Tuna Commission Meeting Gets Underway In Australia

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Reductions in tuna catch must be agreed to: Pew Charitable Trust

By Giff Johnson

MAJURO, Marshall Islands (Marianas Variety, Dec. 2, 2013) – Reduction of tuna catches in the Pacific coupled with stepped up measures to combat illegal fishing must be agreed to at this week’s meeting of the Western and Central Pacific Fisheries Commission in Cairns, Australia, a major U.S.-based conservation group said Sunday on the eve of an annual meeting of the group that governs commercial fishing in the region.

All 17 Pacific island members with the support of Japan and the Philippines are backing a measure to reduce fishing that some fishing nations say is "draconian" and not supported by scientific evidence.

"Bigeye tuna, which is prized for sushi and sashimi, is heading the same way as bluefin that are now at less than 4 percent of their unfished levels," Pew Charitable Trust official Paul Sheridan, who is based in Sydney, said Sunday.

Six nations — Taiwan, South Korea, Japan, Indonesia, China and the United States — are responsible for 80 percent of the bigeye catch in the Pacific, said Sheridan. These countries are responsible "for using destructive longline and purse seine methods to push numbers of bigeye tuna to critically low levels in the Pacific," he said. These six nations caught nearly 112,000 tons of the 139,000 tons of bigeye tuna caught in 2011, a fishery worth $1 billion, Sheridan said.

Pew is calling on the Western and Central Pacific Fisheries Commission to adopt measures this week requiring fishing nations to increase transparency in fishing operations that enable authorities to improve monitoring of the industry, while establishing minimum port inspection standards and information sharing. These are "an effective way to prevent illegally caught fish from entering the global market, and thus remove the incentive for dishonest fishing operators to continue their illegal activities," said Sheridan.

While distant water fishing nations agree on some elements of Pew and Pacific island proposals for reducing fishing and improving enforcement, the call for major reductions in bigeye catches over the next several years remains controversial.

A spokesman for the American purse-seine industry, which has about 40 vessels fishing in the region, said the number of purse-seine vessels from countries outside the Pacific islands should be frozen.

"This is probably the most important thing the Cairns meeting could do — there are too many vessels, and more are coming," Brian Hallman, the executive director of the American Tunaboat Association, said Friday.

"This expansion needs to be halted, and it could be, fairly easily in fact."

But while agreeing that "meaningful management measures" should emerge from the Cairns meeting, Hallman said a long-term plan on the table for discussion this week in Cairns proposes heavy bigeye an yellowfin tuna catch reductions that "seem quite drastic. That makes agreement very difficult."

While Sheridan said bigeye "have been experiencing overfishing for more than a decade," Hallman disagreed, saying: "We do not believe that the situation warrants draconian measures."

Officials from regional organizations and member countries of the commission say these positions are suggestive of the battle that will play out this week in Cairns over the future of the fishery.

"There is no evidence that the tropical tuna fisheries are in jeopardy," Hallman said. "None of the three stocks (skipjack, yellowfin and bigeye) fished by purse-seine vessels is considered by the scientists to be overfished, including bigeye." Fisheries officials from 17 island nations, however, are calling for a 30 percent cut in fishing levels over the next four years to maintain sustainability in the fishery.

"The Pew Charitable Trust believes that if the [Western and Central Pacific Fisheries Commission] again fails to act and implement urgently needed management measures, fishing for Pacific bluefin tuna should be suspended until evidence-based initiatives and safeguards are put in place," Sheridan said.

The commission’s annual meeting wraps up Friday.

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