The tuna fisheries of the western and central Pacific Ocean (WCPO) are in better shape than those of other oceans, a report just published by the International Seafood Sustainability Foundation (ISSF) shows.
The report summarises the state of health of the world’s tuna fisheries. It covers 23 tuna stocks: 6 albacore, 4 bigeye, 4 bluefin, 5 skipjack, and 4 yellowfin stocks. All but bluefin are commercially important in the WCPO.
The report is compiled from official reports of the 5 regional fisheries management organisations (RFMOs), including the Western and Central Pacific Fisheries Commission (WCPFC), which manages the tuna fisheries of the WCPO.
It backs up research by the Pacific Community that compares the status of tuna populations in the western Pacific, eastern Pacific, Atlantic and Indian oceans. The WCPO is the only area of ocean in which all four tuna are abundant and are not overfished.
Although the ISSF report shows that tuna are abundant enough in the WCPO to be able to withstand fishing at current levels, it points out that there is “no potential” to increase fishing for yellowfin because it is “fully exploited”.
ISSF rated each of the 23 global stocks using 3 factors: abundance, fishing mortality, and environment. Each factor is colour-coded green (good, sustainable), yellow (warning, borderline) or orange (unsustainable or insufficient management).
Abundance relates to not just to populations numbers, but also looks at whether fish have been allowed to grow and reproduce at their most productive level.
Mortality is a measure of how intense the fishing effort is, and is a way of understanding whether a population is being overfished.
Environment refers mostly to action to minimise bycatch, species such as sharks, turtles and seabirds, as well as juvenile tuna, that aren’t targeted for fishing but end up in the catch. Some species face extinction, partly as a result of commercial fishing. Bycatch is usually noted accurately when it the catch is monitored independently.
Need to improve harvest controls and monitoring of longline fishing
The report shows that all RFMOs need to manage stocks better, even where tuna are abundant.
ISSF’s particular focus was harvest controls. Although there are no binding target reference points (TRPs) or harvest controls in the WCPO yet, it notes that a few conservation and management measures (CMMs) include interim targets. CMM 2014-06 calls for harvest strategies for each kind of tuna and lists the elements that should be included. CMM 2015-06 sets an interim TRP for skipjack tuna.
CMM 2020-01 contains bridging rules for bigeye, skipjack and yellowfin that include benchmark numbers (expressed as spawning biomass) to be maintained. However, ISSF said that this CMM was too complex because it included “many ‘either/or’ choices, exemptions or exclusions” and that decisions were yet to be made about some measure. These made it “impossible to predict the outcomes in terms of actual future catch and effort levels”.
WCPFC is not alone: there are few TRPs and harvest controls operating in other oceans either.
The other major concern noted in the report is the lack of independent monitoring of longline fleets, which ISSF labelled as “deficient” in all oceans and among nearly all fisheries where longline fishing occurs. Without monitoring, it is impossible to know how much wildlife becomes bycatch. Longline fleets are notoriously difficult to monitor.
Strengths of WCPFC management also noted
The report notes that the interim arrangements to control the tuna harvest in the WCPO are “robust” and “ensure the sustainability of bigeye, skipjack and yellowfin tuna stocks”. They include:
banning the use of fish-aggregating devices (FADs) from 1 July to 30 September each year, between the latitudes of 20 °N and 20 °S, in both exclusive economic zones and high seas
imposing an additional FAD closure of 2 months
requiring that all FADs prevent the entanglement of sharks, turtles and other species
limiting the number of drifting FADs, fishing days and, for some vessels, freezing capacity
requiring that all fish caught be retained, even if they have no market value or haven’t been targeted for fishing
requiring that all purse seine vessels have an independent observer on board.
ISSF reports that the global catch of albacore, bigeye, bluefin, skipjack and yellowfin in 2019 was 5.3 million tonnes. It said that 65% of stocks of tuna were at healthy levels of abundance, 13% were overfished, and 22% were in between.
Worldwide, 87.6% of the catch was from healthily abundant stocks.
About 52% of the world’s production of tuna was from the WCPO.
As with many other aspects of government policy, overfishing and other fishing-related environmental issues are a real problem, but it’s not clear that government intervention is the solution. Indeed, it might be one of the main drivers of overfishing and other conservation and sustainability issues stemming from commercial fishing. Much like drone fishing, there are serious ethical issues of interest to the average angler.
There’s another commonality that overfishing has with environmental issues more broadly: The Western companies primarily concerned with serious efforts to curb overfishing are not the ones who are most guilty of overfishing. What this means is that the costs of overfishing are disproportionately borne by the countries least engaged in practices that are counter to efforts to make commercial fishing more sustainable while also promoting conservation of fish biodiversity.
All of these are important issues not just for commercial fishermen [sic], but also those interested in questions of conservation and sustainability in general, as well as recreational fisherman and basically anyone who uses fish as a food source.
As the ocean goes, so goes the planet, so it is of paramount importance for everyone to educate themselves on what is driving overfishing, what its consequences are and what meaningful steps — not simply theatre to feel as if “something is being done” — can be taken.
Indeed, over three billion people around the world rely on fish as their primary source of protein. About 12% of the world relies upon fisheries in some form or another, with 90% of these being small-scale fishermen: think a small crew in a boat, not a ship, using small nets or even rods and reels and lures not too different from the kind you probably use.
There are 18.9 million fishermen in the world, with 90% of them falling under the same small-scale fisherman rubric discussed above.
Overfishing definition: What is overfishing?
First, take heart: as a recreational fisherman, you are almost certainly not guilty of “overfishing”. This is an issue for commercial fishermen in the fishing industry who are trawling the ocean depths with massive nets to catch enough fish to make a living for themselves and their families, not the angler who enjoys a little peace and quiet on the weekends.
Overfishing is, in some sense, a rational reaction to increasing market needs for fish. Most people consume approximately twice as much food as they did 50 years ago and there are four times as many people on Earth as there were at the close of the 1960s. This is one driver of the 30% of commercially fished waters being classified as being “overfished”. This means that the stock of available fishing waters are being depleted faster than they can be replaced.
There is a simple and straightforward definition of when an area is being “overfished” and it’s not simply about catching “too many” fish. Overfishing occurs when the breeding stock of an area becomes so depleted that the fish in the area cannot replenish themselves.
At best, this means fewer fish next year than there are this year. At worst, it means that a species of fish cannot be fished out of a specific area anymore. This also goes hand in hand with wasteful forms of fishing that harvest not just the fish the trawler is looking for, but just about every other organism big enough to be caught in a net. Indeed, over 80% of fish are caught in these kinds of nets that sweep up everything into them.
What’s more, there are a number of wide-reaching consequences of overfishing. It’s not simply bad because it depletes the fish stocks of available resources, though that certainly is one reason why it’s bad. Others include:
Increased algae in the water: Like many other things, algae is great, but too much of it is very, very bad. When there are fewer fish in the waters, algae doesn’t get eaten and there’s way more of it than there should be. This increases the acidity in the world’s oceans, which negatively impacts not only the remaining fish, but also the reefs and plankton.
Destruction of fishing communities: Overfishing can completely destroy fish populations and communities that once relied upon the fish that were there. This is particularly true for island communities. And it’s worth remembering that there are many isolated points on the globe where fishing isn’t just the driver of the economy, but also the primary source of protein for the population. When either or both of these disappear, the community disappears along with it.
Tougher fishing for small vessels: If you’re a fan of small business, you ought to be concerned about overfishing. That’s because overfishing is mostly done by large vessels and [the situation] makes it harder for smaller ones to meet their quotas. With over 40 million people around the world getting their food and livelihood from fishing, this is a serious problem.
Ghost fishing: Ghost fishing is the term for what is basically littering in the ocean. The illegal fishermen created by poorly drafted regulations and subsidies often simply abandon their tools of the trade in the ocean where they were used. Not only does this create pollution because of the trash, it also attracts scavengers who are then ensnared in the garbage and can no longer fulfill their vital function elsewhere in the ocean.
Species pushed to near extinction: When we hear that a fish species is being depleted, we often think it’s fine because they can be found somewhere else. However, many species of fish are being pushed close to extinction by overfishing; [these include] … several species of cod, tuna, halibut and even lobster.
Bycatching: If you’re old enough to remember people being concerned about dolphins caught in tuna nets, you know what bycatching is: it’s when marine life that is not being sought by commercial fishermen is caught in their nets as a by-product. The possibility of bycatching increases dramatically with overfishing.
Waste: Overfishing creates waste in the supply chain. Approximately 20% of all fish in the United States are lost in the supply chain due to overfishing. In the third world, this rises to 30% thanks to a lack of available freezing devices. What this means is that even though there are more fish being caught than ever, there is also massive waste of harvested fish.
Mystery fish: Because of overfishing, there are significant numbers of fish at your local fish market and on the shelves of your local grocery store that aren’t what they are labelled as. Just because something says that it’s cod doesn’t mean that it actually is. To give you an idea of the scope of this problem, only 13% of the “red snapper” on the market is actually red snapper. Most of this is unintentional due to the scale of fishing done today, but much of it is not, [with people] hiding behind the unfortunate realities of mass-scale fishing to pass off inferior products to unwitting customers.
Why is overfishing happening?
So, why is overfishing happening? There are a variety of factors driving overfishing that we will delve into here, the bird’s eye view is below.
Regulation: Regulations are incredibly difficult to enforce even when they are carefully crafted, which they often are not. The worst offenders have little regulation in place and none of the regulations apply in international waters, which are effectively a “wild west”.
Unreported fishing: Existing regulations force many fishermen to do their fishing “off the books” if they wish to turn a profit. This is especially true in developing nations.
Mobile processing: Mobile processing is when fish are processed before returning to port: they are canned while still out at sea. Canned fish is increasingly taking up the fish consumption market at the expense of fresh fish.
Subsidies: Anyone familiar with farm subsidies knows that these are actually bad for the production of healthy food. Subsidies for fishing are similar. They don’t generally go to small fishermen whom one would think are most in need, but rather to massive vessels doing fuel-intensive shipping.
What’s more, subsidies encourage overfishing because the money keeps flowing no matter what: the more fish you catch, the more money you get, with no caps influenced by environmental impact fishing regulation.
Of these, the main driver of overfishing is, predictably, government subsidies. So it is worth taking a few minutes to separate that out from the rest of these issues and give it some special attention.
Overfishing and government subsidies
The subsidies that drive overfishing are highly lucrative: the governments of the world are giving away over $35 billion every year to fishermen. That’s about 20% of the value of all the commercially caught fish in the world every year. Subsidies are often directed at reducing the costs for mega-fishing companies — things like paying for their massive fuel budgets, the gear they need to catch fish or even the vessels themselves.
This effectively allows for massive commercial fishing operations to take … [over] the market or recapitalise at rates significantly below that of the market, disproportionately favouring them over their smaller competitors.
It is this advantage that large mega-fishing companies enjoy that is a primary driver of overfishing and unsustainable fishing practices. The end result of this is not just depleted stocks, but also lowered yields due to long-term overfishing, as well as lowered costs of fish at market, which has some advantages for the consumer, but also makes it significantly harder for smaller operations to turn a profit.
Such government subsidies could provide assistance to smaller fishermen, but are generally structured in a way that favours consolidation of the market and efforts counterproductive to conservation efforts.
What role do farmed fish play?
Farmed fish is a phenomenon that we take for granted today, but is actually a revolutionary method of bringing fish out of the water and onto our dinner tables. Originally, it was seen as a way of preserving a population of wild fish. The thinking was this: we could eat fish from farming while the wild stock replenished itself.
At the same time, communities impacted by overfishing would find new ways to get income in an increasingly difficult market. Third world countries would have their protein needs met in a manner that did not negatively impact the environment. It was considered a big, easy win for the entire world.
The reality, as is often the case, turned out to be a little different. Crowding thousands of fish together in small areas away from their natural habitat turns out to have detrimental effects. Waste products, primarily fish poo, excess food and dead fish, begin to contaminate the areas around fish farms. What’s more, like other factory farms, fish farms require lots of pesticides and drugs thanks to the high concentrations of fish and the parasites and diseases that spread in these kinds of living conditions.
Predictably, the chemicals used in making farmed fish possible are not contained in the areas where they are initially used. They spread into the surrounding waters and then simply become part of the water of the world, building up over time. In many cases, farmed fish are farmed in areas that are already heavily polluted. This is where the admonition to avoid eating too much fish for fear of contaminants like mercury has come from.
What’s more, the fish that we eat are not the only fish that are living at the fisheries. Often times, the preferred fish of the human consumer are carnivores that must eat lots of other fish to get to an appropriate size to be marketable. These fish, known as “reduction fish” or “trash fish” require the same kind of treatment that the larger fish they feed do.
All told, it takes 26 pounds [almost 12 kg] of feed to produce a single pound [450 g] of tuna, making farmed fishing an incredibly inefficient way of bringing food to market. Indeed, 37% of all seafood globally is now fed to farmed fish, up dramatically from 7.7% in 1948.
Salmon, for example, is only healthy when it is caught in the wild. Farmed salmon is essentially a form of junk food. This is in large part due to the diet that the fish eat in fish farms, which is high in fat, genetically engineered and uses soy as a primary source of protein. Toxins at the farms concentrate in the fatty tissue of the salmon. Concentrations of the harmful chemical PCB [polychlorinated biphenyl] are found in concentrations eight times higher in farmed fish than traditionally caught wild salmon.
The pesticides, of course, are not used for no reason, but because of the proliferation of pests due to the high concentrations of fish in the fisheries. Sea lice are one example of such pests; they can eat a live salmon down to the bone.
These pests do not stay in the fisheries, but quickly spread to the surrounding waters and infect wild salmon as well. The pests aren’t the only ones escaping: farmed fish often escape and compete with the native fish for resources, becoming invasive species.
Subsidies vary from one country to another and specific statistics about how much goes to fish farms is generally not forthcoming. But fish farms effectively move the problem of overfishing from the wild oceans and into more enclosed areas. This does not solve any of the problems of overfishing. It merely creates new ones with no less impact on the environment.
Which countries are overfishing?
The main offenders with regard to overfishing tend to not be developed Western countries, but countries from the developing world and parts of Asia. Sadly, the United States is the only Western nation that appeared on a “shame list” put out by Pew Charitable Trusts. This is known as the Pacific Six. The other members are Japan, Taiwan, China, South Korea and Indonesia.
The list only refers to overfishing with regard to bluefin tuna, but it provides a snapshot of the face of overfishing internationally. Overfishing facts say that these six countries are fishing 80% of the world’s bluefin tuna. These countries took collectively 111,482 metric tons of bluefin tuna out of the waters in 2011 alone.
However, when it comes to harmful subsidies there is a clear leader: China. A University of British Columbia study found that China provided more in the way of harmful subsidies encouraging overfishing than any other country on Earth — $7.2 billion in 2018 or fully 21% of all global support. What’s more, subsidies that are more beneficial than harmful dropped by 73%.
The negative effects of overfishing are not taking place far away and in very abstract ways. They are causing communities right here in the United States to collapse. In the early 1990s, the overfishing of cod caused entire communities in New England to collapse. Once this happens, it is very difficult to reverse. The effects are felt by the marine ecosystem but also by the people whose livelihoods depend on fishing.
Another example of economic instability is the Japanese fish market. Japanese fishermen are able to catch far less fish than they used to, meaning that the Japanese are now eating more imported fish, often from the United States. This creates a perverse situation where America exports most of its best salmon to other countries, but consumes some of the worst farmed salmon in the world today.
Just how bad is overfishing?
Surely overfishing can’t be that bad, right? The seas are just filled with tonnes of fish and it would take us forever to overfish to the point that they began to disappear entirely, right?
The first fish that disappear from an ecosystem are larger fish with a longer lifespan that reach reproductive age later in life. These are also the most desirable fish on the open market. When these fish disappear, the destructive fishing operations do not leave the area: they simply move down the food chain to less desirable catches such as squid and sardines. This is called “fishing down the web” and it slowly destroys the entire ecosystem removing first the predator fish and then the prey.
There are broader effects on the ecosystem beyond fish, effects that resonate throughout the entire Atlantic and Pacific oceans. Many of the smaller fish eat algae that grows on coral reefs. When these fish become overfished, the algae grows uncontrolled and the reefs suffer as a result. That deprives many marine life forms of their natural habitat, creating extreme disruption in the ocean ecosystem.
What are some alternatives to government-driven overfishing?
While there are certainly policy solutions to rampant overfishing, not all solutions will come from government. For example, there are emerging technological solutions that will make bycatching and other forms of waste less prevalent and harmful.
Simple innovations based on existing technologies, such as the Fishtek Marine pinger, seek to save sea mammals from the nets of commercial fishermen while also increasing profit margins for these companies in a win–win scenario. The device is small and inexpensive and thus does not present an undue burden to either the large-scale commercial fishing vessels or small fishermen looking to eke out a living in an increasingly difficult market.
We must also recognise that current regulations simply do not work. In one extreme case, governments restricted fishing for certain forms of tuna for three days a year. This did absolutely nothing for the population of tuna, as the big commercial fishing companies simply employed methods to harvest as many fish in three days as they were previously getting in any entire year.
This, in turn, led to a greater amount of bycatch and waste. Because the fishing operations didn’t have the luxury of time to ensure that they were only catching what they sought to catch, their truncated fishing season prized quantity over quality, with predictable results.
Quotas, specifically the “individual transferable quota” scheme used by New Zealand and many other countries, does not seem to work as intended for a number of reasons. First, these quotas are, as the name might suggest, transferable. This means that little fishermen might consider it a better deal to simply sell their quota to a large commercial fishing operation rather than go to work for themselves, and we’re back to square one.
More generally, quotas seem to be a source of waste. Here’s how they work. A fishing operation is given a specific tonnage of fish from a specific species that they can catch. However, not all fish are created equally. So, when commercial fishing operations look at their catch and see that some of it is of higher quality than others, they discard the lower-quality fish in favour of higher-quality fish, creating large amounts of waste. These discards can sometimes make up 40% of the catch.
An alternative to the current system is one that balances the need for fish as a global protein source with a long-term view of the ecosystem, planning for having as many fish tomorrow as there are today and, thus, a sustainable model for feeding the world and providing jobs. One way to do this would be to tie subsidies to conservation and sustainability efforts, rather than simply writing checks to large commercial fishing operations to build new boats and buy new equipment. Such a scheme would also prize smaller-scale operations over larger ones. A more diversified source of the world’s fish would also be more resilient.
One such alternative is called territorial use rights in fisheries management (TURF). In this case, individual fishermen or collectives are provided with long-term rights to fish in a specific area. This means that they have skin in the game. They don’t want to overfish the area because to do so would be to kill the goose that laid the golden egg. So, they catch as many fish as is sustainable and no more. They have a vested, long-term interest in making sure that there is no overfishing in the fisheries that have been allotted to them.
Not only does this make sustainable fishing more attractive, it also means that there is less government bureaucracy and red tape involved. Fishermen with TURF are allowed to catch as much as they like. It is assumed that sustainability is baked into the equation because the fishermen with rights want to preserve the fishing not just for the next year, but for the next generation and the one after that. This model has been used successfully in Chile, one of the most economically free countries in the world … to prevent overfishing and create sustainability. It is a market-driven model that prizes small producers with skin in the game over massive, transnational conglomerates with none.
While it’s nice to support the little guy over Big Fishing and we certainly support sustainability and conservation efforts, there’s another, perhaps more important and direct, reason to support reforms designed to eliminate overfishing: food security. When bluefin tuna, for example, becomes extinct, it’s not coming back. That means no more cans of tuna on the shelves of your local supermarket.
That’s a big deal for people in developed, first world countries, but a much bigger deal in developing countries. When major protein sources are depleted forever, there will be intensified competition for the resources that remain. This also creates unrest in the countries that are less able to compete in a global market due to issues of capital and scale. Even if you’re not concerned with overfishing, overfishing and the problems it creates will soon be on your doorstep – unless corrective measures are taken before it’s too late.
Tuna fishers will have to do everything they can to save rays, including the magnificent manta ray, that are unintentionally caught during fishing operations.
Several species of mobulid rays, which include the mantas, are perilously close to extinction. One of the reasons for this is the numbers that die when they become part of the tuna catch.
The Western and Central Pacific Fisheries Commission (WCPFC) hopes to reverse the trend to extinction. At its 16th annual meeting, delegates agreed on tougher rules aimed at helping rays survive industrial fishing operations. (Wildlife caught accidentally during fishing is known collectively as bycatch.)
According to World Wildlife Fund, every year between 13,000 and 19,000 seabirds, particularly albatrosses and petrels, die after being caught on longline hooks in the Western and Central Pacific Ocean — even though a conservation and management measure already exists to protect them.
The new guidelines are simple so that they can be followed easily, and so are the materials needed to safely release seabirds: a towel or blanket, pliers, net, a box or bin, and gloves. Most of these are already likely to be on longline vessels.
Although the guidelines aren’t binding, they do mark a step up in WCPFC’s push for a sustainable tuna industry.
conservation management measures (CMM) endorsed on the non-target species of mobulid rays and sharks
FFA summarises WCPFC16 outcomes for Pacific priorities
When Ms Jung-re Riley Kim, the Chair of the Western Central Pacific Fisheries Commission (WCPFC), officially closed its 16th annual meeting on Wednesday, Pacific officials finally relaxed and allowed themselves muted celebrations for a job well done.
Praise for major decisions made by WCPFC16
The Chair of the Pacific’s Forum Fisheries Committee, Mr Eugene Pangelinan, told regional journalists at the final media conference, “This is a very successful WCPFC16, and wonderful hosting by the people and government of Papua New Guinea and the National Fisheries Agency.”
“There’s been some very good outcomes, and the first one is the adoption of the climate-change resolution. From the FFA members’ perspective, that is one of the key priorities we wanted to get out of this meeting, given that one of the things our ministers tasked us to advocate for at the WCPFC was to address climate-change issues in relation to fisheries.”
He said another great outcome was the continuation of the Compliance Monitoring Scheme (CMS) for the next two years.
“The compliance scheme ensures members are held accountable to their obligations and goes a long way to ensuring sustainable fisheries management for the region,” Mr Pangelinan said.
Mr Bubba Cook of the World Wildlife Fund paid tribute to Pacific leadership at the meeting.
He said that the climate resolution “demonstrates that in two consecutive years we have seen a measure that’s been passed – crew welfare in 2018 and now climate change – that is reflective of the leadership in the Pacific island members. The [show a] willingness to take on the tough and challenging issues and provide solutions to those issues, so we are very encouraged by that motivation.”
The Director-General for FFA, Dr Manu Tupou-Roosen, added and re-emphasised the importance of the climate decision. She pointed out its valuable role as a “starting point to increase the focus of the Commission in this critical space so we look forward to that active work in this area with all Commission members”.
She acknowledged the work by Pacific countries as well as other Commission members, “underlining that no one achieves anything alone. Our members have worked really hard including with all Commission members to get to the point we’re at tonight.”
Dr Tupou-Roosen also highlighted positive outcomes for other species that get caught up indirectly as fishers chase the tuna harvest.
But some FFA priorities did not progress as well as hoped
But there were also a number of priority issues that did not progress as well as they should.
Mr Pangelinan said, “We were not able to agree on how we are going to proceed with the discussions in terms of the high-seas allocations. That’s something that has been somewhat watered down and now we are going to tackle it at the next WCPFC meeting.”
Mr Glen Holmes, international fisheries officer with Pew Charitable Trusts, praised the success of the rays CMM, but said that work on harvest strategies didn’t go far enough.
“We are very happy with the adoption of the mantas CMM. We think that was a big win for the Commission,” he said.
“But I think there was a very big missed opportunity for the Commission to establish a dedicated meeting for scientists and managers to meet to discuss the issues around harvest-management strategies to further progress that part of the Commission that will lead to a more sustainable management of the stocks into the future.”
Mr Bubba Cook expanded on perceived missed opportunities.
“We think there was some significant progress around a number of issues at the meeting, specifically around harvest-strategy development, but we also remain concerned that some of the measures were not quite as robust as they could have been, particularly for the sharks CMM.
“We have one of the most endangered stock of sharks here in the Pacific with the oceanic whitetip and there were a couple of provisions that would have gone a long way to help with sharks and ensure the long-term sustainability of those stocks. But at the same time there was a great amount of effort that went into the CMM for sharks and it reflects a lot of willingness to compromise around the table, and I certainly would like to acknowledge that as well.
“The manta and mobulid [rays] CMM was also a big step and we are certainly happy to see that move forward.”
Although there was no movement in the skipjack target reference point (TRP) negotiations that are important to members to the Parties to the Nauru Agreement (PNA), there was no harm done, according to Chief Executive Officer for the PNA Office, Mr Ludwig Kumoru.
“Overall, we are happy with the outcome of this Commission meeting,” Mr Kumoru said.
“Our major objective was on the TRP. It may be seen as a push back, but for PNA it is still acceptable, we still have time to work on it. I think if we rushed it and got to a decision where we wouldn’t be comfortable then we would be in a very difficult position. So, we are comfortable with the outcome. The stock is not in the red; it is in the green we can still buy some time and look at ways to address it.”
Looking to the future
In summing up, Mr Pangelinan said, “The Commission has done very well in discussions about future tools that the Commission wants to use to improve monitoring. And two of those are electronic reporting and electronic monitoring. From the FFA perspective, these are important tools that will help fill the gaps in the data from fishing on the high seas in particular and the longline operations.
“So that is something that we also want to highlight: that adopting/agreeing to the objectives here, was a big step to progress the work of the Commission.”
FFA summary of WCPFC outcomes on Pacific priorities
Climate-change resolution – resolution adopted
WCPFC adopted a resolution on climate change based on the draft that was put forward by FFA members at the start of the meeting. This was a significant milestone for the Commission and a great success for FFA Members. The resolution responds to the call from Pacific Islands Forum leaders for increased attention, including in scientific research, to be placed on the impacts of climate change on the region’s highly migratory tuna stocks.
The non-binding resolution also looks at the links between fishing activity and climate change, and for the Commission to consider options to reduce the environmental impacts related to headquarters operations and meetings.
FFA members’ proposal to reform the WCPFC Compliance Monitoring Scheme was one of the hardest issues discussed at WCPFC16.
Cook Islands led the charge for FFA members and, after extensive negotiations, agreement was reached on the last day to a revised measure which focuses compliance monitoring on the implementation of measures by members rather than delving into the detail of individual cases involving fishing vessels that are the better dealt with through other mechanisms.
This was a significant achievement for FFA members, and should see the WCPFC compliance-monitoring process remain the strongest of all the tuna regional fisheries management organisations (RFMOs). The measure agreed to applies for two years, giving time for additional work to take place on additional elements of the scheme including a refinement of audit points and the development of a risk-based framework.
South Pacific albacore – clear direction for roadmap in 2020
There were two informal meetings, chaired by Fiji, of the small working group to discuss the way forward for South Pacific albacore tuna.
The terms of reference and the work plan for the South Pacific albacore roadmap process were progressed, with a focus on rebuilding stock so that catch rates improve. This will assist in improving the economic viability of the fishery.
The roadmap group will hold two face-to-face meetings in 2020, in the margins of the Scientific Committee meeting in August and the Technical and Compliance Committee meeting in September. This should ensure good progress is made before the Commission considers a revised measure in December 2020.
High-seas limits and allocation – two extra days for WCPFC17
While there was general agreement to the proposal from FFA for the WCPFC to hold a two-day workshop to discuss high-seas limits and a framework for allocating those limits, agreement could not be reached on the terms of reference for a workshop. This highlighted how difficult it is going to be reach agreement on allocation within the Commission, especially since allocation decisions can only be taken by consensus. In the end, WCPFC16 agreed to extend the next annual meeting by two days so that time could be devoted to this issue.
Transhipment – slow progress in the intercessional working group
The Transhipment Intersessional Working Group (IWG), co-chaired by RMI and US, made some good progress, but further work remains to finalise the scope of work for a study to identify weaknesses in the existing measure.
A small number of fishing nations remained concerned about the information that would be made available to conduct the study, and this has unfortunately delayed the process. The IWG will continue its work electronically, with the aim of finalising the scope of work as soon as possible.
Mobulid rays conservation and management measure – new measure adopted
FFA members proposed the draft conservation and management measure (CMM) for mobulid rays (such as manta rays), and this was adopted by the Commission following constructive engagement by Commission members. The measure will come into effect in 2021, to allow Commission members time to promulgate the measure with their fishing industries.
Consolidated sharks CMM
After two years of lengthy negotiations, chaired by Japan, a comprehensive measure on sharks was finally agreed. The new measure rationalises and streamlines reporting that was previously spread across a number of different CMMs. There was also some strengthening of the standards around requirements that fins remain naturally attached to shark carcasses with simplification of alternative measures to ensure that they can be monitored and enforced.
PORT MORESBY – The Western and Central Pacific Fisheries Commission (WCPFC) took a major step in helping to protect “threatened” manta and other mobula rays on the final day of its annual meeting on Wednesday.
It adopted a resolution that requires fishers to immediately release any manta rays caught accidentally as “bycatch”.
An international fisheries officer of Pew Charitable Trusts, Glen Holmes, said the increased protection was one of the positive outcomes of the WCPFC meeting, which was held in Port Moresby.
Mr Holmes said the action is considered a “big win” from the commission meeting.
“WCPFC agreed to increase protections for threatened manta and mobula rays by banning purse-seine and longline vessels from keeping any caught in their nets and hooks. This is a positive step and helps remove the incentive for fishers to capture and keep these imperilled species,” Mr Holmes said.
Pacific Islands Forum Fisheries Agency (FFA) members were the proponents of the proposal for a new measure to prevent targeted fishing and retention of mobulid rays, and to promote their safe release, when they are caught in WCPFC convention area fisheries.
FFA Director-General Dr Manu Tupou-Roosen said that the protection of rays is one of the “excellent” outcomes of the WCPFC meeting.
To many island nations such as Palau and FSM, manta-ray watching is a big tourism draw. There is also global plea to protect rays, which not only get tangled in nets and fishing lines but are also targeted for their meat and gill plates.
Under the measure, purse seiners are required to release rays while they are still swimming freely, with rays that are too large to be lifted safely by hand to be brailed out of the net and released using a purpose-built large-mesh cargo net, or canvas sling or similar device.
Purse seiners and longliners are also banned from dragging, carrying, lifting or pulling a ray by its “cephalic lobes” or tail or by inserting hooks or hands.
Bubba Cook, the head of WWF’s delegation to the WCPFC16, said WWF was happy to see that the manta rays measure move forward.
The Western and Central Pacific Fisheries Commission has moved to further safeguard seabirds from becoming tuna bycatch.
Last year, it adopted the Seabird Conservation and Management Measure.
Now the commission, which is holding its annual meeting in Port Moresby, is releasing guidelines on the safe handling and release of seabirds.
Conservation organisation WWF said tuna longline fisheries in the Western and Central Pacific were one of the greatest threats to seabirds, particularly albatrosses and petrels.
While the commission has had a measure to protect seabirds since 2006, it is estimated up to 19,000 continue to be caught annually.
The measure is aimed at ensuring that seabirds captured alive are released alive. When safe handling procedures are implemented, seabirds have higher chances of survival.
WWF’s Bubba Cook said it was pleased that the Commission had taken steps to implement the voluntary guidelines.
“[However,] we believe that they should be mandatory and subject to clear monitoring and compliance review,” he said.
Meanwhile, the Forum Fisheries Agency is confident there will be progress on its priority issues on the last day of the Western and Central Pacific Fisheries Commission meeting in Port Moresby.
The FFA’s key goal is to have the Tuna Commission adopt its climate change resolution, which calls for improved conservation and management practices and the use of more efficient and cleaner operating systems.
The FFA’s director general, Manu Tupou-Roosen, said of the big emitters and other member countries from outside the Pacific: “They have been consulted here by our members and have been supportive of this resolution.”
Short-tailed albatross with chicks … one of many species of albatross that face extinction, partly from getting hooked on fishing lines when following fishing vessels. Photo by Jlfutari at Wikipedia (English language version) [CC BY-SA 3.0].
PORT MORESBY, 10 December 2019 – The Western and Central Pacific Commission (WCPFC) on Monday adopted safe handling guidelines for seabirds, a measure that will help protect seabirds from dying when they are accidentally caught during fishing.
The Seabird Conservation and Management Measure that was adopted in 2018 (CMM 2018-03) was further supported with the Tuna Commission adopting supplementary non-binding guidelines for the safe handling and release of seabirds caught during fishing (known as bycatch).
According to WWF, bycatch in tuna longline fisheries in the Western and Central Pacific Ocean (WCPO) is one of the greatest threats to seabirds, particularly to albatrosses and petrels.
Although there is has been a conservation and management measure for seabirds since 2006, it is estimated that between 13,000 and 19,000 seabirds continue to be caught a year.
The guidelines received unanimous support from member and non-member states attending the 16th annual WCPFC meeting in Port Moresby.
The head of the New Zealand delegation to WCPFC16, Ms Heather Ward, told Pacific reporters here that the protection of seabirds is a priority for NZ, given the diversity of seabirds, particularly albatross and petrel species, around New Zealand in the area south of 25°S.
“New Zealand has the highest global diversity of albatross and petrel species in the world, with several species assessed as being at high or very high risk from commercial fisheries bycatch,” Ms Ward said.
“This is why the protection of seabirds is of great importance to New Zealand.”
She thanked the Pacific Islands Forum Fisheries Agency (FFA) for its support in the adoption of the measure.
The measure is aimed at meeting the requirements of paragraph 11 of CMM 2018-03: to ensure that seabirds captured alive are released alive. When safe handling procedures are implemented, seabirds are more likely to survive.
Ms Ward said the advice has been tailored for the crews of fishing vessel and is available free in multiple languages. The guidelines are simple to follow, and the materials required to safely release seabirds (i.e. a towel or blanket, pliers, net, a box or bin, and gloves) are likely to be available on most longline vessels.
“We hope it will be possible for the WCPFC to adopt these guidelines under Agenda Item 8 as a further step towards the protection of vulnerable seabirds affected by longline fishing,” Ms Ward said.
WWF’s head of delegation to the WCPFC16, Mr Bubba Cook, noted in a media release that the adoption of the guidelines on how to remove hooks from seabirds, developed by the Agreement on the Conservation of Albatrosses and Petrels (ACAP), would lead to less harm to seabirds, especially at the southern end of the WCPO region across all WCPFC longline and other hook fisheries.
“While we are pleased that the WCPFC has taken the important step to implement these voluntary guidelines, we believe that they should be mandatory and subject to clear monitoring and compliance review,” he said.
This message was further enforced by the executive secretary of ACAP, Dr Christine Bogle, who noted that now that the measure is in place, the challenge will be to ensure compliance. ACAP has presented an observer statement to WCPFC16 (WCPFC16–2019–OP08).
“Arguably, the single most important action to reduce bycatch is to increase compliance in the proper use of existing seabird bycatch regulations, such as this CMM 2018-03,” Dr Bogle said.
Oceanic whitetip shark … the species is threatened with extinction. Photo by Johan Lantz, CC BY-SA 3.0.
PORT MORESBY, 10 December 2019 – Fishing nations must adopt a suite of measures to reduce deaths of oceanic whitetip sharks, according to the Pew Charitable Trusts.
Pew is one of a host of countries and organisations attending the most important fishing talks of the year, the 16th annual meeting of the Western and Central Pacific Fisheries Commission (WCPFC).
Fishing gear such as wire leaders and shark lines must be banned, safe-handling techniques used to return snared sharks to the wild must be improved, and coverage of independent observers tasked with data collection must be increased, PEW says.
The 2019 stock assessment commissioned by the WCPFC, a multi-national regulatory body, indicates that oceanic whitetip sharks are in peril and will become extinct if overfishing continues.
The WCPFC is holding its week-long annual session in Port Moresby Papua New Guinea until 11 December.
Earlier this year, the Scientific Committee of the WCPFC, at its meeting SC15, recommended actions to lessen the numbers of sharks that are caught, and to improve safe handling and release practices.
“Prohibiting the use of wire leaders and shark lines would cut fishing-related mortality,” Pew said in a statement.
“Better safe-handling techniques, such as cutting the trailing gear as close to the hook as possible and keeping the shark in the water alongside the vessel, are also needed to further reduce mortality.”
The latest science showed that the population of oceanic whitetips has declined by around 95%, according to environmental organisation WWF.
The analysis commissioned by WCPFCC “concluded that oceanic whitetips would go extinct in this vast expanse of the Pacific in the long-term at the current levels of fishing”.
The leader of Oceans section of WWF International, John Tanzer, said, “It is unbelievable that a species that could be counted in the millions in the past is now facing extinction in the Western and Central Pacific Ocean, an area covering almost 20% of the Earth’s surface.
“Urgent action is required to start rebuilding the oceanic whitetip population and to ensure that no other open ocean shark or ray ends up in such a disastrous position in the first place.”
Meanwhile, Indonesia has proposed a measure to improve data collection for sharks as bycatch in tuna fisheries.
The proposal notes that the commission needs to improve:
data collection on annual national catches estimate, to include catch estimate of sharks by gear and by species
training in shark identification for enumerators
the providing of shark identification cards to enumerators
data collection from port sampling data so as to include bycatch landed at port, including bycatch of key shark species
the implementation of fishing log books on shark-catch data, and the collection of observer data that includes released and discarded catches
the involvement of surveillance officers in monitoring catches at sea.
The Western and Central Pacific Tuna Programme Manager at WWF, Bubba Cook, said he is optimistic that with several members of the Tuna Commission pushing for comprehensive shark-management measures, there is indication that a policy will be put in place in this year’s fisheries meeting.
Tropical tuna are one of the few wild animals we still hunt in large numbers, but finding them in the vast Pacific ocean can be tremendously difficult. However, fishers have long known that tuna are attracted to, and will aggregate around, floating objects such as logs.
In the past, people used bamboo rafts to attract tuna, fishing them while they were gathered underneath. Today, the modern equivalent – called fish aggregating devices, or FADs – usually contain high-tech equipment that tell fishers where they are and how many fish have accumulated nearby.
It’s estimated that between 30,000 and 65,000 man-made FADs are deployed annually and drift through the Western and Central Pacific Ocean to be fished on by industrial fishers. Pacific island countries are reporting a growing number of FADs washing up on their beaches, damaging coral reefs and potentially altering the distribution of tuna.
Our research in two papers, one of which was published today in Scientific Reports, looks for the first time at where ocean currents take these FADs and where they wash up on coastlines in the Pacific.
Attracting fish and funds
We do not fully understand why some fish and other marine creatures aggregate around floating objects, but they are a source of attraction for many species. FADs are commonly made of a raft with 30-80m of old ropes or nets hanging below. Modern FADs are attached to high-tech buoys with solar-powered electronics.
The buoys record a FAD’s position as it drifts slowly across the Pacific, scanning the water below to measure tuna numbers with echo-sounders and transmitting this valuable information to fishing vessels by satellite.
Throughout their lifetimes FADs may be exchanged between vessels, recovered and redeployed, or fished and simply left to drift with their buoy to further aggregate tuna. Fishers may then abandon them and remotely deactivate the buoys’ satellite transmission when the FAD leaves the fishing area.
Fishing licence fees can provide up to 98% of government revenue for some Pacific Island countries and territories. These countries balance the need to sustainably manage and harvest one of the only renewable resources they have, while often having a limited capacity to fish at an industrial scale themselves.
FADs help stabilise catch rates and make fishing fleets more profitable, which in turn generate revenue for these nations.
The abandonment or loss of FADs adds to the growing mass of marine debris floating in the ocean, and they increasingly damage coral as they are dragged and get caught on reefs.
Perhaps most importantly, we don’t know how the distribution of FADs affects fishing effort in the region. Given that each fleet and fishing company has their own strategy for using FADs, understanding how the total number of FADs drifting in one area increases the catch of tuna is crucial for sustainably managing these valuable species.
Where do FADs end up?
Our research, published in Environmental Research Communications and Scientific Reports, used a regional FAD tracking program and fishing data submitted by Pacific countries, in combination with numerical ocean models and simulations of virtual FADs, to work out how FADs travel on ocean currents during and after their use.
In general, FADs are first deployed by fishers in the eastern and central Pacific. They then drift west with the prevailing currents into the core industrial tropical tuna fishing zones along the equator.
We found equatorial countries such as Kiribati have a high number of FADs moving through their waters, with a significant amount washing up on their shores. Our research showed these high numbers are primarily due to the locations in which FADs are deployed by fishing companies.
In contrast, Tuvalu, which is situated on the edge of the equatorial current divergence zone, also sees a high density of FADs and beaching. But this appears to be an area that generally aggregates FADs regardless of where they are deployed.
Unsurprisingly, many FADs end up beaching in countries at the western edge of the core fishing grounds, having drifted from different areas of the Pacific as far away as Ecuador. This concentration in the west means reefs along the edge of the Solomon Islands and Papua New Guinea are particularly vulnerable, with currents apparently forcing FADs towards these coasts more than other countries in the region.
Overall, our studies estimate that between 1,500 and 2,200 FADs drifting through the Western and Central Pacific Ocean wash up on beaches each year. This is likely to be an underestimate, as the tracking devices on many FADs are remotely deactivated as they leave fishing zones.
Using computer simulations, we also found that a significant number of FADs are deployed in the eastern Pacific Ocean, left to drift so they have time to aggregate tuna, and subsequently fished on in the Western and Central Pacific Ocean. This complicates matters as the eastern Pacific is managed by an entirely different fishery Commission with its own set of fisheries management strategies and programmes.
Growing human populations and climate change are increasing pressure on small island nations. FAD fishing is very important to their economic and food security, allowing access to the wealth of the ocean’s abundance.
We need to safeguard these resources, with effective management around the number and location of FAD deployments, more research on their impact on tuna and bycatch populations, the use of biodegradable FADs, or effective recovery programs to remove old FADs from the ocean at the end of their slow journeys across the Pacific.