Editorial: As Commission Dithers, Tunas Decline

posted in: Editorial, Fisheries, January 2014, Marine | 0

Five years ago, scientists pushed for a 30 percent reduction in bigeye tuna catches made in the Western and Central Pacific. That was the amount that was required, they said, to rebuild the stock to the point it could be sustainably fished. Today, most scientists agree a 40 percent cut is required to achieve the same goal.

In other words, the Western and Central Pacific Fisheries Commission’s 2008 plan to curb overfishing of bigeye has left the fish in even worse shape.The lesson that the WCPFC should have drawn from that is that weak regulations, filled with loopholes and exemptions as the 2008 measure was, are not up to the task.

But at the WCPFC meeting last month in Cairns, that lesson seems to have been lost. Negotiators for the members that benefit most from the industrialized catch of tuna – developed nations with large longline and purse seine fleets as well as small island states that sell them fishing rights in territorial seas – came up with a final measure that, if anything, is even weaker than the admittedly ineffectual 2008 scheme.

Not to worry, though. This coming year, scientists are scheduled to make another stock assessment of bigeye tuna. The commission will revisit its rule to take account of the updated assessment, if need be, when it meets next December.

No one seriously believes that agreeing on cuts will be easier then than it was at Cairns, when an agreement was hammered out behind closed doors and finalized only in the closing moments of the meeting. Year after year, as the tuna grow more and more scarce, agreements are more and more difficult to reach.

But in the meeting halls and back rooms of WCPFC, the chief concern is not for the welfare of fish stocks but for the economic value that each member nation can wring from the ongoing exploitation of an increasingly limited resource.

Bigeye are not the only fish in trouble. Pacific bluefin tuna have been fished down to a point where their population is thought to be less than 4 percent its size before fishing began. Silky sharks and oceanic white-tip sharks are so depleted they are in line for protection through the Convention on the International Trade in Endangered Species. Yellowfin tuna are deemed to be in relative good health – so long as fishing effort on that species does not increase.

The WCPFC was intended to impose a regulatory scheme on the vast expanses of the Pacific that, until a decade ago, were not governed by any regional fishery management organization. Given the limp regulations it has approved, given its lack of sanctions for members who violate them, given its increasing lack of transparency, and most of all, given its failure to act meaningfully in the face of sharp declines in important fish populations, it may be time to rethink its rationale. Could the bigeye be in any worse trouble now than if WCPFC didn’t exist?

Shame on Wespac
The United States is one of the leaders of WCPFC, but it has lost credibility among other nations at the table as a result of its staunch defense of the Hawai`i longliners. Not only were they not subject to the same cuts in 2008 as the other nations (the reasons for which go back to a closure of the Hawai`i longline fishery in the early part of the decade), but now, with the recent charter arrangements between the Hawai`i Longline Association and U.S.-flagged Pacific territories, they don’t even have to comply with the modest cuts in the current management measure for bigeye. Once the National Marine Fisheries Service calculates that the WCPFC quota for bigeye has been reached by the longline fleet – which occurred December 4 last year – the catch is merely attributed to the territory.

In other words, although the longliners’ nominal catch limit is 3,763 metric tons of bigeye, they can bring in another 5,000 tons without technically violating the WCPFC conservation measure. As one of the U.S. delegation members put it, any cuts imposed on the longliners are “paper cuts.”

Other nations at the table are fully aware of these shenanigans, which hamper the U.S. in its efforts to rein in fishing efforts by other major players, such as Japan, Korea, and China. That the United States should be hobbled by the demands of the HLA and its agent, the Western Pacific Fishery Management Commission, is shameful.

Adding to the shame was the makeup of the delegations from U.S. territories that participate as cooperating non-members in the commission. Of the ten total members in the delegations from Guam, Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands, and American Samoa, five are people who are on Wespac’s payroll, are council members, or are council advisors who do not live in the territory to whose delegation they were assigned. Two more are current council members, while a third is a former council member.

At a meeting where South Pacific island states were calling on the commission to live up to the promise in the establishing treaty to help in their development, the failure to join in such demands by the U.S.-flagged islands was conspicuous. The fact that their delegations were salted with Wespac ringers insured that they would not undermine the U.S. position by joining forces with the island states with which, after all, they naturally have far more in common.

To be sure, the WCPFC is probably no worse, and perhaps even better, than other regional fishery management organizations. Indeed, whenever political bodies are tasked with working out deals that allocate limited natural resources – be they fish, timber, minerals, or water – economic interests seem to trump all others.

But as Callum Roberts so eloquently argues in his book Ocean of Life, there is a limit to the abuse that our living environment can take – and we are rapidly approaching that limit. “We have not yet felt the real cost of our activities but payback is on its way,” he warns.

Long long ago, a television ad for a brand of margarine featured an angry Mother Nature, fooled into thinking the spread on her bread was butter. “It’s not nice to fool Mother Nature,” she scolded.

Not only is it not nice to try, it is also impossible. Whatever schemes humans devise to try to fool nature, whether it be fiddling with fishery catch limits, negotiating meaningless deals over carbon emissions, or compromising sound conservation principles to accommodate economic development, in the end, we are only fooling ourselves. And more and more, nature is showing us that the consequence of that folly is catastrophic. The sooner our negotiators recognize that and put politics – and economics – in their proper place, the better off we will all be.

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