You’d think it would be hard to get emotional about fish and how they’re managed. But at the 13th Annual Meeting of the Western & Central Pacific Fisheries Commission (WCPFC) emotions ran high - after five long days of tough negotiations, I was exhausted and it was starting to feel like Groundhog Day.

As I’ve said before here, WCPFC is failing in its mandate to manage tuna, sharks and billfish fisheries in the region. It’s a multi-billion dollar industry and especially important to Pacific Island Countries so the stakes are high. I knew the meeting would be a tough battle.

In her opening speech, the Chair of WCPFC asked us to recognize how difficult it is to get consensus between so many countries with so many opposing views. She asked that we at least commit to moving forward, one step at a time. And I guess we did at least do this. 

The Commission took a step forward in the complex process of developing Harvest Control Rules for the future management of skipjack tuna, the most commercially important tuna in the region. There were improvements made to the rules for data collection and some good research projects will be funded, which will allow better scientific analysis and development of stronger management measures. The Commission also made a commitment to improve transparency and compliance by agreeing to (some) rules that will allow environmental and industry groups access to compliance reports and meetings.

Albacore tuna is stacked and weighed before being shipped for processing into canned tuna. Greenpeace is exposing out of control tuna fisheries. Tuna fishing has been linked to shark finning, overfishing and human rights abuses.

There was a significant win for protecting the health and safety of the observers who collect the fisheries data vital for good management. You would think protecting human lives would be an easy win, but it wasn’t. It took many long hours to negotiate the new rules, as a few countries threw up blocks at every turn. There were angry, heart-wrenching and impassioned speeches in support of the new measures, especially from those who had lost friends and colleagues at sea. But it was Pacific nations calling for a vote – a huge step for a Commission that almost religiously operates by consensus – that finally got this measure over the line. When you face such a fight just to protect human lives, you can imagine how well it went for marine life… 

Like Groundhog Day, this is where the frustration kicked in. We began to meet the same blocks to progress that we meet every year. Measures that would have provided greater protection for sharks, mobula and manta rays, and seabirds were rejected. There was no movement on agreeing key management measures for South Pacific albacore (due to be finalised this year) despite concerns raised by Pacific Island Countries, year after year, about the declining viability of their fleets. And overfished billfish didn’t even get a mention.

Of most concern, Pacific bluefin remains teetering on the edge of collapse. 97% of this population are wiped out, and the current management measures will not recover the stock to a safer level in any reasonable timeframe. Many members expressed their concerns about the failure of WCPFC to act on these wonderful animals, and sent back a recommendation to the Northern Committee (a sub-body of WCPFC) to develop a plan to recover the stock to 20% by 2034. But when this Committee is largely controlled by Japan, Korea and the USA, who all tried to prevent the Commission from even making the recommendation, what hope is there?

Meanwhile Greenpeace, Pew, and WWF continue to call for a moratorium on fishing for Pacific bluefin until a recovery plan is in place.

 Bluefin tuna inside a transport cage. The Rainbow Warrior is in the Mediterranean for a three-month ship tour taking action on the threats to the sea and calling for a network of large-scale marine reserves to protect the health and productivity of the Mediterranean Sea.

So yes, WCPFC took some baby steps. But as the EU delegate so rightly said, babies are supposed to grow into adults. WCPFC is now 12 years old! My concern is for the fish, and the impacts of uncontrolled fishing on marine life. When you add the impacts of climate change and the huge uncertainty it brings to all life on this planet, I cannot accept baby steps. Marine life cannot wait for us to sort out our differences. The oceans need action now. 

I will end with hope. It is clear that the majority of member countries in the WCPFC want change. It is also clear that only a handful of nations have little interest in co-operation or compromise. It’s time for the progressive members to take a stand, to call out obstructive behaviour and start bringing more issues to a vote.

We will continue to work with all those who want to see sustainable and fair fisheries, from human rights advocates to fishermen, from big seafood brands to retailers. We will support the innovators and the leaders who fish responsibly and treat our marine life respectfully. And we will take action on those who do not.

Fish are important to humans for so many reasons – they provide food and livelihoods, joy and delight to nature lovers, and are a vital part of the web of life on this planet. We cannot wait, we cannot be patient. Marine life cannot wait for us to sort out our differences. The oceans need action now. 

Dr Cat Dorey is the Science Advisor for Greenpeace’s Not Just Tuna Project.