract tuna to nets) in purse seine fisheries,
- Reduce tuna fishing in the Pacific by 50% (or halving the amount of fishing).
If this meeting doesn’t produce an outcome that includes these three things, the Pacific tuna situation will be a food security and economic disaster in the making.
But there is hope. The Pacific Island Countries that need healthy tuna stocks the most have taken the scientists’ warnings seriously and are in a process of changing the way their tuna and their coastal waters are managed.
Eight Pacific Island nations are proposing that the WCPFC agree to one far-reaching measure, which they will be implementing at the beginning of next year: closing over 4.5 million square kilometers of Pacific ocean to purse seine fishing, a wasteful fishing technique that uses deadly fish aggregation devices (FADs) to catch tuna, and in the process also remove a lot of juvenile tuna and other marine life such as sharks and turtles from the Pacific. This would not be as strong a level of protection as the US has given to the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands, but nevertheless, it would be the first step of protecting the very important areas of the Pacific where tuna spawn.
Given US leadership in creating marine reserves, it would seem likely that the US government would support this proposal to help restore tuna fisheries in the Pacific, but one day into the meeting, it’s starting to look more and more unlikely.
To understand this position, just look back only 20 years, when the US signed a treaty with the Pacific Island Countries and negotiated the US tuna fleet’s way into the Pacific (after the then-Soviet Union was also considering expanding its fishing into Pacific waters). Unfortunately, this treaty is now outdated and gives the US the option not to comply with modern conservation plans, including ones which the Pacific Island Countries have since implemented in their own waters. This even means US vessels can, and likely do, fish in the protected areas of the Pacific. This is even more unfair as all other nations’ fleets have long since accepted and complied to the measures introduced by the island nations.
Closing huge areas of international waters to fishing is a step that’s on the table here in Honolulu. It will be enforced through access agreements that allow foreign fleets into the Pacific Island countries’ waters. Most fleets will have to comply to these as they cannot survive economically without being able to fish the tuna that migrates though these areas of ocean. But the US, unless it agrees to the measure here this week, can continue to be exempted from this based on a treaty that is over 20 years old!
It is time the Obama administration embraces ocean conservation, recognises the need to protect the oceans via closure of areas to fishing and champions the Pacific proposal at the meeting here this week. Take action and email the US government to stand in solidarity with the region and its aspirations.
Sari Tolvanen is a Greenpeace International oceans campaigner, based in Amsterdam. She coordinates the global campaign to defend the Pacific Ocean, enjoys sunsets, long walks on the beach and green tea.