Analysis

WCPFC Resorts to Status Quo for Overfished Bigeye Tuna

Member governments find agreement on measure to reduce catches of threatened shark populations

The world’s largest tuna fishing grounds will remain under threat from unsustainable management after members of the Western and Central Pacific Fisheries Commission (WCPFC) delayed action on new conservation measures, according to The Pew Charitable Trusts.

The governments that make up the WCPFC concluded its 11th regular session in Apia, Samoa, Dec. 5 with no agreement on a new plan to reduce the catch of bigeye tuna, which scientists say is overfished in the region.

“These waters provide more than just fish for commercial vessels. They are a living resource that many islands depend on for economic security,” said Amanda Nickson, Pew’s director of global tuna conservation. “It is of great concern when the WCPFC gavels another meeting to a close without taking any meaningful action to improve bigeye sustainability. Member countries must look beyond national interests and fulfil their mandate to responsibly manage this fishery.  Without action, consumers of tuna, the ocean, and the Pacific peoples will suffer.”

The most recent stock assessment found that fishing in the western and central Pacific Ocean has reduced the bigeye tuna population to 16 percent of its original, unfished size. According to scientists, the management measures in place since 2013 will not help the species recover. Still, after lengthy debate, commission members could only agree to extend the current inadequate regime, with no agreement on needed additional actions.

Governments rejected a proposal to improve management of fish aggregating devices (FADs), the artificial floating objects used to attract fish. FADS today use new technologies that dramatically increase fishing efficiency, but they also lead to bycatch of other species and young tuna that haven’t reached reproductive age. The lack of action on FADs means vessels can continue to use this fishing gear largely without limit.

“The inability of governments to come together and compromise on an issue of such urgency underscores the need for reference points and harvest control rules,’’ Nickson said. Reference points are benchmarks that can be used to gauge the health and performance of fisheries.  “Agreeing to a set of measures that clearly lay out what management actions must be taken when a population declines is the only way members of this commission can ensure stocks that are in good shape today stay that way.”

Another fish stock in the region, the severely depleted population of Pacific bluefin tuna, will get some relief from overfishing. Commission members agreed to cut the total catch of juvenile bluefin in western and central Pacific waters by 50 percent from the average level seen between 2002 and 2004.

Sharks will also benefit from new protections. The WCPFC adopted an amended version of a proposal from the Pacific Islands Forum Fisheries Agency that will start to reduce shark bycatch in tuna fisheries and mandate that scientists analyze targeted shark fisheries to ensure they are sustainable.

“This is a step in the right direction for shark management, but stronger, more comprehensive action is urgently needed if sharks are to survive,” said Luke Warwick, manager of shark conservation for Pew. “Right now, Pacific island governments are leading the way in halting declines in shark populations. They’re implementing sanctuaries with the understanding that a live shark in the water is worth more than a dead shark on a boat’s deck. The WCPFC must step up and support this progress.”

Member governments also agreed to fund a trial project to pay for several coordinator positions in key ports to help improve the collection of scientific data and information on fish landings. Updates to a separate measure will help provide a standardized accounting of fishing vessels, with provisions to improve the timeliness, quality, and transparency of the official record, including the recording of International Maritime Organization numbers for authorized vessels.

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