I don’t speak tuna. And I fear my ability to sign in shark could be fatally misconstrued.
But next week when people from all around the Pacific and beyond meet in Fiji to discuss the future of fisheries in the region, our finned (and feathered and flippered) friends of the oceans desperately need a voice.
The Western and Central Pacific Fisheries Commission (WCPFC) is responsible for managing the tuna, shark, and billfish fisheries that operate here – to make sure that there are fish and healthy oceans for future generations. But WCPFC is failing to meet the requirements of its own Convention – the goals and rules it took its members 10 years to agree on. Falling so short of the mark, a more apt name for the commission would be, We Create Pacific Fisheries Crises.
Will the WCPFC give our ocean friends need a healthy future?
The cost of failure
We’ve lost over 97% of the Pacific bluefin, but the management measures put in place to reverse their decline might, if we are very lucky, allow the stock to recover from the remaining 2.6% to about 6.4% in 10 years. Not very ambitious. The problem is with such a small population, it’s tougher for the bluefin to cope with things like disease, and the changes our oceans are already facing with climate change, like warming waters and changing chemistry. The fishery should be closed to give bluefin a fighting chance to recover. If you think you’ve heard this all before, you have – the same thing happened to Atlantic and Southern Ocean bluefin tunas. It seems some humans are not great at learning from mistakes. I imagine that the bluefin have something pretty serious to say about this!
And then there’s the bigeye, a close relative of bluefin and also much loved for expensive sashimi platters. We’ve fished out 84% of the region’s bigeye, both by taking out the big fish for the sashimi market, and by catching huge numbers of juveniles while hunting skipjack with Fish Aggregating Devices or FADs. The baby bigeye have the potential to grow into spectacular two-metre long fish that could feed half a suburban street, but they end up being thrown away, or squished into cans alongside baby yellowfin and skipjack.
A blue fin tuna hoisted off a Taiwanese longliner at the Dong Gang fishing port outside Koahsiung (2011).
The list goes on – striped marlin has been in a dire state since 1977 and there is still no management in place to allow the population to recover from the remaining 12%. Oceanic whitetip shark and silky shark populations have been devastated, and not enough data is available to assess other key shark species caught intentionally or by accident, by vessels hunting tuna and billfish. And with best-practice bycatch reduction measures still not in place, threatened albatrosses, petrels, and sea turtles continue to be caught and killed on longlines. Imagine the racket if we could hear all those animals complaining?
It’s not just marine life that is suffering. Too many vessels are allowed to offload their catches onto other carrier vessels at sea instead of returning to port. This transhipping facilitates human rights and labour abuses by allowing vessels to remain at sea for long periods with little or no oversight or ability for crew to report concerns. It’s an issue receiving increasing public scrutiny, but one WCPFC has not yet addressed.
Greenpeace has previously documented human rights abuse and slavery in the fishing industry, like the workers on this rusting fishing vessel that was found 150 km off the coast of West Africa. The men on board live in terrible conditions and some of them at have been at sea for two years (2006)
Similarly, the independent observers, tasked with verifying catches and fishing operations on board vessels, face considerable health and safety issues. WCPFC has addressed some concerns, but without the tools for observers to increase their safety (like a personal alarm and an independent device for communication), clear rules on who is responsible for observer safety, and transparency in reporting and dealing with incidents of bribery, harassment, and violence, there remain considerable risks to observers and this compromises the quality of data gathered by the observer programme. Observers might have a voice, but sometimes if they speak up too much, they risk being silenced themselves.
Getting back to basics
A bottom trawler in the Barents Sea off the east coast of Svalbard. It pulls huge nets to scoop up fish, a practice that is damaging to the seabed and all the creatures that live here.
WCPFC needs to up its game. Of course it’s not easy, but lives and livelihoods are at risk. It’s a vast ocean region to manage, with multiple species targeted with multiple fishing methods by many boats, from many countries, all with different needs and demands. As a result, both the WCPFC rules and the work carried out by scientists and managers are increasingly sophisticated and complex. Unfortunately, the basic foundations required for successful management of fisheries are simply not in place.
WCPFC has not yet agreed the goals for keeping fish populations healthy, nor what actions must be taken when they are not, which is why year after year WCPFC meetings are spent arguing over ‘what could be done’ while the fish continue to disappear. There are too many boats chasing decreasing numbers of fish. It’s that simple. Scientists and managers cannot do their jobs of assessing stocks, and reviewing management measures and compliance, because they are not given all the information they need. The health and safety of both fishermen and independent observers on boats are at risk. And finally, even where there are good rules in place, there are few deterrents to ensure they are not broken!
A fisherman sits on the rocks by the beach as the sun sets in Puerto Princesa, Palawan in the Philippines.
So at this year’s WCPFC meeting, this is what Greenpeace will be calling for: reduce the number of boats, get the data, agree the rules, and enforce them. Be honest and transparent about it, and allow all interested parties to engage in the work.
Last year I was introduced to a fellow fisheries campaigner: “Cat works on tuna and has a long involvement with the WCPFC – you can tell by the brick marks on her forehead.” It made me stop and ask why I go on banging my head against the wall. Yes these meetings can be incredibly frustrating, and there are times when I wonder why we bother, but if we don’t go, there will be no change. If we don’t go, who will speak for the fish?
Dr Cat Dorey is the Science Advisor for Greenpeace’s global Tuna Project, based in Sydney, Australia. She can often be found with her head underwater burbling at the fish.