“Arya!” shouted the captain. 

This word reverberated around Purple Lilac 888 as it readied itself to release its net. “Arya”, which literally means “forge ahead”, is a Philippine term used in fishing jargon to refer to the release of the net into the water. Greenpeace was on-board this ship to document FAD-free tuna fishing.

Purple Lilac 888 is a Philippine-owned purse-seine vessel that utilizes free school operations in Papua New Guinea (PNG). It is one of the four newly-released FAD-free vessels by Frabelle Fishing Corporation, as part of their commitment to sustainable fishing practices. Bipolar as it may seem, this news comes as both good and bad.

It is good because our own industry players are putting their heads on straight to promote and pursue sustainable fishing. Particularly, as the Philippines stands third in having the largest tuna catch, which also means we are one of the most exploitative. However, it is bad, as Philippine vessels fishing in another nation’s territory clearly denotes that our own tuna stocks are depleting or have already been depleted. And we are on the run around the globe chasing after diminishing marine resources. 

On the ship, 98% of the crew are Filipinos. The majority of them have been working in the industry for two decades. They saw the rapid decline of tuna stocks in the Philippines prior to Frabelle shifting its operations to Papua New Guinea. A decade or so have passed since they first pursed a net in PNG’s region, and now they are also witnessing a decline in the volume of their tuna catch there as well.

One of the main reasons for this is that the region has fast become the playground for most foreign fleets from Korea, Taiwan and the Philippines (just to name a few). And these fleets operate with such alarmingly increasing capabilities that they are fishing stocks into extinction. At present, more than 70% of the world’s tuna comes from this region.

Pursing FAD-free

As the net was drawn in the ocean, it suddenly became a barrage of swooping boats, clamoring to herd the catch within the purse. Speedboats seemed to be flying, creating whirlpools. Neon-green dyes were also thrown out from the ship to create a sense of danger for the fish. It was a mixture of excitement and tension, as this was my first time to witness a tuna fishing vessel in action.

The excitement rose from the fact that this particular vessel utilizes free school operations. Unlike their counterpart Purse seine with FADs , free school vessels depend mostly on traditional scanning and scouting to find tuna schools. Traditional means include scanning the ocean for flocks of birds. Birds feeding on baitfish are good indicators of a school under water. Movement, speed and direction should also be accurately observed to successfully encircle the school. This method is complemented with sophisticated technologies such as helicopters, radars and sonar for spotting activities. But most of the time, as the captain of the vessel mentioned, instinct is key.

From the original 900 meters it covered, the net got smaller and smaller as it continued to be hauled back. Anxiety started to creep in as the curiosity of what lies beneath the surface takes place. Then I saw the first by-catch. It was a dead silky shark trapped in the net. There were six more. Fortunately enough, one shark went back to the ocean alive. As tragic as it sounds, what I have learnt is FAD free method of fishing catches far less sharks, rays, marlins, turtles and other animals than purse seine fishing with FADs.

As the net was continuously pursed, I started to have a visual on the catch. Schools of tuna scurried around, trying to look for a possible escape, helplessly going round and round. The school was grouped in a confined area alongside the vessel that you can now see no longer functioned as a school, but as individuals. I sensed their stress. I was secretly hoping they would escape from that netted jail.

When most of the net was retrieved, the crane operator started to prepare the scoop-net for brailing. Water splashed as the brail sunk deeper in the net. Hundreds, maybe even thousands, of tuna were crushed together when it was scooped up. I felt their suffocation and anxiety, flipping their tails trying to squirm in such limited space. First scoop, second scoop, I lost count around the thirteenth scoop. My eyes were fixated on the red stain covering the water as more and more of them incurred injuries through collision with the net and with each other. Another sign of their distress was off-gassing -- fish releasing air from their swim bladders. Surface water became polluted with their blood and stress bubbles. I don’t remember how long it took for the brailing to finish. It felt like an eternity really. I just sighed with relief when it did.

The total catch from that set was around 60 tonnes, mostly composed of skipjack. According to the captain, there is higher efficiency rate of catching target species with free school operations than through FADs. This means that there is relatively lower by-catch of juvenile species of yellowfin and bigeye – which can make up 15 – 20% of the catch when FADs are used - and that total catch is the ideal quality. He also mentioned that there is lesser by-catch of non-target species such as turtles and sharks.

Free school operations seem to be the appropriate alternative to purse-seine vessels utilizing FADs. However, we cannot escape the reality that although free school seems to be more efficient and less destructive, it is still part of the current industry that is over-fishing our oceans. Fisheries, although experiencing a decline in total tuna stocks, are continuously increasing catch each year. Indiscriminate operations in foreign and international waters covet not only tuna but food and livelihood from Pacific peoples.


The challenge to current realities

More than changing how things are done, there is a need to halt these destructive and inequitable fishing practices. This December, Pacific Island Nations will convene for the Western and Central Pacific Fisheries Commission (WCPFC) meeting in Palau. This meeting will decide the fate of the over-exploited tuna stocks and threatened Pacific marine ecosystem. There is a need to, as the Philippine terminology goes, “arya” towards sustainable fishing.

This can start by reducing fishing efforts by 50%. Currently, massive industrial fleets fish at a rate higher than the stocks can replenish. Reducing tuna fishing in the Pacific can ensure that stocks are preserved for the longer term. It goes hand in hand with the establishment of locally-owned and operated fisheries like pole-and-line fishing, hand line and small-scale free school purse-seine fishing.

There is also the need to establish a network of marine reserves in the Pacific in particular designating the four high seas pockets of the Pacific.  Marine reserves are highly protected areas. They are off-limits to extractive and destructive practices, such as fishing and mineral extraction. Creating 40% marine reserves in this area would ensure conservation, management and economic benefits to the region. The results would be more abundant, productive and highly diverse marine life, which consequently affects tuna stocks. This would also create a spill-over to neighboring nations.

For the upcoming meeting though, Philippine tuna industry players and relevant government bodies are proposing to re-open the Pacific Commons to fishing and lifting the ban on purse-seine fishing using FADs. This is not only stupid but short-sighted as well. It neglects to consider the capacity of the Pacific marine ecosystem to recuperate from the massive fishing efforts in the region. It also completely negates existing sustainable efforts made by other industry players.

The Philippines, in this case, should support the call for preserving and conserving the Pacific Commons and join other Pacific Island Nations in creating a more sustainable tuna future, inevitably increasing global competitiveness in meeting the demand for more sustainably caught tuna products in the world. It is never too late to transform the industry. We are already on the right track. We just need to understand the interconnectedness of our oceans to know that saving the Pacific will secure equitable and sustainable fisheries.