Fishermen using the sustainable "pole and line" fishing method to catch skipjack tuna

It was a huge disappointment to see industrial fishing nations beat down small Pacific island countries today- the nations struggling to save tuna- a fish they need for their very survival.

Pacific islanders are here at the Western and Central Pacific Fisheries Commission (WCPFC) meeting in Hawaii this week working to establish marine reserves to save their fish and therefore their future. The main task here is to close another 3.5 million square kilometres of high seas making the protected areas here 4.5 million in total – an area they had unilaterally closed but are asking for agreement by all nations here to the closure- to ensure all nations are playing- and fishing- on a level field.

Pacific countries, led by big brother Australia, are here to also get fishing countries to stop purse seine fishing that catch whale sharks, just like in the picture below.

In a mighty blow to Pacific island countries the mighty fishing nations of China, Japan, Taiwan and Korea blatantly refused to these important conservation efforts.   As a Pacific islander attending this meeting, I was proud to see my community standing firmly together to ensure that conservation of the tuna fisheries in the region is put squarely on the table.

We as Pacific islanders understand that tuna fishing in our waters is one of our only means of earning a living and putting food on the table. We depend on our oceans, which sustain not only our people but our entire planet. We have a moral responsibility as the ones who rely on the oceans that international law recognises as being part of our territory, to conserve what is above, within and below our seas.

What many people don’t know is that the Pacific tuna fishery is dominated by foreign fishing nation: the US, China, Korea, Taiwan and Japan. In a sense, we control the rights to the fish that swim within our waters and because our watery borders connect with each other, we therefore control some of the most productive tuna-rich areas of ocean on the planet.

Fishing for tuna happens to take place near our borders, but usually not by Pacific island countries. We are too poor to afford sophisticated fishing vessels and foreign governments love to dangle promises of aid (in the form of a nylon fishing string from a tuna net) thus ensuring that we will never develop our fishery for ourselves. Foreign fishing powers want us Pacific island communities to always be obliged to ‘rent’ out our rights to fish at disgustingly low rates: neo-colonialism wrapped up in sushi roll and forced down our throats! It reminds me of those lines from the Godfather movies:  once you’re in, you’re in for life… even if you know that its not good for you.

Foreign fishing fleets have fished the resources at incredibly unsustainable levels. Try this on for size – in the last 3 years, non-Pacific island countries have taken over 2 million metric tonnes of fish from our waters! 2 million container loads of fish- that’s a lot of sushi and canned tuna! Additionally, for every kilo of tuna caught, several kilos of other marine life are caught in the lines/nets- endangered sharks, turtles, rays, dolphins and small fish. So, the whole thing is not only unfair, it’s down-right unhealthy for our planet, our islands, our beautiful Pacific, our children and our future! 

I felt extremely proud of the Pacific island countries that are here working to make fishing sustainable as well as fair and equitable. As a Pacific Islander, I am here to voice my support for their efforts to create marine reserves by closing off large sections of the Pacific to purse seine fishing where greedy distant fishers roam without restraint!

Based on what’s happening here in Hawaii- fishing nations are not here to negotiate. They don’t want Pacific island countries to improve their ability to fish or give us a fair deal because this would jeopardise their investments. One large purse seine vessel costs USD$20 million to build- so a fleet of 25 would amount to half a billion dollars. There are slightly more than 250 of these wandering around the Pacific, capable of netting around 5000 – 7000 tonnes of tuna per fishing trip.  

So, how can we change this? The answer lies in the water…or in this case the TUNA. Pacific islanders now understand that by asserting their control over this billion-dollar industry- and making it more sustainable- will the region be in a much better situation. And they are not alone on this unfamiliar road, challenging mighty fishing nations and greedy industrialist – something we know all too well about and is why we are here – to stand in solidarity with our Pacific family and help secure a future of plentiful fish and healthy oceans!

Duncan Williams is a Greenpeace Australia Pacific oceans campaigner based in Suva, Fiji. He is a champion paddler, a surfing fanatic and works to restore our oceans to health by championing sustainable fisheries and working to create marine reserves.