Editorial: The High Cost of Cheap Tuna

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The 50 or so member states and participating non-members of the Western and Central Pacific Fisheries Commission can agree on very little. Yet when the commission’s chaotic eighth meeting concluded after five long and raucous days of plenary sessions, with tempers flaring and the fragility of the convention itself on prominent display, there was near unanimity on one point: When it comes to keeping stocks of Pacific bigeye tuna from crashing, the commission has been a helpless, dysfunctional bystander.

And let there be no doubt: bigeye tuna are not merely approaching an overfished state. The approach ended some time back, while the commission’s ineffectual 2008 conservation measure was in play. At present, the bigeye are well within the red zone, where urgent, meaningful action to rebuild stocks is essential.

Yet the commission could do nothing more than extend for less than a year the same tuna conservation measure that presided over the crash. That is better than nothing, but not by much. In some sectors regulated by the WCPFC, the take of bigeye has in fact increased in the three years that the limits imposed by the measure were in force. In sectors where the take has gone down, that reduction may not be a result of restraint on the part of fishers, but a reflection of a drop in the actual abundance of fish available to catch.

Why the paralysis?

In a nutshell, the fish are not being managed, or even regarded, as living creatures with life cycles that respond to environmental changes, but as economic commodities. Each delegation at the table is strongly motivated to maximize its share of an increasingly limited stock and minimize that of others.

Cue the Violins

The lengths to which the heads of delegation go to paint their concern for bigeye stocks in shades of purest white would be entertaining, if the situation were not so desperate. The chief U.S. negotiator, Russell Smith, for example, explained why the Hawai`i longline fleet should continue to enjoy its exemption from the 30 percent cuts foisted on most other member states, pointing out how scrupulously the fleet, subject only to a 10 percent reduction over its 2004 catches, abided by the commission’s rules.

Smith wanted, he said, “to emphasize that this is a fishery where we have complied, put in place appropriate regulations, appropriate systems for monitoring the catch, so as we approach our limits, we shut down the fishery. So we have shut down this fishery on three occasions, because we took our commitment to honoring our catch limits seriously, and we wanted to make sure our fleet did not go beyond that…. We are the country that has closed the fishery when we’ve reached the catch limit.”

Seriously? One can only wonder if Smith (or any other delegation head, for that matter) was aware of the shenanigans in 2011 that allowed the Hawai`i fleet to exceed its commission-imposed limits by more than 16 percent and which, for all practical purposes, allow it to fish in 2012 with virtually no limit at all.

Smith’s heart-rending description of the fleet included the statements that it is a fishery “that is very important to the people of Hawai`i, their culture, their subsistence,” and “90 percent – 99 percent of fish is consumed domestically.” The notions that the longliners practice subsistence fishing and that they sell 99 percent of the catch locally, foregoing lucrative markets in Asia and the U.S. mainland – well, they make for a good story, but no one who has seen the frenetic bidding at the Honolulu fish auction, with Japanese buyers on the phone to their Japanese clients, would give it credence.

Hardly more credible were the efforts of Papua New Guinea’s head delegate, Sylvester Pokajam, to depict his country and other South Pacific island states as weighed down by having to bear a disproportionate share of the economic burden accompanying bigeye conservation measures. PNG has allowed purse-seine fishing in its waters to increase exponentially, with each vessel paying handsomely for the privilege to drop its nets. The European Union allows tuna processed in PNG to enter its markets duty-free, almost certainly in return for concessions for European-flagged vessels. The head of the Japanese delegation, Masanori Miyahara, pointed out that Japan had spent some $400 million over the last five years to improve fisheries-related infrastructure in South Pacific island states, including construction of a fish market in PNG. In ongoing negotiations to renew the U.S. tuna treaty with South Pacific island states, Pokajam has been driving a hard bargain, with the United States now apparently prepared to offer $65 million for 9,000 days in which the U.S.-flagged purse seiners can fish in the region. (The current treaty is set to expire in June 2013.) PNG has exploited its rich tuna grounds for economic gain, often to the detriment of its own residents, displaced by cannery construction, and nearshore waters, polluted by cannery runoff.

Where To Now?

The commission ended its meeting with a promise by delegates to continue discussions over possible next steps to protect bigeye throughout the year, right up to the next commission meeting. (That is set to occur in the Philippines in December.)

Those discussions must include, at a minimum:

  • An end to exceptions: The special pleadings, such as those by the United States, only make it more difficult to achieve equity and consensus. If the commission’s scientific advisers say cuts of 30 to 35 percent from the present level of bigeye catch are needed, then everyone should labor under the same burden.
  • A limit to capacity: To date, the commission has done little to control fishing capacity, given that the species targeted by purse seiners – skipjack tuna – seems to be in good nick. But with the purse seiners capturing so many juvenile bigeye, recommendations that purse seine capacity be limited should be heeded.
  • Increased enforcement: The commission has adopted all kinds of measures intended to reduce the purse seine bycatch of bigeye, but, at the March meeting, the loopholes emerged. Many purse seiners don’t carry observers, despite commission requirements. The ban on FAD sets for three months is undercut when vessels use lights to draw fish during the night. Illegal, unreported, and unregulated fishing is undoubtedly occurring, but without requirements for port state inspectors and other measures, it will continue – or, more likely, grow.

On its own, the commission may find it difficult to arrive at consensus. That’s where intervention by an educated public may come into play.

Anymore, it is not enough that canned tuna be dolphin-safe. Consumers should ask whether it has been caught using methods that reduce bycatch of other species as well – and not just bigeye tuna, but whale sharks, cetaceans, and turtles.

The canneries that pack the tuna also should be scrutinized. Are workers treated fairly? Are coastal waters, often the chief source of protein for nearby residents, being impaired by cannery operations? Are the canneries themselves operated in a sanitary fashion?

Getting answers to these questions may not be easy, but it is imperative that consumers begin to educate themselves about the high cost of cheap tuna. It may not be enough to bring bigeye back, but it may give commission members enough spine to start behaving in the best interests of the resource rather than their fishing-industry constituents.

Volume 22, Number 11 May 2012

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