14 Sep 2014

Insight for 14 September 2014 - Chasing the Tuna Dollar

From Insight, 8:12 am on 14 September 2014

Three thousand hooks to catch ten tuna. That's the result of massive over-fishing in the waters in and around Fiji, according to the head of the local tuna association, Graham Southwick.

Insight reports from Fiji on calls for drastic action to rebuild some of the regions tuna stocks.

A school of yellow fin tuna encircled by a net

Yellowfin tuna inside a purse seine net Photo: Supplied / SPC

Listen to Insight - Chasing the Tuna Dollar

The Pacific is world's largest tuna fishery. 2.6 million tonnes of the fish are caught every year and the industry is valued at nearly $7 billion.

In the water's around Papua New Guinea, the Solomon Islands and Kiribati, skipjack tuna are hauled from onto vessels using nets called 'purse seines' by the canning industry.

Research indicates that the population of this fish is relatively healthy.

But the larger bigeye tuna, caught on long lines many kms long, is over-fished. Scientific reports released in the last month say it is now down to 16 percent of its original population.

The decline is due to over-fishing and the capture of too many juvenile fish by vessels using purse seine nets to catch skipjack tuna, yet the number and size of boats chasing the fish is on the increase.

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Photo: RNZ / Philippa Tolley

Graham Southwick, who is also the owner of local company Fiji Fish, has stopped catching tuna as it is no longer economically viable - especially when competing against subsidised vessels from other nations such as China or parts of the European Union. He believes too many licences have been issued over the years for boats to operate in seas inside Fiji's exclusive economic zone, and fewer fish make it into the domestic fishery as the nearby international waters are cleaned out.

"No-one can stop what's going on in the high seas currently ..the illegal fishing, the trans-shipment of fish from one boat to another ..it's just chaos going on out there, " he says.    

Man guides frozen tuna down a slide to waiting container

Frozen tuna are unloaded in Fiji from Taiwanese vessel Photo: RNZ / Philippa Tolley

Fiji Fish now relies on frozen product, albacore tuna, brought in by Taiwanese vessels roaming all over the Pacific, stacked in containers and sent overseas. The vessels that previously fished for tuna now focus on other species.

But some in the industry even have fears about the relatively healthy skipjack stocks.

The head of the Singapore based fish processing company Tri Marine, Phil Roberts is one of them.

"We wonder how much further this can go and whether or not the scientific advice will soon change from everything's fine to 'Whoah!' we got a problem here."
The fishing bloc of northern Pacific nations known as the PNA  has already introduced measures to sustain stocks and to give local countries a greater share of of the tuna wealth, rather than the resource being used by what are known as distant water fishing nations.

Those from outside the region, such as Korea, China, Spain or the United States, have to buy fishing days and then have to agree to restrictions in nearby international waters if they want to operate in-zone,  according to the head of the PNA, Transform Aqorau.

PNA head, Transform Aqorau

PNA head, Transform Aqorau Photo: RNZ / Philippa Tolley

He'd like the same system applied to the often uncontrolled long liners fishing for bigeye and another tuna species, yellowfin.

"The best thing to do would be to close off the high seas to long line boats. That would contribute quite significantly to bring bigeye stocks back up to where we want them to be,"  saysTransform Aqorau

But a unified approach from Pacific Island nations and those in the industry is needed to enforce any protective measures.

And an ocean campaigner with Greenpeace New Zealand, Karli Thomas, says consumer demands to know more about how the fish they eat was caught, will also play a significant part. She says there is opposition to the use of floating fish attracting devices, which result in young fish getting caught in purse seine nets after they are lured in by the offer of shelter. There are a lot of issues connected to the long line fishery including illegal fishing, shark finning and labour abuse.

"I think as the buyers of tuna see customer pressure against it, they're going to have to increase their standards."

The regional management organisation, the Tuna Commission, is made up of pacific countries, industry representatives and those distant water nations with vessels operating in the region.

The Commission has been able to get all those involved to agree to limited action to sustain the stocks that are probably the single most valuable resource to Pacific island nations.

But the evidence shows it has not been enough.

Many are hoping real action will be taken at a meeting of the Tuna Commission, in Samoa in December.

Gallery: Declining tuna stocks

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Chinese fishing boats tie up in Suva

Chinese fishing boats tie up in Suva Photo: RNZ / Philippa Tolley