Closing the Pacific's Tuna Highway

They are often called the Ferraris of the sea, sleek blue fish that can weigh up to 700 kg and cruise through the oceans at up to 70 km per hour, covering vast distances. They are under increasing threat as fishing techniques grow more sophisticated.

Despite a decision to close four pockets of seas to tuna fishing in the Western and Central Pacific Ocean, the measure apparently hasn’t arrested the decline of bigeye tuna stocks, according to the executive director of the Western and Central Pacific Fisheries Commission.

In a speech delivered during the 14th National Tuna Congress, Glenn Curry said increasing global demand for canned and processed tuna products is putting a strain on tuna stocks worldwide.

The World Wildlife Fund began warning in 2008 that the yellowfin and bigeye fisheries in the western and central Pacific face collapse if dramatic changes are not made in the way they are harvested.

The Eastern Pacific stock of yellowfin tuna is overfished and skipjack “could easily slip into a vulnerable state due to overfishing if improperly managed,” the WWF reported. “According to information collected by the International Seafood Sustainability Foundation Scientific Advisory Committee, overfishing is occurring in Eastern and Western Pacific Oceans. Bluefin tuna populations have declined severely from overfishing and illegal fishing over the past few decades –not just Atlantic Bluefin tuna, but also Pacific Bluefin tuna and Southern Bluefin tuna. Population declines have been largely driven by the demand for this fish in high end sushi markets.

Since that time, the fisheries commission has sought a number of different measures to slow the destruction of the fishery. Areas of the vast fishery have periodically been put off limits, particularly off the Philippines, putting heavy pressure on the economy of General Santos City, the major port at the southern tip of Mindanao in the Philippines.

Among the steps being considered now is expanding a ban on tuna fishing using fish aggregating devices, which by themselves are also subject to further debate and discussion. At present, the fishing commission has imposed an annual three-month ban on them. The annual ban on FAD fishing runs from July through September.

Nobody quite knows why tuna are attracted to the devices, composed ropes, floats and other materials that apparently mimic the buildup of driftwood and seaweed found naturally in the ocean, seeking food in the vicinity and ranging several kilometers away from them. Tuna schools normally stay around the devices for a few days. Samaki Consultants, in a study on the devices, said fishing captains have reported finding individual schools of tuna that exceeded 1,500 metric tons in total weight and may hold more than a million individual fish.

The commission is also considering regulating and allocating catches of skipjack and yellowfin among its member countries. The commission closed four high seas pockets to tuna fishing for two years beginning late in 2009 in response to growing alarm over declining catches. The commission is expected to present a full report on the effectiveness of the conservation management measure later this year.

The commission’s Hurry, however said the four pockets of sea areas will remain closed to tuna fishing except in Pocket 1 where the Philippines was granted exclusive access beginning October 1 this year. The privilege will expire in February 28 but can be extended depending on the results of the WCPFC meeting in December.

Hurry said only the Philippines was able to present its case when the commission met in Guam in March this year.

“The Philippines (was able to) produce data of catch record,” Hurry told a press conference last week. In addition to the strong lobby made by the Philippine delegation in Guam headed by Mindanao Development Authority head Lualhati Antonino, the commission’s executive director likewise said the country was able convince the commission “that it is (engaged in) responsible (fishing).”

The commission has imposed strict regulations for 36 Philippine catcher vessels that will be allowed to fish in High Seas Pocket 1 located in an area of about 590,000 square kilometers north of Papua New Guinea and east of southern Indonesia.

This area has recently become a traditional fishing ground for Philippine tuna fishers. Pocket 1 will be open exclusively only to Philippine catcher vessels with a capacity of no more than 250 tonnes. Also, only traditional fresh and chilled catching vessels operating as a group will be given allowed in the area.

In addition, they will also have to allow observers on board and will have to report the volume, time and origin of their catches. Their catches will also have to be landed exclusively in General Santos City only.

“At the end of the day, it is market forces that drive producers to fish for more,” said Dexter Teng, operations manager of TSP Marine, one of the bigger tuna producers of General Santos City. Teng, however, said he is optimistic that the Philippines will be able to draw its own conservation measures and manage tuna stocks along the country’s fishing grounds. The local tuna industry is now united and is getting the needed support from the government, he added.

Bureau of Fisheries and Aquatic Resources director Asis Perez, meanwhile, said the government will continue to conduct research on tuna spawning grounds in the country and ensure that these are protected.

“We have to prove that we are worthy of the privilege of being able to again fish in the High Seas Pocket 1 on a permanent basis, not only until February 28, 2013,” Perez told delegates to the Tuna Congress.

(With reporting by Edwin Espejo, who blogs at Chronicles from Mindanao for Asia Correspondent)