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.
The International Seafood Sustainability Foundation (ISSF), a global coalition of scientists, the tuna industry and World Wildlife Fund (WWF), has added three new names to its 11-member board of directors.
The new additions include Rohan Currey, a scientist at the Marine Stewardship Council (MSC). Prior to working for MSC, he was a principal scientist at New Zealand’s Ministry for Primary Industries, specializing in marine mammal science and Antarctic fisheries science. He also represented New Zealand in the International Whaling Commission and the Commission for the Conservation of Antarctic Marine Living Resources.
Also joining is Martin Tsamenyi, a professor of law and the former director of the Australian National Center for Ocean Resources & Security at the University of Wollongong. Tsamenyi has served as fisheries law advisor to the Pacific Islands Forum Fisheries Agency and legal counsel to the Western and Central Pacific Fisheries Commission and was chairman of the International Commission for the Conservation of Atlantic Tunas.
Additionally, ISSF’s board has added Giuseppe Di Carlo, director of the WWF Mediterranean Marine Initiative, where he is responsible for supporting Mediterranean countries to achieve key conservation and management targets, specifically on fisheries and marine protected areas. Since 2008, Di Carlo has been involved in developing and implementing ecosystem-based based management into conservation strategies.
Alfred Schumm, the former director of the WWF Global Fisheries Program and now director of innovation, sciences, technologies and solutions at WWF, will be stepping down from the ISSF board after serving for more than eight years, the organization reports.
Managers of the world’s largest tuna fishery—in the western and central Pacific Ocean—have a chance this year to improve the sustainability of how those fish are caught and should seize that opportunity.
At issue are fish aggregating devices (FADs), which are man-made rafts deployed by purse seine vessels to attract fish. For years, fishermen have observed that tunas gather under floating objects like seaweed or logs. Starting in the 1990s, fishing crews began making their own buoyant objects and deployed them in ever-increasing numbers. For purse seiners, which encircle schools of tunas within enormous nets, FADs have increased fishing efficiency and the amount of tuna caught. Today most FADs in the region are man-made and include plastics and other synthetic materials, with buoys that transmit location and, increasingly, the amount of tuna underneath a FAD.
Fifty-four percent of the tunas caught worldwide is from waters managed by the Western and Central Pacific Fisheries Commission (WCPFC), and much of that catch comes from the exclusive economic zones of eight Pacific island countries—which are also home to 90 percent of the FAD fishing within the WCPFC. Those nations are members of the Parties to the Nauru Agreement (PNA), which has strengthened fisheries management across the members’ collective waters.
To that end, PNA member countries have been at the forefront of efforts to better understand FAD fishing by collecting data from the transmissions of FAD buoys. According to a new analysis made possible by those efforts and prepared for the WCPFC’s Scientific Committee, an estimated 44,700 to 64,900 FADs are deployed within the WCPFC area, likely more than in any other ocean region.
The purse seine vessels using FADs primarily fish for skipjack tuna, the most common species used for canned tuna. But too few regulations are in place to ensure appropriate use of FADs, and their deployment can come at a cost to other species of tuna: Juvenile bigeye and yellowfin tunas, which also gather under FADs, can be caught before they reach reproductive age.
Juvenile catch isn’t the only concern: The webbing, nets, and ropes that make up FADs also entangle and kill sharks and turtles, and fishermen are not required to recover their FADs from the water.
A second recent scientific analysis, also made possible by the PNA data collection efforts and presented to the Scientific Committee, has estimated that at least 5 percent of deployed FADs wash ashore, and at least 26 percent of FADs could be considered “lost.”
A WCPFC working group is set to discuss FAD numbers, design, and possible management solutions on 3 October. Below are four recommendations the working group should send to the full Commission, which will decide at its annual meeting in December whether to increase regulation of FADs:
Decrease the limit on the number of FADs a vessel can deploy. Current rules prohibit a vessel from having more than 350 FADs in the water at any time, but that number is far too high to improve sustainability of the region’s tuna fishery.
Require that FADs be built in a way that results in a lowest risk of entanglement of marine animals to minimize the deaths of sharks and turtles. Such designs are being used with success in other ocean areas without affecting catches of targeted tunas.
Require that natural and biodegradable materials be used in the construction of rafts and FAD appendages (the material hanging below each device), and prioritize work to identify solutions to prevent FAD buoys from becoming marine debris.
Recommend extending the working group’s agenda to next year to investigate policies to better control and retrieve FADs, as well as alternative options to manage tuna catch in the purse seine fishery.
Taking these steps would be in line with the WCPFC Scientific Committee’s advice. In August, scientists on that committee expressed concern about the number of beached and lost FADs, and the potential impacts of high device densities on tuna populations. The committee recommended fewer deployments; use of biodegradable, non-entangling, and environmentally friendly designs; and better measures for control and retrieval.
Although fisheries managers worldwide have been slow to act, momentum is growing. Last year, representatives of FAD working groups from the Atlantic, eastern Pacific, and Indian oceans met to spark the beginnings of joint action. Their discussion was preceded by a meeting of a Global FAD Science Symposium, which included participants with expertise in WCPFC fisheries and identified proven and promising mitigation strategies, some of which the WCPFC working group is considering.
It is now up to the entire Commission to heed the advice of its own scientists, recognize the identified best practices, and adopt strategies appropriate to the western and central Pacific. Compared to some of the other tuna regional fisheries management organizations, the WCPFC lags in the adoption of strategies to mitigate some of the impacts of FADs. Given the significance and size of its fisheries, the WCPFC has a chance to set a new standard for safeguarding the health and sustainability of tunas and the greater marine ecosystem.
Dave Gershman is an officer with The Pew Charitable Trusts’ global tuna conservation program.
Tuna fishermen around the world use fish aggregating devices (FADs)—man-made floating objects that many species gather beneath—to increase their catch. However, these devices also lead to large amounts of bycatch and often become marine debris, in large part because the international organizations that regulate these fisheries have limited FAD management measures in place.
FAD use has increased significantly in recent decades, boosted by technologies that also have made FADs more effective. Each of the tropical tuna regional fishery management organizations (tRFMOs)—the Inter-American Tropical Tuna Commission (IATTC), the International Commission for the Conservation of Atlantic Tunas (ICCAT), the Indian Ocean Tuna Commission (IOTC), and the Western and Central Pacific Fisheries Commission (WCPFC)—have begun to grapple with how best to manage FAD use, but current measures remain inadequate.
The Pew Charitable Trusts reviewed the FAD management measures in place across these organizations and found widely divergent approaches. None of the tRFMOs has yet put a comprehensive plan in place.
These management organizations should take advantage of tested and available strategies and best practices, depending on their individual needs and constituencies. This brief lays out the basic concepts in four categories of issues that should be addressed immediately—information sharing, tuna management, bycatch mitigation, and debris reduction. It also includes a comparison of what each tRFMO now has in place.
Although all of these policies may not be needed for every fishery, each tRFMO should immediately adopt a FAD management approach that mitigates the impact of these devices and ensures their sustainable use.
A worsening problem
The lack of tRFMO regulation has allowed FAD use to expand rapidly since the 1990s. Although precise numbers are unknown, a 2015 Pew study estimated that as many as 121,000 FADs may be deployed annually.1
Fishermen deploy FADs at sea because tuna gather beneath them. A typical design includes a raft with netting that hangs as deep as 100 meters below the surface. A satellite-linked buoy relays the location to a fishing vessel. More sophisticated buoys include echo-sounders that can tell fishermen the amount of tuna under the FAD and, in some cases, the species.
These drifting devices have boosted the efficiency of purse seine vessels that use huge nets to encircle and catch large numbers of skipjack tuna. That has increased the worldwide supply of this important source of protein and supported many livelihoods, but it has also taken a toll on other tuna populations and marine species. For example, small and juvenile bigeye and yellowfin tuna also gather around FADs. Although fishing vessels may not be seeking these fish, FAD use can lead to unsustainable catches of one or both of those species—depending on where the fishing is occurring—if not properly managed. That reduces their populations and their productivity. This has happened across the globe with bigeye in the Atlantic Ocean and yellowfin in the Indian Ocean, for example, where both are experiencing overfishing and are overfished.
In the Pacific, bigeye’s status also remains a concern. In the eastern Pacific, this species is experiencing overfishing, while in the ocean’s western waters, the stock is thought to be healthy now although high numbers of juvenile fish are being caught.
FADs also cause the deaths of threatened or protected species such as sharks and turtles, which can get entangled in the webbing or are caught incidentally in the purse seine nets. And FADs pollute and damage habitats when this gear is lost or abandoned at sea. Legal ownership is often unclear, in part because vessels fish on any FAD they find, whether they deployed it or encountered it by chance. As a result, fishermen often treat FADs as disposable, so they wash up on beaches and coral reefs and contribute to plastic pollution.
Strategies available to reduce FADs’ adverse impacts
The tRFMOs have made slow progress in regulating these devices, but a number of strategies are available that they have yet to widely implement that can better manage the range of FAD impacts.
The selected strategies outlined here are some of the best practices identified in 2017 by experts at an independent Global FAD Science Symposium and mirror some of the conclusions from the first Joint tRFMO FAD Working Group meeting, which brought together representatives from three of the four tropical tuna RFMOs to identify priorities and actions to manage FADs.2
Pew selected the strategies for inclusion in this brief from a longer list developed at those meetings based on three criteria: They can be applied in the tRFMO context, they are feasible as regulatory policies, and they do not require development of new technologies to be put in place in the near term. These strategies do not represent an exhaustive list but are offered as a starting point for discussion.
They are presented in four categories of issues that should be addressed immediately: information sharing, tuna management, bycatch mitigation, and debris reduction. The list does not include some worthy strategies, such as requiring the use of biodegradable materials as much as possible in building FADs, that require further technological development, testing, or clarification of terms to be fully realized.
Improvements to FAD management should be made in tandem with other actions required to ensure fisheries are sustainable, regardless of the gear used. For example, fishing pressure on a stock from all gears must remain within the scientifically advised levels, and effective compliance systems must be fully implemented.
To improve information collection, tRFMOs could:
Require industry to share electronic position data from buoys with scientists and/or fishery authorities (i.e., FAD tracking). Unique physical identifiers could also be required on the raft. These steps would allow tRFMOs to improve scientific understanding about the use and impact of FADs, monitor compliance with existing rules, increase accountability for FAD impacts, and develop improved measures.
To improve tuna management, tRFMOs could:
Cap the amount of FAD fishing and provide incentives to shift fishing effort to free schools to reduce the unsustainable catch of juvenile bigeye and yellowfin tunas. Steps could include setting annual science-based limits on the number of FAD sets or catch limits for bigeye and yellowfin tunas in the purse seine fishery along with appropriate management of other gears catching the same stocks. Economic incentives may complement a strategy to encourage greater effort on free school fishing. Today, some tRFMOs institute prohibitions on FAD use in certain waters or at certain times, which is often ineffective because fishing can increase in other areas or during periods when FAD fishing is allowed. Greater free school fishing also would reduce the impact on non-target species such as sharks and turtles often caught around FADs.
Develop and implement science-based FAD deployment limits to better manage the proliferation in the number of FADs and harm to ecosystem dynamics. Restrictions could be for particular waters or vessels. Although the four tRFMOs have capped the number of FAD buoys that can be monitored by an individual vessel at any one time, these limits do not appear to be restrictive enough to affect the behaviors of fishing fleets as a whole. Limits on deployments also would help reduce marine debris associated with unrecovered FADs.;
To mitigate bycatch, tRFMOs could:
Require use of non-entangling FADs to avoid killing sharks and turtles that get caught in the webbing material of the rafts. Experience with fleets deploying non-entangling FADs demonstrates that they do not reduce the catch of targeted tunas, but can effectively curtail entanglement of sharks and turtles.
Require the release of sharks and turtles from purse seine nets before hauling them in to minimize mortality.
Require use of published safe-release techniques for sharks brought on deck and mandate revival techniques for turtles to improve the survivability of the animals.
Require non-target bony fish to be kept and landed to avoid waste of bycatch species that may have value in local markets.
To reduce debris, tRFMOs could:
Develop and implement science-based FAD deployment limits to minimize the contribution to marine debris and mitigate the probability that lost or abandoned FADs wash up on coastlines or coral reefs. Most deployed FADs are never fished upon.
Require FADs to be recovered by removing them from the water, such as via partnerships with coastal authorities/communities, and the use of systems that can help intercept FADs before they beach. They also should establish cleanup funds to reimburse the costs of removing FADs that do end up on shore.
Comparing measures in place in the RFMOs that manage tropical tunas
The following assessment compares published FAD-related regulations at each tuna RFMO against the strategies laid out in this brief. It gives tRFMOs the benefit of the doubt by assuming 100 percent compliance by members with these rules. The assessment, however, does not reflect situations in which a fleet or States have adopted FAD policies outside of tRFMO management measures. To meet the criteria, a strategy must be mandatory; voluntary measures are assessed as not meeting the criteria.
Pew’s analysis shows that none of the four RFMOs that manage tropical tunas currently takes a comprehensive approach to managing FAD use. Progress has been made on reducing the impact on sea turtles and requiring the use of non-entangling designs. Still, the WCPFC, the tRFMO area where the greatest number of annual FAD deployments probably occurs, does not have a measure in place requiring non-entangling designs to be used for this gear.
Significant ecological effects remain to be addressed, particularly regarding the incidental and unsustainable catch of bigeye and yellowfin, and recovery of lost and abandoned FADs. Information on FADs should be improved through the sharing of satellite buoy data and marking of rafts. Additionally, where the tRFMOs have adopted strategies to mitigate FAD impacts, those strategies should be reviewed periodically to assess what works and identify opportunities for improvement. tRFMOs should share lessons learned through efforts such as the Joint Tuna RFMO FAD Working Group.
Proven and promising strategies have been identified to manage FADs. The four tropical tuna RFMOs should now agree to take steps that allow for FAD use within safe biological parameters and to adopt measures appropriate to their fisheries. Policymakers can safeguard the health of the marine environment; they just need the will to implement these solutions.