The sun has just set on my first day back on board the Greenpeace ship, the Esperanza. It’s been six years since I last sailed on the Esperanza for our Pacific fisheries campaign and I am glad to see how much the campaign has evolved over the years.
So what exactly is the problem out here and why should we care? Basically in this part of the world it comes down to tuna - the world's most popular fish. Canned or served as sashimi, tuna is found the world over and to meet the increasing demand, this fish needs to come from somewhere and unfortunately at all cost. But like with any other resource or living thing we take from our planet there is only so much to go around.
The Western and Central Pacific is home to one of the last relatively healthy tuna grounds and as tuna stocks are depleting else where more and more fleets are racing to this part of the world to fill their holds. But even here some tuna species are in trouble and if we don’t change the way we fish now, then we can expect all tuna to face the same fate.
Greenpeace has been out on the water defending the beautiful Pacific from destructive and excessive tuna fishing for over a decade now. We have exposed and documented illegal fishing operations, worked with regional enforcement officers and taken action against fishing practices that albeit legal are seriously damaging our oceans and the amazing creatures that live in it. The results speak for themselves. We have helped Pacific Island Countries act in solidarity against overfishing. Pacific Islanders know too well what overfishing has done to their waters. Tuna – a staple and main source of income for most Island communities is now rare and ironically, countries here now need to import fish from the very nations that overfished their waters in the first place! Aside from depriving local communities of their own fish, foreign fishing fleets are also damaging oceanic ecosystems here by catching too much fish as well catching a lot of unwanted marine life also known as bycatch.
So, what will we be doing? As in previous years, this year, we are working together with the authorities of Palau undertaking a joint surveillance exercise of their territorial waters. We’re looking out for illegal activities at sea. This could be fishing without a permit or fishing on protected species such as sharks.
Fortunately Greenpeace has a well-equipped ship that can help the Palauan authorities monitor and enforce their waters. Last year in a similar exercise, we busted a Taiwanese long liner that was illegally catching sharks. The result was a fine of a 65,000 USD to be paid to Palau and a suspension of one year from Palauan waters.
We’ll also be crossing over into the high seas – those areas of the ocean that don’t actually belong to any one country and are subject to a lot of unregulated exploitation including illegal fishing. Our aim is to document any and all activity and take action against the worst practices we find.
So what is this all leading to? This part of the world’s high seas are supposed to be managed by the regional tuna commission otherwise known as the Western and Central Pacific Fisheries Commission (WCPFC). Every year government folks from the nations that either surround these waters or that have a vested fishing interest here come together and decide on management measures for the region. Greenpeace returns every year campaigning to strengthen these measures. This year we hope to take the evidence we find at sea straight to the tuna meeting in December removing all doubt about why governments must act now to safe guard our oceans including the tuna for our future.
Specifically, we want to see the high seas areas that are next to impossible to regulate closed to all purse seine and long line fishing; we want to see a ban on transhipment. This is the transfer of fish at sea to refrigerated cargo vessels or reefers allowing catch vessels to stay at sea for months at a time and making it easier to fudge reporting as it is difficult to keep track of where these reefers offload.
We also want to see a 50% cut on fishing for Big Eye tuna and finally we want to see a ban on the use of Fish Aggregation Devices or FADs. FADs are used widely in tuna fisheries, specifically by purse seine fishing vessels. Along with the target species, FADs attract a whole host of associated marine life acting as a nucleus for entire marine ecosystems. Once located the fishing vessel scoops up the entire school of fish including associated marine life which results in large amounts of bycatch often of vulnerable species such as sharks, rays, turtles and juvenile tunas. FADS represent everything that is wrong with modern day industrial fishing as this type of fishing is so effective that it leaves the catch and the marine life with no chances of survival and or escape.
What can you do? Don’t eat tuna – I don’t. But seriously, ultimately if we want fish for tomorrow, we need to change the way we catch fish and treat our oceans today. Catching tuna doesn’t need to be at all cost and it is up to those that buy tuna to demand changes in the way we catch tuna.
Follow us on our tour over the next three weeks and next time you consider buying a can of tuna or biting into a tuna sandwich ask your retailer or restaurant if they can guarantee that the tuna is caught sustainably using either pole and line or without the use of FADs.
Farah Obaidullah is an oceans campaigner at Greenpeace International, currently on board the Esperanza.