Big Trouble for Bigeyes

Although the world’s largest tuna stocks are in growing danger of collapse, the countries battling over how to divvy up the diminishing bigeye and yellowfin tuna in the Pacific Ocean are giving no ground. They met recently in Busan, Korea to argue over the fate of the Pacific’s stocks, which account for 55 percent of the tuna eaten worldwide, but refused the advice of their own scientific committee to make drastic cuts in the amount of tuna taken, settling for a far smaller cut in the catch and probably guaranteeing a thinning fishery.

The Western and Central Pacific Fisheries Commission, which governs the annual catch, met as environmentalist activists circled them with a plan, for instance, to publicize the inaction by stuffing a large fake bigeye tuna into a coffin and marching it around outside the posh Lotte Hotel in downtown Busan where the commission was holding its annual conference behind closed doors and away from the prying eyes of the press and the environmentalists.

The environmental activists – Greenpeace members from across the world and the Korea Federation for Environmental movement, the country’s largest environmental group, intended to dress in traditional Korean hemp funeral garb in a publicity stunt designed to bring attention to scientific evidence that the Pacific stocks are in deadly decline.

The Busan police had different thoughts on the idea. They cited an obscure regulation that funeral processions couldn't be held in public places and the environmentalists were forced to leave the coffin-stuffed tuna back at the docked Esperanza, the largest expedition ship of the Greenpeace fleet. South Korea, where a tin of Dongwon tuna is the cheapest form of protein next to chicken eggs, is not a fertile place for opposition to tuna fishing. There was little attention in the Korean media about conservation measures to protect the fish.

In the week prior to the conference, Sari Tolvanen, 31, a Greenpeace activist, strung a giant “SOS TUNA” banner on the locally famous Haeundae Beach, but she garnered little response from the public at large. Nonetheless, the environmentalists were in force at the congress-like setting as the delegates argued over the fate of the Pacific’s stocks.

The fishing grounds the commission has authority over range from the Hawaiian Islands to the coast of the Asian continent and down to the far South Pacific waters of New Zealand and Australia. In monetary terms, they are in charge of managing a fishery worth US$4 billion to US$5 billion. It is an endangered one, with fishing capacity across the globe now exceeding available stocks fourfold, according to a February, 2008 study by the United Nations Environment Programme, with the Southeast and Northwest Pacific Oceans particularly in danger.

But, according to the study, “A major reason why the decline has not become more evident is likely because of advances in fishing efficiency, shift to previously discarded or avoided fish, and the fact that the fishing fleet is increasingly fishing in deeper waters.”

"Basically the big fishing nations are not agreeing to scientific advice and would rather make a compromised deal. Scientists having been saying since 2001 that bigeye and yellowfin tuna are in decline," Tolvanen told Asia Sentinel at the conference. "There's word going around that there are ‘non-cooperating members’ that are not acting in good faith. They were very vocal and were interpreting international law as it suits them and not how the rest of the world interprets international law."

The non-cooperating members turned out to be Japan, South Korea, Indonesia, the Philippines and Taiwan. They are the nations that catch the highest numbers of tuna in the Pacific and throughout the week-long meeting they often refused to cede their positions in the face of hard science and the law of diminishing returns.

The science in question is from the commission’s own scientific committee, which has issued repeated warnings that bigeye and yellowfin stocks are in steep decline. The scientific committee recommended a 30 percent reduction of the catch for bigeye tuna. Yellowfin are also overexploited but not as threatened as the bigeyes. Skipjack and albacore are currently considered to be fully exploited as a fisheries resource and could later become vulnerable.


If such reductions are not made there is a possibility of a tuna fishery collapse, a state where it is commercially nonviable to put a fishing boat in the water because the chances of catching any of the target fish are slim to none. It could be likened to the 1990s collapse of Canada's north Atlantic cod fishery, once the richest fishing grounds in the world and within a century reduced to nothing by the world's factory fishing fleets

As Tolvanen explained, it was a matter of common sense sustainability and good business for the long term. Too many factory-sized fishing vessels are catching fewer fish of smaller size because of overfishing. It takes longer to fill the hull with the catch which means more money spent on fuel, wages and effort. If the 30 percent reduction was put into place, the stocks would have time to rebound and the fishing would be more productive in the future.

Greenpeace was pushing for a 50 percent reduction, but like the countries they opposed -- the ones that want to continue to overfish the Pacific despite the warnings by scientists—the scientific data was a point of contention. Because of the huge amount of illegal, underreported, and unregulated fishing that occurs on the high seas of the Pacific, it is difficult to ascertain just how bad the tuna stocks are getting hammered.

Although the commission’s scientific committee based their findings and recommendations on official data complied and submitted by the member countries, and they have no way to calculate the amount of pirate fishing by un-flagged vessels and the “fish laundering” of legitimate vessels that cheat on their quotas.

On the reduction issue, the commission made a hotly debated decision to make the cuts but over time: instead of the advised immediate 30 percent reduction, the catches will be reduced by 10 percent over the next three years. It wasn’t the hoped-for conclusion but the commission had other topics to debate as there is more than one way to protect future tuna stocks.

Another point of contention was based around the basic wisdom that any sport angler knows by heart: fish are attracted to structure--be it a submerged tree in a bass lake, groupers hanging out under a boat dock or barracuda swimming through the window of sunken ship. Fishing around structure will always be the best bet to catch fish.

The global factory fishing industry has known this for a long time and has taken this concept to the extreme: in the vast open waters of the Pacific, little structure exists so structure is created. Called fish aggregation devices or FADs, they are platform buoys attached to hundreds of meters of rope and anchored with concrete blocks. They can attract up to a million individual fish, many of them juveniles, and many of them not the desired target species as they circle around the buoyed line, drawn to it like metal to a magnet.

Fishing around these structures results in the further decimation of tuna stocks by killing off the younger fish and also producing a wasteful by-catch that ranges from sharks to sea turtles. With more compromises, the commission agreed to ban the use of FADs for two months in 2009 and for three months in 2010.

The final embattled issue was the protection of "high seas pockets" or "donut holes." Scattered across the southern Pacific are the nations of Papua New Guinea, the Solomon and Cook Islands, Nauru and others and encircling each island or archipelago are territorial waters and an exclusive economic zone in which each country has sovereign fishing rights.

Although the bubble-like zones squeeze together, most touching each other, there are gaps or “high seas pockets” in the zones. The pockets are international waters, the lawless high seas where surveillance is nil and no one is watching. According to Greenpeace, pirate fishing and unreported and unregulated catches are commonplace. The idea is to close the pockets and create marine reserves where tuna stocks and other fish have a place to replenish their numbers.

"We know we have the last remaining healthy tuna fisheries in the world," said Anouk Ride, of the Pacific Island Forum Fisheries Agency which is composed of 17 countries and territories scattered across the south Pacific.

She laid out the numbers: the Pacific island nations catch 200 million tonnes annually and all of the "distance water fishing vessels" (fishing boats of other farther-flung nations) vacuum up a billion tonnes combined. "Some countries are rich with oil, we are rich with fish," she said.

The Pacific island nations she pointed out are founded on a fishing economy. Other countries such as the US, Japan or Korea have car factories, steelyards or agriculture to fall back on if the tuna fisheries go kaput, but for a small atoll-sized pacific island like Fiji, if the tuna stocks collapse, the local economy would collapse with it. Sustaining the tuna population means sustaining their entire society.

On the last day, the only country arguing against the closure of the high seas pockets was South Korea. They have much to lose. The country’s small-sized exclusive economic zones waters are chronically overfished, increasingly polluted, and its two neighbors, Japan and China, also have overfished their own territorial waters. The coast guards of each country play a cat-and-mouse game, arresting fishermen of each nationality as they interlope into each other’s waters to poach. Last September, a Chinese fishing crew strangled a Korean Coast Guard officer and dumped him overboard.

The territorial waters of Japan, Korea, China and Taiwan are near depletion and to close off the high seas pockets would close off badly needed fish-rich waters to feed their respective seafood and sashimi-hungry populations. To gain sizable catches, they need to roam further and further south and into the waters of the South Pacific.

While Japan, Korea, China and Taiwan have well-developed coast guards and navies to protect their sovereign waters from fish-poaching pirate boats, the smaller islands nations are not so well funded and cannot monitor and enforce their vast blue-water boundaries. Illegal fishing occurs within their territorial waters and then the pirate boats flee back to the international waters of the “donut holes” and escape detection.

“They are worse than [expletive] Somali pirates,” said a delegate asking not to be named, referring to Asian distant water fishing vessels. He was from a small Pacific Island nation and besides negotiating fishing agreements; he had to consider other influences such business deals being cut in the background unrelated to tuna conservation.

He likened the situation for the South Pacific nations as equivalent to foreign countries making forays into oil rich Arab countries, setting up temporary outlaw oil wells, sucking up a few million barrels and splitting with the loot via ocean-going tankers.

In the last two hours before the final close of the session, South Korea finally assented and agreed to the closure of two of the three high seas pockets. The last compromise to be made until next year’s meeting.

Dr. Carl Safina, a marine biologist, author and fisheries conservationist, he has likened global overfishing to “the last buffalo hunt,” the dark chapter of American history where the once bountiful buffalo were hunted to near extinction for profit because of greed and short-sightedness. Safina has been a leading advocate for the protection of the bigfin tuna in the Atlantic. He was dismayed by the recent decision of the International Commission for the Conservation of Atlantic Tunas (ICCAT) to ignore their own scientists’ warnings about an entire fishery collapse. Instead they instituted catch quotas much higher than suggested and also allowed for fishing during the spawning period. Their decision was lambasted as an international disgrace by scientists and environmental groups around the world.

The delegates to the Korea meeting “seem to be doing better and learning more from ICCAT. They are more dependent on their resources and have more to lose,” said Dr. Safina by email about decisions made at the Busan meeting. “In Europe and the US, the politicians just please the screaming fishermen—very short-term. Is it enough? I don’t know. Where will the Pacific be in 40 years? I can’t say; it depends entirely on what people do or don’t do.”

In the end, the WCPFC did just enough to avoid being labeled an “international disgrace” like ICCAT but they didn’t do enough to protect the bigeye tuna according to their own scientific advice.