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World's Largest Tuna Body Grants Protection for Whale Sharks, But Continues to Endorse Overfishing

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The conservation outcomes from a week-long meeting in Manila, Philippines were mixed as 25 governments strengthened protection for whale sharks and took some action on illegal fishing, but failed to stop overfishing of bigeye tuna in the Pacific.

“Governments at the Western and Central Pacific Commission (WCPFC) annual meeting talked about doing the right thing and made some progress on key issues, but when it came down to the wire, they failed to end overfishing of bigeye tuna or take broad decisions for sharks,” said Gerry Leape, Pew's delegation head. “This continued impasse, where countries fail to work together, needs to end. If not, it's likely that governments will return year after year to discuss the worsening state of fish stocks.”

Big Win for Whale Sharks, No Action for All other Sharks

Whale sharkThe commission adopted a proposal to ban setting of purse seine nets around whale sharks, which are assessed as ‘Vulnerable' by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) and are listed on Appendix II of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Fauna and Flora.

Vessels fishing for tuna use this method because tuna tend to aggregate under the sharks and other large floating objects. But, because the whale sharks become entangled in the nets, this fishing method often leads to their deaths.

The new tuna commission rule also requires fishing vessels to try to free any whale sharks accidentally caught and requires that vessels report any incidents involving whale sharks. A similar measure was considered at the last meeting in Guam, but failed.

“We are encouraged to see this measure to protect the whale shark and prevent further decline of this threatened species,” said Angelo Villagomez, of the Pew Environment Group's global shark conservation campaign, who attended the meeting this week. “It is unfortunate, however, that that no other positive action on sharks was taken.”

The commission missed opportunities to protect other at-risk shark species, reduce shark bycatch (sharks caught incidentally in fishing gear targeting other species), and close loopholes in its finning ban.

That means another year will pass during which the vast majority of shark species in the Pacific won't be managed by WCPFC.

While some countries in the region have been extremely proactive by declaring their waters in to shark sanctuaries, most have done little to prevent the decline of shark populations. Since sharks are highly migratory and are caught across jurisdictional boundaries, improved shark conservation at both the national and WCPFC levels is vital. 

Governments Fail to End Overfishing of Tuna

During the same meeting, governments could not agree to follow the advice of the commission's own science advisers, who called for catch reductions of juvenile and adult bigeye. As a result, this species will continue to be overfished.

The commission failed to take any management measures on the use of fish aggregating devices (FADs), which are used by fisherman to attract tuna and other fish in the open ocean.

FAD fishing operations catch the majority of bigeye tuna in the WCPFC area. A Pew analysis released at this meeting revealed that an estimated 47,000 to 105,000 FADs are deployed worldwide to catch tuna. Commissioners were unable to agree to collect better information on FADs which are being used at record numbers with unknown consequences.

“Governments spent the week debating how much bigeye tuna overfishing to allow, rather than how to set limits that manage this stock sustainably,” said Adam Baske, a manager of the Pew Environment Group's global tuna campaign. “This is deeply disappointing and rejects the current science.”

High seas areas for purse seine fishing will remain open to the Philippines. No action was taken for the world's largest bluefin tuna fishery, despite this tuna being subject to overfishing, with the population in decline. 

Progress Made on Vessel Control

Flick the Switch will lessen the possibility of boats going into zones to illegally fish.

In a first for this region, all vessels will soon have to switch on vessel monitoring systems (VMS) when passing through the exclusive economic zones of WCPFC member countries from high sea areas. A VMS consists of an electronic device that records the position, speed, and course of a vessel and provides a system to track commercial fishing boats.

This initiative championed by the U.S. and Pacific island countries is called Flick the Switch. It will lessen the possibility of boats from going into zones to illegally fish.

In another first for the western and central Pacific, a commitment to develop a catch documentation scheme was also made. Completion of this scheme will result in the tracking of fish from sea to shelf, the monitoring of catches, and a reduction in the possibility that illegally caught fish will be offloaded.

Progress was also made on mandating vessels to have individual ID numbers, like license plates on cars, so they can be tracked and monitored. Although this was not endorsed at this meeting, discussions to develop recommendations for the next annual meeting will be high on the agenda for the next technical subcommittee of the body in 2013. 

About WCPFC

  • The WCPFC is responsible for open-water fishing that takes place in an area that covers almost 20 percent of the Earth's surface.
  • A large proportion of the tuna in the Pacific comes from the territorial waters of Small Island Developing States—“Large Aquatic States,” as many prefer to be called. These developing countries may have small land areas, but with waters extending 200 miles from shore, they are huge in terms of ocean resources.
  • WCPFC member governments have committed to valuing the unique social, economic, and geographic characteristics of the region. However, there are challenges in balancing the aspirations of developing coastal States with the historical and current fishing by distant-water fleets from the United States, European Union, Japan, South Korea, and Taiwan (also known as Chinese Taipei).
  • In spite of the new measures recently adopted by CCAMLR and ICCAT, WCPFC could not make any progress on port controls against illegal fishing. WCPFC is one of the few regional fisheries organizations that has not yet adopted any rules for port inspection of fishing vessels.

Interesting Facts

  • Recent analyses of whale shark interactions with purse seine fisheries found that purse seines set on whale sharks killed an estimated 56 sharks in 2009 and 19 animals in 2010.
  • Whale shark populations are depleted and are now assessed as Vulnerable globally by the IUCN. These sharks are highly vulnerable to fishing pressure because they are found in low abundance, are highly migratory, and reach reproductive maturity late in life.
  • In regions where whale sharks are known to aggregate, including the Philippines, ecotourism has proven to be an extremely lucrative alternative to fishing. It has been estimated that whale shark tourism, mainly through recreational diving, is worth about US$47.5 million worldwide each year.
  • FAD fishing is widespread and growing because of its increased efficiency—the devices allow more fish to be caught with less effort. This method is used to catch almost half of the world's tuna and is contributing to the overfishing of bigeye tuna across the Pacific Ocean. In addition, sea turtles, sharks and juvenile fish are often caught and killed in the process of FAD fishing.
  • On the opening day of the meeting, WCPFC executive director Glenn Hurry said bigeye tuna, was reaching its limits and measures must be taken to limit the catching of this species. Hurry said the region was producing about 151,000 tons of bigeye tuna annually which was too high and the catch should be reduced by 30 percent.