Balancing the Pacific Ocean Scales

The vast blue expanse of the Western and Central Pacific Ocean stretches across one-third of the Earth's surface, from the archipelagos of Southeast Asia to the remote atolls of Kiribati.

This area, approximately 6,000 nautical miles across, is home to the world's largest tuna fishery as well as to threatened species, including the ocean's gentle giant, the whale shark.

In March, at the Western and Central Pacific Fisheries Commission (WCPFC) meeting, 26 member governments will make decisions that will affect this region and the species and economies that depend on it.

View photos of marine wildlife found in this region and their threats:

The World's Biggest Fish

Whale sharks grow up to 60 feet and live well past 60 years. These giant voyagers are filter feeders, eating microscopic prey and small fish. They are also in trouble, listed by the International Union for Conservation of Nature as vulnerable to extinction.

According to the Western and Central Pacific Fisheries Commission (WCPFC), fishing nets killed approximately 60 whale sharks in the region in 2009.

Massive tuna vessels often deploy purse-seine nets around whale sharks in order to catch the tuna that swim with them. When the net is cinched together to trap the school of fish, the whale shark caught within is frequently harmed or killed. More than 10 percent of those that are trapped don't survive. The fate of those released is unknown.

Member governments of the WCPFC are being urged this March to support a move that would prohibit deliberately fishing on, and around, whale sharks. In addition, another proposal would require that another threatened species, oceanic whitetip sharks, be released if captured in tuna-fishing nets and on longlines.

This would match the protection afforded to this shark species last year by the Inter-American Tropical Tuna Commission (IATTC) in the Eastern Pacific.

What's on the Table for Tuna?

More than 50 percent of the world's tuna catch comes from waters managed by the WCPFC.

According to the Commission's Scientific Committee, bigeye are being overfished, yellowfin are fished to the limit of sustainability, and skipjack need to be watched closely.

Unfortunately, the number of industrial fishing vessels continues to increase at a time when stocks indicate a need for catch limits. Additionally, these vessels use fish aggregating devices (FADs), rafts of flotsam that concentrate all sorts of ocean wildlife, including tuna and sharks, to maximize their catch.
It is estimated that tens of thousands of FADs drift in the Western Pacific alone.  While international treaties demand that fishing vessels manage this gear to limit impacts on the ocean ecosystem, compliance with these requirements is dismal.

2012 could be a turning point for the WCPFC—the world's largest tuna fishery—as a new conservation and management measure for tropical tuna is on the table for negotiation and adoption. The eight Pacific island nations referred to as the Parties to the Nauru Agreement already have a ban on ‘setting on whale sharks' in their collective waters, which are larger in area than the European continent.

Find out more about the WCPFC and pending decisions to protect other sharks and to combat illegal, unregulated, and unreported fishing.