Where are the fish?

Feature story - August 30, 2004
We thought the Western and Central Pacific tuna fishery was the last healthy tuna fishery in the world. Despite concerns about over-fishing due to the rapid expansion of the industrial fleets, the conventional wisdom was that the fishery was still in fairly good shape. After two months in the region we realised this assumption was very wrong.

Boys fish from a small boat in a Pacific atoll lagoon. Rampant industrial fishing threatens the future of Pacific fisheries and will mean an uncertain future for these children in an economy that relies on local traditional fishing for survival.

While sailing the Western and Central Pacific, documenting fishing, andspeaking with industry leaders, local fishermen, academics andgovernment regulators we've realised that this is a fishery on the edgeof crisis.

Suva, Fiji

Our journey of discovery began with our first stop, Suva, Fiji. Therewe met Grahame Southwick, owner of Fiji Fish, and one of the manyindustry leaders sounding the alarm: "We have a biological problem,there are too many boats taking too many fish. It also spawns aneconomical problem where we have legitimate fleets being forced out ofbusiness by the pirate fleets or the non-conformists."

Recently, the Prime Minister of Fiji himself, Laisenia Qarase,reportedly called for measures to ensure that tuna fishing ininternational waters is harvested on a sustainable basis. He alsocalled for more of the profits from fishing in the region to go to thelocal economy: "More than 95 percent of its cash value goes to othercountries. The return to the Pacific nations is under 4 percent of itsworth. Clearly, we must do something about this."

Tarawa, Kiribati

On our way to Kiribati we came across a long liner, our first fishingvessel at sea, pulling in its line. The crew was friendly, but we sawfirst hand an incident of shark fining.Shark fins are worth a lot of money, but shark meat is not a big seller- so they kept the fins and threw the dead shark overboard. What awaste. Government and industry experts advocate using fishing line thatbreaks off when a big shark bites the line - letting the shark live.But most fishermen don't like the idea of losing a hook and many don'tlike the idea of losing that shark fin revenue (some crew on fishingboats are even paid in shark fin).

In Kiribati, the dilemma facing small island nations that want toprotect their fish stocks, but are cash strapped, was highlighted by Johnny Kirata,Deputy Director of the Fisheries Resources Department: "As you can see,the resource itself is an important one, yet we also have a governmentthat needs hard cash. There must be a balance in trying to manage andconserve the resource, and at the same time reap the maximum benefitfrom it."

We also spoke to Ekueta Leremia, a successful local fisherman. Heruns seven small fishing boats working with more than 20 staff. As withthe other local fishermen we spoke to, he is worried about how overfishing is hurting his livelihood: "Until 1980 it was a very good timefor fishing, plenty fish around. You didn't need to go very far out,just stay close to land and you could catch big Yellow Fin. Now it'svery difficult, very difficult to get those big ones."

Mojuro, Marshalls

At a public meeting in the Marshalls,the Deputy Attorney General Posesi Blommfield talked about thechallenges enforcing fisheries regulations with a 1,321,220 square mile(2,131,000 sq km) area to patrol with one patrol boat.

"As you are all aware, it's one thing to have laws in place tocombat IUU (illegal, unreported and unregulated fishing), it's quiteanother to prosecute them. The crime of IUU is quite different to othercrimes, because it is hard to go out there and catch the violators, itis hard to bring them in, it is hard to identify who the owners are,and it is very hard to bring evidence in and present it to a judge andhope that he will convict." We also visited Kolej, a local fisherman who has been around longenough to remember the good old days. He put the blame for decliningcatches on foreign fishing vessels. What he said was both hopeful andsobering.

"I think the possible solution now is for the governments of thecountries in the Pacific Islands to work together to be firm inprotecting their resources. If no action is taken, the livelihood thatwe depend on will one day be depleted and the future generations maynever see it real life."

Pohnpei, Federated States of Micronesia

In Pohnpei we saw more fishing boats - purse seiners and long liners -then at any other stops. The long liners unloaded into a processingfacility right down the dock from us. The purse seiners transfer their fish onto reefer (refrigerator) ships out in the lagoon.

I had tea with some Chinese fishermen on board their long liner.Like many fishermen, they endure cramped living conditions, long hoursand years away from home at a time - for relatively little in the wayof pay. A purse seiner captain was also kind enough to allow us to comeon board, and document their transhipping (transferring) fish to arefer (refrigerator) ship. Transhipping in a harbour like this isacceptable because the authorities can monitor it, but Greenpeaceopposes transhipping at sea because it makes it too easy to evade theregulators.

One industry leader on this stop, Milan Kamber, Managing Director ofCaroline Fisheries Corporation and a long time purse seiner captain,told us: "Our ships used to come in with 3-4000 tons (per year), nowthey're barely coming in with 2000 tons. They used to stay (at sea) amonth, or under a month, but now (it takes) up to 50 days, close to twomonths to finish the voyage."

Sea searching

Our own experiences at sea have confirmed these concerns. We haveencountered large numbers of purse seiners on the high seas fishing fortuna without any regulation or controls - taking advantage ofweaknesses in the law of the sea to fish for tuna as they migratebetween the exclusive economic zones of the Pacific Island States.

Nine times in the past week we have set off in our small boats tofilm purse seiners and long liners hauling their gear and speak withtheir captains and crews. Two long liners caught only four fish betweenthem in four hours from their 75km long lines. Five out of six purseseiners hauled in dismally small catches,and the sixth wasn't much better. Skippers on two other purse seinerswe visited complained of small catches and few fish. Helicopter pilotstell us that these experiences are being echoed all around us.

And it's not just the tuna that are threatened by over-fishing. Ourdivers continually wonder why there are no sharks in the water withthem as they film the purse seine nets being drawn, despite the cloudsof blood and thrashing fish. View the slideshow of purse seiners hauling their nets.

The reality is that the pacific tuna fishery is not in a healthyrobust state. It is, in fact, over-fished and heading steadily towardsthe fate suffered by some many fisheries in the Atlantic and elsewhere.Catches are dropping, fish are harder to find, and more boats keepcoming.

What happens next

However, the picture is not all bleak. The alarm is being raised by awide variety of stakeholders - from the artisan fishermen, to industryleaders, to government officials - there is a strong consensus thattime is rapidly running out for the fisheries. Will this alarm translate into urgent action? Or will greed,corruption, poor governance and pressure from the far off nationsexploiting these resources bring about another marine, ecological andeconomic disaster? I don't know, but in the people of the Pacific thatI have met on this tour, I have found reason to hope.

This article was written by Andrew Davies our webeditor currently onboard the Rainbow Warrior. To find out more about the tour visit its weblog.

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