Taiwan's Oversize Tuna Fleet

Environmentalists are accusing Taiwanese authorities of complicity in the overfishing of tuna in the western and central Pacific Ocean, charging that the island's Fishery Agency has allowed local fishermen to use subterfuges to vastly increase the size of their fishing fleet.

Taiwan operates by far the biggest tuna fleet in the region. According to Greenpeace, the total tonnage of new purse seiners putting out to sea over the past five years is five times that of Japan, 14 times more than China itself and 38 times that of South Korea. Between 2007 and this year alone, Greenpeace charges, Taiwan’s Fishery Agency approved 22 new purse seiners to go after fish species including herring and tuna.

As Asia Sentinel reported on Aug. 14, rapacious fishing fleets have nearly denuded a vast area of the southwestern Pacific Ocean of tuna. In 2010, more than 306,000 square miles of open seas south of Micronesia and north of Indonesia and Papua New Guinea were closed to fishing.

Although the Pacific supports a tuna fishery worth US$1.8 billion annually, accounting for a third of global catches, conservationists including the World Wildlife Fund and Greenpeace have repeatedly warned that five of the eight tuna species are at risk of extinction, with all three Bluefin species – southern, Atlantic and Pacific – susceptible to collapse from overfishing. Australia has begun attempting to raise Bluefin in ponds. An International Union for Conservation of Nature study said seven of the 61 species of so-called “scombrid” or billed fish, are under severe threat.

Including vessels properly registered with the Fishery Agency as well as those built with Taiwanese investments but sailing under foreign flags, currently 72 big purse seiners are plying the western and central Pacific for Taiwan. (Purse seiners take their name from the large nets that can be set by two boats to circle a school of fish and arranged so that after the ends have been brought together, the bottom can be closed.) This easily makes the island the number one purse seine ship operator in the region. All signs are that international fishing agreements are being undermined and that Taipei's pledges to work for the meaningful recovery of Pacific tuna stocks are hollow, critics say.

Greenpeace activists recently carried out one of the group's hallmark stunts in the southern port city of Kaohsiung, unfurling a large protest banner at Ching Fu Shipbuilding, one of East Asia's largest shipyards. The activists say the Fishery Agency has not lived up to a 2008 agreement to follow the Western and Central Pacific Fisheries Commission’s (WCPFC) advice to limit the number of fishing days for its tuna fleets, making up for what it loses by allowing local shipbuilders to produce ever more sophisticated ships with much larger storage capacity.

A conspicuously significant number of ships are built for putatively foreign clients, for which Taiwan's Fishery Agency is not responsible but which nonetheless prey on skipjack – the tuna type mainly targeted – in the same corners of the ocean.

The Fishery Agency says everything is above board. They say the right to build a vessel is only granted when an old one is replaced with a new one of the same tonnage, adding that the number of purse seiners in Taiwan remains at 34, not the 72 listed by environmentalists.

Taiwan’s fishery management capacity has been well recognized by the international community, the authority proudly proclaims on its web site. Taiwan, the agency says, is frequently among the few countries commended for compliance by the International Commission for the Conservation of Atlantic Tunas (ICCAT), an agency that environmentalists criticize.

Greenpeace activist Kao Yu-shen picked the Fishery Agency's assertions into pieces in an interview with Asia Sentinel. The deception, she says, began after 2008, when the WCPFC implemented a “vessel day scheme” to conserve rapidly depleting tuna stocks, replacing the old system under which countries granted yearly fishing licenses to foreign ships wishing to operate in their waters.

“Before the reform, no matter if longliner [a term for a long line with baited hooks for tuna, swordfish, etc.] or purse seiner, for each new hull-tonne, an old one had to be scrapped, but now it's only length that counts for the purse seiners,” Kao said.

“That means the Fishery Agency lies if it says that all newly built fishing vessels are simply replacements of old boats because purse seiners no longer fall under the tonnage regulation,” she added. “Through categorization by length, an old 60-meter purse seiner hull with 800-tonne capacity may be replaced by a new 60-meter one of 2,000 tonnes.”

Kao added that it is presumably this questionable regulation that impels tuna companies from countries such as South Korea, the US and Australia to come to Taiwan for new vessels despite having shipbuilding facilities of their own.

A glance at the development of Taiwan's fishery industry makes it apparent that the story is hardly surprising. Du Yu, a Taiwanese fishery and agriculture expert with the Chen-Li Task Force for Agricultural Reform, sympathizes with Taiwan's fishermen and portrays them as the main victims.

“Taiwan occupies a spot where the Kuroshio and Oyashio currents meet, which once guaranteed abundant fishery resources. But a lack of strategy and inappropriate development destroyed this natural asset,” he said, adding that Taiwan once had the highest fishing port density in the world, but that today many are abandoned.

“Mullet, eel, tuna and flying fish have all but disappeared from coastal waters, while gourmet fish produced in domestic aquaculture are exported to mainland China, so that the Taiwanese themselves must make do with consuming imported frozen fish,” Du Yu said.

Although the government funds the release of fry and the establishment of artificial reefs, the total annual output of coastal fisheries has nonetheless declined from 50,000 tonnes to 28,000 in the last decade.

To eke out a living under these circumstances, Taiwan's fishermen have been forced to turn their attention from large, pricy species to small, low-value ones, and from predators to planktivores, he said.

Du Yu shifts the blame onto the authorities.

“In face of the depletion, the Taiwanese government still continues to replace old ships with more efficient purse seiners and longliners for predator catch,” he said. “Greenpeace has long been warning that Taiwan turns its pledges for sustainability into an international laughing stock, and the fishery authority certainly does owe [us] an answer.”