International Unsustainable Overfishing

by Guest Blogger

March 4, 2011

Despite the crisis facing our oceans, we often hear excuses from industry players: telling us that we do not need urgent changes to rescue our seas or proposing measures that sound good but when examined closely would fail to do much good at all, and could even result in unnecessary hardship for the most vulnerable people in the industry.

When it comes to the state of wild fish stocks and especially tuna, one of the organizations created to supposedly address oceans destruction, the International Seafood Sustainability Foundation (ISSF) continues to deny the problems its member companies have created for world tuna populations, the waters in which they live and the people dependent on both.

ISSF is the umbrella group of companies that represents somewhere between 70-80% of world’s canned tuna brands and claims to work toward science-based and sustainable management of our oceans and improving tuna management at the bodies that regulate tuna fisheries, called Regional Fisheries Management Organisations (RFMOs). 

So far, the talk to improve management has resulted in little progress in improving the sustainability of the tuna traded and sold by ISSF members. Just a few weeks ago, tuna sustainability rankings by Greenpeace in the UK (the world’s second largest canned tuna market) placed the two ISSF brands at the bottom of the league table.

So ISSF and its member companies aren’t delivering on their promises of sustainability by actually improving the tuna in their tins, are they doing a good enough job of addressing these issues politically? It appears not. Just last week, ISSF put out a press release recommending measures to be taken by RFMOs to allow tuna stocks to recover.

Although most of these recommendations would fall short of making a real difference on the water, or being politically and economically acceptable to developing coastal states, there are some real rotten eggs, or better said, rotten tins of tuna, among them.

ISSF president Susan Jackson has implied that a ban on Fish Aggregation Devices or FADs (man-made floating objects used to attract fish which is then caught in purse seine nets, – one of the most destructive fishing methods still in use) would be ineffective in halting bigeye tuna decline in the Western and Central Pacific ocean and should instead be replaced by a 3 month ban on all fishing instead.

This sounds fine, unless you consider that an average purse seine fishing vessel spends around 300 days per year at sea, while the rest is spent in port undergoing service and maintenance. A reduction of three months or 90 days of fishing by these vessels would only add 25 extra days of off time to these vessels per year or maintain status quo. 

A pretty good deal for them, just an extended holiday unlikely to result in much good for bigeye and yellowfin tuna that need a much more substantial break from fishing vessels that should be catching other species anyhow.

Additionally, the fleets of foreign fishing powers can easily adjust their fishing schedule to work around a short term closure – these vessels are designed to fish far from home, and many have licenses to fish in several oceans, traveling the world plundering one tuna stock after another.

On the other hand, the economies of developing coastal states depend on year-round local fishing for skipjack tuna, a species not yet overfished, and jobs and income for these people would be severely affected. However, a ban on FADs would allow skipjack tuna to be targeted on free swimming schools, reducing the catch of unwanted and vulnerable species including bigeye and yellowfin tuna, sharks, turtles and anything attracted to fishing nets by the deadly FADs.

Yes, this has been shown to be effective, but so far FAD ban periods have not been long enough and the massive fleets have been able to fish away the benefits gained during the non-FAD ban months.

This was reinforced by the scientific committee of the WCPFC (Western and Central Pacific Fisheries Commission, the body tasked with managing the region’s tuna populations) which last August reviewed the effectiveness of a 2-month ban on FADs in the Pacific in 2009 and concluded that during the ban period, the purse seine catch of bigeye tuna was significantly reduced to the lowest level of FAD-caught bigeye tuna for a decade. The WCPFC’s own scientists recognised the effectiveness of banning FADs in reducing the mortality of overfished bigeye tuna.

However, the increased overall fishing effort during 2009 resulted in fishing fleets setting a record number of FADs during the months where a ban was not in place, undermining any potential benefits from the short two month FAD-free period that year.

If ISSF is to take science seriously, it should recognize that:

– Bigeye and yellowfin tuna are being fished at unsustainable rates in all of the world’s oceans.

– Even the catches of skipjack tuna in the Western and Central Pacific Ocean, the largest skipjack tuna fishery in the world, are now far above levels that would be sustainable in the long term.

– FADs increase the rates of bycatch of juvenile bigeye and yellowfin tuna.

– Banning FADs lowered the bigeye bycatch rate during the ban periods.

– Allowing purse seine fleets exemptions from the ban and to operate using FADs during the rest of the year undermines the effectiveness of such a ban.

ISSF and its members must take science seriously and support measures that are far-reaching enough to make a real difference for all tuna species and marine life and agree to a full ban on the use of FADs in purse seine fisheries in all oceans starting immediately.

This would also be the most immediate and effective capacity reduction measure, relieving fishing pressure on all stocks while more complicated regional and global agreements on allocation and capacity reduction are negotiated.

And yes, if the fishing boat captains still want to take an extended 90 days break on top of this, I am sure this can be arranged through discussions with the licensing countries.

If we want healthy oceans and fish (and a fishing industry) for the future, we need marine reserves today. 

Sari Tolvanen is an oceans campaigner based in Greenpeace International’s Amsterdam office. She is currently in Asia working to end overfishing, save the tuna and create a legacy of living seas for the next generations.

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