Where are the fish?

Feature story - August 27, 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, and speaking with industry leaders, local fishermen, academics and government regulators we've realised that this is a fishery on the edge of crisis.

Suva, Fiji

Our journey of discovery began with our first stop, Suva, Fiji. There we met Grahame Southwick, owner of Fiji Fish, and one of the many industry leaders sounding the alarm: "We have a biological problem, there are too many boats taking too many fish. It also spawns an economical problem where we have legitimate fleets being forced out of business 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 in international waters is harvested on a sustainable basis. He also called for more of the profits from fishing in the region to go to the local economy: "More than 95 percent of its cash value goes to other countries. The return to the Pacific nations is under 4 percent of its worth. Clearly, we must do something about this."

Tarawa, Kiribati

On our way to Kiribati we came across a long liner, our first fishing vessel at sea, pulling in its line. The crew was friendly, but we saw first 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 a waste. Government and industry experts advocate using fishing line that breaks 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't like the idea of losing that shark fin revenue (some crew on fishing boats are even paid in shark fin).

In Kiribati, the dilemma facing small island nations that want to protect 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 government that needs hard cash. There must be a balance in trying to manage and conserve the resource, and at the same time reap the maximum benefit from it."

We also spoke to Ekueta Leremia, a successful local fisherman. He runs seven small fishing boats working with more than 20 staff. As with the other local fishermen we spoke to, he is worried about how over fishing is hurting his livelihood: "Until 1980 it was a very good time for 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's very 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 the challenges 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 to combat IUU (illegal, unreported and unregulated fishing), it's quite another to prosecute them. The crime of IUU is quite different to other crimes, because it is hard to go out there and catch the violators, it is 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 and hope that he will convict." We also visited Kolej, a local fisherman who has been around long enough to remember the good old days. He put the blame for declining catches on foreign fishing vessels. What he said was both hopeful and sobering.

"I think the possible solution now is for the governments of the countries in the Pacific Islands to work together to be firm in protecting their resources. If no action is taken, the livelihood that we depend on will one day be depleted and the future generations may never 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 processing facility 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 hours and years away from home at a time - for relatively little in the way of pay. A purse seiner captain was also kind enough to allow us to come on board, and document their transhipping (transferring) fish to a refer (refrigerator) ship. Transhipping in a harbour like this is acceptable because the authorities can monitor it, but Greenpeace opposes transhipping at sea because it makes it too easy to evade the regulators.

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

Sea searching

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

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

And it's not just the tuna that are threatened by over-fishing. Our divers continually wonder why there are no sharks in the water with them as they film the purse seine nets being drawn, despite the clouds of 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 healthy robust state. It is, in fact, over-fished and heading steadily towards the fate suffered by some many fisheries in the Atlantic and elsewhere. Catches are dropping, fish are harder to find, and more boats keep coming.

What happens next

However, the picture is not all bleak. The alarm is being raised by a wide variety of stakeholders - from the artisan fishermen, to industry leaders, to government officials - there is a strong consensus that time 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 nations exploiting these resources bring about another marine, ecological and economic disaster? I don't know, but in the people of the Pacific that I 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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