Hi. It’s Chris Hay reporting from Taiwan. I’m usually based in the New Zealand office but right now I’m working with my Greenpeace colleagues in the Taiwan office who are campaigning hard to make tuna fishing sustainable.
Fishing is a way of life for many Taiwanese. You can smell the fish markets from a couple of blocks away in a taxi. It’s like sticking your head into a bait box and, at 4am, without a sustaining coffee, it’s pretty hard work.
Nan Fang Ao is a small fishing village in Taiwan’s north east. It’s beautiful this morning in the mist. The tiny port is centred on a huge, elaborate temple dedicated to the gods of the sea and the abundance it has always provided. The town is similarly dedicated – everyone here is directly or indirectly involved in the coastal fishery.
By 5am the fish markets are truly rocking. Anticipation builds as each of the small coastal longliners tie up. Will there be a prized bluefin on this one? No. The only tuna are yellowfin and they’re small. While they’re manhandled out of the hold, big sharks are lifted by crane onto the dock. They’re gaffed and dragged off to the growing piles of sealife which have the buyers poking over them, making notes, finding the best specimens and lining them up for the auction to follow.
This is how it is in the wee hours of every morning in fishing ports all the way down Taiwan's east coast. Taiwan is surrounded by warm waters and a current that brings tuna up close to the coast, well in reach of the tiny, scrappy looking, longline boats that range out to find them. Fishing and tuna are part of the soul of this place and always have been. But, the weather-lined fishermen with permanent betel nut-stained smiles that are landing their catch on the wharf this morning may well be the last. Every one we talk to says the same thing – coastal fishing for tuna is in its death throes in Taiwan. 'Ten years left' seems to be the consensus of the captains we talk to.
The sad thing is, it probably isn't their fault. But it is partly Taiwan's fault. These small coastal fishermen in their 30-foot boats are the visible side of Taiwan's fishing industry – the cute, photogenic side. But they are the tip of the iceberg.
Most of Taiwan's fishing is done thousands of miles away, in the central Pacific - in big boats, owned by big companies, making big money. The boats, while being owned and operated by Taiwanese, will rarely, if ever, tie up in a Taiwanese port. The fish they catch won’t end up as some exquisite dish in one of Taipei's bustling night markets. Chances are they’ll be landed somewhere in South East Asia, canned in Thailand and end up between two bits of bread in some kid’s lunchbox. Maybe even your kid.
There are a lot of Taiwanese boats out there on the high seas. They seem to be so poorly managed that no-one is even very sure how many there are – including the Taiwanese Government. A Greenpeace audit puts the number of Taiwanese distant water fishing boats at well over 2000. And those are the recognised ones. Add to them the flag of convenience boats that are owned or operated by Taiwan, but hide behind other countries’ flags, and the number is closer to 3000.
Here’s the problem. We are fast running out of tuna. Fleets like Taiwan's are just too big. Compounding the overfishing problem they’re using fish aggregating devices which mean that as well as the skipjack tuna being targeted, they’re also catching juvenile yellowfin and bigeye - driving these species to near commercial extinction in some places - to say nothing of the turtles and sharks and other bycatch. They’re also cheating. They regularly steal tuna from the territorial waters of small Pacific Islands transferring their catches at sea so no one can be really sure how much they have caught or from where. This happens regularly, and it’s bad!
Of course, Taiwan isn't the only country to blame. But, it is important in the international fight to ensure that the tuna fishing in the Pacific is done in a way that is fair on those that live there, and ensures that the guys I talked to in Nan Fang Au can pass their craft down to their children – like their fathers did for them. That’s why Greenpeace is here in Taiwan. We are setting up for a scrap to try and get Taiwan's representatives at the WCPFC meeting in December to support the conservation measures that are being put forward by some of the Pacific Island nations – starting with closing the high seas pockets to fishing.
It should be interesting. I'll keep you posted.