03/22/2012 - Decisions affecting the world’s largest tuna fishery, its biggest fish, and the economies of some of the smallest countries will be made when representatives of more than 25 governments gather for the Western and Central Pacific Fisheries Commission (WCPFC) annual meeting from March 26-30.
“These governments will make decisions about important measures to divide the region’s tuna resources, enact shark protection measures, and combat illegal fishing,” said Sue Lieberman, the Pew Environment Group’s director of International Policy.
New conservation measures for tuna?
More than 50 percent of the world’s tuna catch comes from waters managed by the WCPFC, which regulates fishing in an area covering almost 20 percent of the Earth’s surface.
According to the commission’s Scientific Committee, bigeye tuna, used in sushi and as tuna steak, are being overfished; yellowfin tuna are being caught to the limit of sustainability; and skipjack, the variety commonly found in cans on supermarket shelves, must be watched closely. The number of industrial fishing vessels engaged in these fisheries is increasing, but scientific data indicates a need for catch limits.
To maximize their haul, fishermen deploy fish aggregating devices (FADs), which attract various kinds of ocean wildlife, including sharks. It is estimated that tens of thousands of FADs are adrift in the waters of the western Pacific Ocean. Although international treaties call on fishing operations to manage this type of gear to limit impacts on ocean life, in practice there is little or no oversight.
“This year could be a turning point for the WCPFC, as the opportunity for a new conservation and management measure for tropical tunas is on the table,” said Gerry Leape, a senior officer for International Policy with the Pew Environment Group. “We call on all WCPFC governments to put long-term stability ahead of short-term self-interest so that this tuna fishery can retain its status as the world’s most productive well into the future.”
What's in it for sharks?
There are no limits on the number of sharks that can be caught in the WCPFC area, which stretches approximately 6,000 nautical miles. Oceanic whitetip sharks, once abundant but now listed as vulnerable, are routinely caught in nets and on longlines, a type of fishing gear with thousands of baited hooks suspended from lines that extend 100 kilometers (60 miles) underwater.
The increasing demand for shark fins, primarily as an ingredient in soup, gives fishermen little incentive to release the animals alive. Fins of various species have been observed in the marketplace at prices up to $1,000 per pound (453 grams).
There is evidence that even when it is illegal to do so, fishermen often remove the sharks’ fins at sea and dispose of the carcasses overboard. A proposal to be submitted by the United States at this meeting would prohibit catching or landing oceanic whitetips.
Member governments of the WCPFC are also being urged to support a ban on deliberate fishing near whale sharks. Massive tuna vessels sometimes use whale sharks, the world’s largest fish, as “living FADs,” throwing their nets around them in order to catch tuna that swim nearby. When the net is cinched to snare the tuna, the whale shark can be harmed or killed.
More than 10 percent of these enormous animals die when they are trapped, and the fate of those released is unknown. Whale sharks are listed by the International Union for Conservation of Nature as “vulnerable to extinction” and are also protected by the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species.
“It’s time WCPFC members recognized that this organization has done virtually nothing to safeguard sharks,” said Matt Rand, who directs Pew’s Global Shark Conservation Campaign. “They can change this by protecting two threatened shark species, which have been placed in peril in large part because of inaction and greed. Killing sharks just for their fins is unconscionable and is causing many species to face extinction.”
Curtailing illegal fishing
One study estimates the economic loss from illegal, unreported, and unregulated fishing in this region at 21 to 46 percent of the reported catch, which is valued at up to $1.5 billion a year.
“Until criminal fishing is stopped, this commission’s ability to oversee and manage fisheries in the region will be undermined,” said Jeff Wise, director of Pew’s Global Campaign to End Illegal Fishing. “Some countries allow their ports to be used by illegal operators, sometimes unwittingly. Others, either on their own or in cooperation with like-minded States, have begun to restrict port access as a means of controlling pirate fishing.”
This year, member countries of the WCPFC must move from discussion to results by adopting measures to monitor suspicious vessels seeking entry to their harbors. These efforts should include helping developing States build their capacity to enforce illegal fishing regulations at port.
A delegation from the Pew Environment group will be attending the WCPFC meeting, encouraging member governments to take the necessary steps to continue to improve fisheries management in the Pacific Ocean.