For Another Year, Pacific Bigeye Tuna Go Without Strong International Protection

posted in: Fisheries, January 2014, Marine | 0

In the end, no one – at least none of those who were talking – seemed satisfied. Last month, after five days of intense negotiation in the Cairns, Australia, convention center, the tenth meeting of the Western and Central Fisheries Commission closed, having achieved little if anything to reduce pressure on stocks of bigeye tuna that have been subject to a decade or more of overfishing by both longline and purse seine fleets.Glenn Hurry, executive director of the commission, said he was disappointed by the group’s failure to adopt tougher measures to constrain fishing.


Amanda Nickson, director of the Pew Charitable Trust’s tuna conservation project, described the entire meeting as “enormously frustrating.”

“Despite more than a decade of scientific advice on the need to reduce fishing of bigeye, the commission failed to put adequate science-based conservation measures in place,” she said in a news release issued by her organization.

The European Union’s representative to the commission weighed in as well, stating that the EU was “disappointed by the lack of ambition of the new Conservation and Management Measure for tropical tunas… [M]ore drastic reduction of effort of purse seiners and of longliners would have been necessary to reduce bigeye tuna fishing to sustainable levels.”

Greenpeace International described the agreement as “a license to overfish.” “Nobody will benefit from this in the long term,” said Greenpeace spokeswoman Sari Tolvanen. “Fish will become harder and harder to catch as stocks decline.”

There was this from the World Wildlife Fund’s Bubba Cook: “It is heartbreaking to observe the various member states acknowledge the dire state in the fishery, but then take few meaningful steps to address the problem.”

On and on the withering comments came, as one after another non-governmental organization or association of fishing nations lashed out at the almost meaningless agreement that emerged from the WCPFC meeting.

Paper Cuts
That does not mean, however, that everyone left angry. There were definite winners; they probably had the good sense not to boast. Sean Martin, a Hawai`i longliner and a U.S. commissioner on WCPFC, responded to Environment Hawai`i’s invitation to remark on the outcome with a terse “No comment.”

Although all the science says that bigeye “fishing mortality” – i.e., fish that are caught – needs to be reduced 40 percent or more if stocks are to be restored to the point that reproduction is in equilibrium with removal, the Hawai`i fleet emerged relatively unscathed. In 2014, it can continue to catch up to its current quota of 3,763 metric tons. For the years 2015 and 2016, it is curbed about 5 percent (to 3,554 MT), and for 2017, it will operate under a limit of roughly 10 percent (3,345 MT).

But those limits mean little, since the Hawai`i Longline Association, representing most of the Honolulu-based boats, has executed agreements with U.S. territories in the Pacific that allow it to increase its catch by as much as 5,000 MT a year over and above its quota. According to the National Marine Fisheries Service’s Pacific Islands Regional Office, the Hawai`i longliners met their 2013 quota on December 4. Everything caught since then has been attributed to the catch of the Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands – and never mind that the vessels catching the tuna don’t need to go any further from Honolulu than an inch past the 200-mile limit of the U.S. exclusive economic zone. In other words, almost all the fresh ahi that comes to Hawai`i markets during the high season for sashimi does not count against the longliners’ annual catch limits. (The law that allows these arrangements with the territories expired December 31, but it is likely that another legal framework will be developed in the next few months to allow it to continue.)

According to one participant in the tuna negotiations, the United States’ adamant stance against further real cuts in the limits on Hawai`i longliners made it difficult for other parties to agree to tougher measures.

To be sure, the quota assigned to Hawai`i is the smallest of the six WCPFC member nations with substantial longline fleets. Japan’s quota of more than 19,000 tons of bigeye is far and away the largest, with South Korea coming in next at 15,014 MT. That is followed by Taiwan (11,288), China (9,938), and Indonesia (5,889). None of the fleets is being asked to reduce its longline catch for 2014. For 2015 through 2016, reductions in quotas range from 17 percent (China) to 14 percent (Japan) to no reduction at all (Indonesia).

The proposed reductions are far short of what is needed to reduce bigeye fishing by 40 percent, the amount scientists say is needed to make the fishery sustainable. Taken together, by 2017, longline fishing effort will be reduced by roughly 15 percent – and that is if every country lives within its limits and there are no disruptions to recruitment.

Pointing Fingers
In defense of the weak cuts proposed for the longline fleets, their advocates claim that the real damage inflicted on bigeye stocks is caused by the purse seiners that catch juvenile bigeye tuna in their huge nets deployed in the South Pacific.

In recent years, the tonnage of bigeye taken by the purse seine fleets has been roughly equal to that of the longliners. However, almost all the bigeye caught in the longline fishery are adults, while those in the purse seine nets are juveniles. That means, in terms of sheer numbers of individuals caught, the purse seiners’ catch is several times that of the longliners’.

This has led to a stand-off between the member nations of the WCPFC whose economic interests are aligned with the purse seiners, on the one hand, and those where longlining is held to have greater value, on the other. The former claim that the longliners are to blame for declining stocks, since they remove the reproducing animals. The latter point to the purse seiners’ removal of juveniles, which suppresses the stock’s future reproductive capability. (Recent research suggests that both gear types have an equal impact.)

Longliners also point to what is called the sub-optimal utilization of the fish taken by purse seiners. In 2012, the landed value of an adult tuna was $10 per kilogram, while that of a juvenile was $2/kg.

This disparity was noted in a press release issued by the Hawai`i-based Western Pacific Fishery Management Council the week before the WCPFC meeting. Council chairman Arnold Palacios stated that the “excessive purse seine catches of small bigeye means that 75 percent of the potential yield … is being lost. These small fish could grow up and become valuable adult fish, which could bring global economic benefits.”

The global economic benefits Palacios refers to are not so apparent to the purse seiners, however, which would forgo the income from the sale to canneries of the bigeye catch in order that longline profits could increase. Furthermore, since there is no feasible way to release juvenile bigeye from purse seine catches, and no surefire way of eliminating bigeye juveniles from the haul, reducing the bigeye catch would likely entail reducing the total number of purse seine sets. The United States, through Wespac, has devoted substantial funds to experiments aimed at finding a way to make purse seining more selective, but a solution remains elusive.

To address purse seine catches of bigeye, the WCPFC has restricted the practice of setting nets on fish aggregating devices, or FADs. The juvenile bigeye and also yellowfin tend to congregate with skipjack under FADs. Purse seine sets on free-swimming schools of skipjack tuna – the targeted species – tend to have fewer associated bigeye. But whether restrictions on FAD sets have had any effect on bigeye stocks is not known yet; the last stock assessment of bigeye for WCPFC was based on 2011 reported catches.

Not surprisingly, the purse seiners, as well as the small Pacific island states that derive a major part of their revenues from licensing purse seiners to fish in their territorial seas, oppose cuts that favor longliners over purse seiners.

This point was addressed in a paper published in 2012 in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Science. Although adult bigeye have a much higher market value than the juveniles, the authors write, “the multitude of fishing companies and the Pacific Island developing states all have divergent interests.” The authors – John Sibert of the Joint Institute for Marine and Atmospheric Research at the University of Hawai`i and John Hampton, Inna Senina, and Patrick Lehodey of the Secretariat of the Pacific Community – estimate that rebuilding bigeye stocks will take at least 15 years under the best environmental conditions.

Climate change could prolong or even derail the process, they caution. “Environmental changes induced by anthropogenic release of greenhouse gases should be clearly visible in the 2030s and will affect the BET stock… The future of the bigeye population will depend on timely implementation of effective conservation and management measures” as well as on mitigation efforts, they write.

* * *
Protection for Silky Sharks

The Asian appetite for shark fins continued to throw a wrench into negotiations over ways to protect depleted shark stocks in the Western and Central Pacific. As with proposals to conserve tunas, proposals to reduce shark finning and shark bycatch were discussed in meetings held outside the plenary sessions.

The only measure that emerged from the meeting was one to prohibit the retention, storage, transshipment, or landing of silky sharks, a species that has been severely depleted by longline fishing. That measure, proposed by the European Union, is to take effect July 1. An amendment, offered by Japan, specifies that the ban applies only to silky sharks caught in the area of the WCPFC’s jurisdiction. With many fishing vessels crossing the line into the Eastern Pacific, which is regulated by the Inter-American Tropical Tuna Commission, it is difficult to know how the ban will be enforced. While on-board observers might be able to log landings of silky sharks in the IATTC region, observers are present on only small fraction of vessels. For unobserved trips, it apparently will fall to the captain and crew to honestly report where any silky sharks were caught.

Another EU proposal would have required all sharks to be landed with fins attached naturally. This failed, as did a measure intended to protect oceanic white-tip sharks, another species that has been decimated by longline fishing.

Most of the opposition came from an alliance of Asian members, including Japan, South Korea, China, and Taiwan (or Chinese Taipei, as it is referred to in the WCPFC). While no one indicated they favored shark finning, they were unanimous in calling for more research, effectively putting off regulation for at least another year.

A representative of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species reminded the commission that with the listing of several species of sharks and rays, “the interaction of CITES with regional fishery management organizations has taken on new significance.” Among the species whose trade will be greatly restricted among member nations beginning September 14 are oceanic white-tip, great hammerhead, smooth hammerhead, and porbeagle sharks.

* * *
Wespac Personnel Join Island Delegations

The United States delegation to WCPFC consisted of four commissioners and 24 other delegates. Among the delegates were members and staff from two regional fishery councils (Wespac and the Pacific Fishery Management Council), staff from the National Marine Fisheries Service, two State Department representatives, a Coast Guard enforcement officer, and advocates from a variety of industry, private and non-governmental organizations, including the Hawai`i Longline Association, the American Tuna Boat Association, the Hawai`i Audubon Society, TriMarine, Bumble Bee, and Chicken of the Sea.

The three U.S.-flagged territories in the Pacific – American Samoa, Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands, and Guam – also had delegations at the meeting. But of the 10 total delegation members, half were not from the island territories they represented at all.

Of Guam’s three delegates, just one, Joseph Cameron, holds a position in the Guam government. The two other members were Ed Watamura, a Hawai`i fisherman and head of Wespac’s Advisory Panel, and McGrew Rice, a council member representing the charter fishery and hailing from Kona.

Of the CNMI’s three delegates, again, just one came from the islands. That was Arnold Palacios, who also is chair of Wespac this year. The two others were Ed Ebisui, a council member from Haleiwa, and Paul Callaghan, who heads up the council’s Scientific and Statistical Committee. (Callaghan, at least, has lived and worked in the Marianas archipelago for many years.)

The American Samoa delegation was led by Claire Poumele, the territory’s port administrator who was appointed last year to Wespac. William Sword, an American Samoa chief who has served on the council many years, was another delegate as was Keniseli Lafaele, director of the territory’s Department of Commerce. Rounding out the delegation was Eric Kingma, a Wespac staffer and close aide to council executive director Kitty Simonds.

One of the central issues discussed at the Cairns meeting was how to assess the burden that WCPFC regulations placed on small island developing states (SIDS) and territories. The South Pacific island nations generally banded together in pressing for recognition of their special rights, enshrined in convention language. While the U.S. territories might seem to have much in common with the SIDS, at no time did they indicate their support for the several measures proposed to elevate SIDS and territories.

Instead, they were used as a foil for the United States, which seemed resolutely opposed to the SIDS measures. One of the chief spokesmen for the U.S. delegation was Russell Smith, deputy assistant secretary for international fisheries from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. In commenting on one proposed measure to give special consideration to SIDS, Smith played the territorial hand. “The United States has three territories that participate in the commission,” he said, “and … we look after their interests. We share concerns about the impact of our actions, and we take on board the wise counsel of our territories – their perspective.”

On the rare occasions when the territorial delegations spoke up, it was usually to indicate their support for continuing discussions aimed at “progressing these important issues.”

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