Pohnpei is a beautiful tropical island in the middle of the Central Pacific, the largest and most populated island of the Federated States of Micronesia. Much to its green lush beauty is down to the rain that falls every day and the amount of which tops almost every other place on the planet . It is also at the heart of the biggest tuna fishing ground in the world, the West and Central Pacific from where almost 60% of the world’s favorite fish comes from Just yesterday, there were seven massive carrier vessels here receiving tuna from purse seiners from fishing powers such as Korea, Taiwan and the USA.
So there I was, thinking the local fish market would be full of locally caught fish and that the local fishermen would be coming in every day with their line caught catches. I was wrong and talking to locals quickly revealed that local tuna catches are a thing of the past and most of the time, tuna is brought to the local market from foreign fishing vessels.
It is a sad story repeated around the world because the fishing industry whose wholesale plunder of the world’s tuna stocks continues with too little control.
For the past week, I have been attending a meeting of the Western and Central Pacific Fisheries Commission sub-committee in Pohnpei that is reviewing the management of the Pacific tuna stocks. At the same time our ship the Esperanza and its crew are out in the Pacific Commons patrolling the high seas, bearing witness and taking action against those whose overfishing is putting the region’s food security and economic security at risk.. Some things are becoming very clear both on land and at sea, and here is why the local fisherman here in Pohnpei have nothing left to catch.
Many of the problems with tuna fisheries are attributable to destructive fishing methods and pirate fishing across the region. One of the most wasteful fishing methods used , purse seine fishing on fish aggregation devices results in a catch made up of up to 20-30% juvenile tuna, especially vulnerable bigeye and yellowfin tuna is also caught together with the target skipjack tuna . This has had a dramatic impact on the populations of these species and they are now depleted to only about 20%-30% of their original size in the region and in the waters of Micronesia. No wonder the local fishers are faced with empty hooks!
It was clearly stated by scientists attending this meeting that a ban on the use of FADs in place for three months in 2010 was very effective in decreasing the catch of vulnerable bigeye tuna and that the size of tuna caught increased as a result. It would make sense that this meeting follow the advice of the commission’s own scientists and extend these closure periods in order to stop the decline of Pacific tuna. Yet there is clear resistance from fishing powers to this effective way of ensuring tuna for the future.
Another clear progress in the region has been the closure of the Pacific Commons, areas of international waters between Pacific Islands Countries to purse seine fishing. The areas used to be targeted by pirate fishing fleets to launder their catches, and now data shows pirate fishing has declined in the region.
There were no new pirates proposed for listing on the blacklist- a list of fishing vessels that engage in illegal fishing- this year. Could it be all the pirates have been eliminated? I doubt it and all indications are that legal boats still manage to steal fish from the region, disguised as high seas fishing operations, due to poor controls of the regions’ large long-line tuna fleets searching for sashimi tuna. Our ship the Esperanza is now patrolling the high seas for illegal fishing and just today Nauru, one of the large ocean states of the Pacific, called on the member of the Pacific tuna commission to support the closure of these areas to all fishing, in particular long-line. Now there is a bold proposal that would go a long way in ensuring piracy really becomes history in the Pacific and that islanders can continue to catch their own fish for their local markets.
Lagi Toribau, a native Fijian, is the team leader of Greenpeace Australia Pacific’s oceans campaign