Duncan Williams

Ocean stewardship in the Pacific has come a long way. Ask a Pacific islander fifty years ago about managing fish and you would have been greeted with a look of bemusement. After all, fish back in the day were thought of as unlimited. Ask a Pacific islander today about managing fish and the response will be the complete opposite.

What was thought of as impossible then is seen as probable now – the collapse of the region’s precious fisheries resource. In the Pacific tuna is a precious commodity. Precious to us Pacific islanders for social reason and valuable to foreign fishermen for the high prices tuna attracts.

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The western and central pacific supplies close to 60 percent of the world’s tuna. High levels of overfishing by foreign fishing fleets coupled with the widespread illegal, unregulated and unreported fishing in and around Pacific Island waters have taken its toll on tuna numbers.  Pacific islanders are now managing the resource collaboratively in order to save a livelihood and an iconic species from collapse.

Enter the Western and Central Pacific Fisheries Commission (WCPFC) – a treaty-based organization established in 2004 after almost ten years of high level negotiations. The WCPFC has over the years tried its best to manage the problems associated with high seas fishing and tackling the bigger questions and issues intrinsic to fishing such as destructive and wasteful fishing practices excessive fleet capacity, lack of sound scientific information and a general need for cooperation between member countries.

However, the past few years have shown that the commission is falling behind. It is failing to effectively manage the tuna that Pacific island countries are so dependent upon. Measures to stop overfishing in the region, and the crisis facing tuna species such bigeye tuna did little to halt the crushing force that is distant water fishing in the region.

The problem is clear. The commission, in particular those members from the distant states that do most of the fishing in the Pacific, simply stall any conservation efforts proposed by Pacific island states in a bid to maintain high catch rates. In 2009, over 2 million tonnes of tuna were caught. This was the highest annual catch on record despite countries agreeing in 2008 to curb overfishing. The top five fishing nations (Japan, the Philippines, Indonesia, South Korea and the USA) together took two-thirds of the entire catch (over 1.5 million tonnes).

These distant water fishing giants have had little to fear and have taken advantage of the weak positions of the small island nations both on the water and in the meeting halls – that was until Greenpeace showed up.

In 2004, Greenpeace launched its first of five ship expeditions in the region in support of the WCPFC and in particular, its small Pacific island members. These expeditions to expose destructive and illegal fishing resulted in the seizure of a number of illegal fishing vessels and a blacklisting of several others. More importantly, it rallied the Pacific Island countries to act in solidarity to defend their Pacific against the foreign fishing horde.

We have worked tirelessly with the island governments to put in place measures at the commission, such as the closures of the global commons to purse seine fishing and have been working- in a bid to turn the tide on overfishing- to ban destructive fishing practices such as the use of Fish Aggregating Devices, floating objects used to attract tuna into nets, which take huge swaths of ocean life along with them.  We press on, despite continued opposition from industry and diplomats bent on derailing conservation efforts.

In just 7 days, the WCPFC will convene its 8th annual meeting in Guam. We will be there again supporting the small Pacific island members to ensure that the commission is held accountable to the vision it had for tuna 20 years ago for the long-term conservation and sustainable use of tuna and upholding the aspirations of the small island pacific countries to ensure that there will be fish for their children’s futures.

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Duncan Williams is an Oceans campaigner for Greenpeace Australia Pacific.

Photo: © Paul Hilton / Greenpeace