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Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 19 September 2018

A good year for the future of mankind's tuna supply

Decision against raising Pacific fishing quotas offers hope of halting rapid depletion of stocks

Fishermen sort tuna at the Indonesian port of Tegal in Central Java.  Oky Lukmansyah / Antara Foto via Reuters
Fishermen sort tuna at the Indonesian port of Tegal in Central Java. Oky Lukmansyah / Antara Foto via Reuters

Humanity’s voracious appetite for seafood has caused tuna stocks around the planet to decline steadily, but the trend has halted – at least for now – in some of the planet’s most productive fishing grounds.

The warm waters of the western and central Pacific Ocean are the focus of a tuna fishing industry worth an estimated US$4.7 billion (Dh17.26bn) in 2015. Here, species such as skipjack, yellowfin, albacore and Pacific bluefin are pursued by well-armed fishing vessels harvesting the one of the world's most valuable marine sources of protein.

The management of these tuna stocks is overseen by the Western and Central Pacific Fisheries Commission, a multinational body whose members include Pacific island nations such as Niue, Nauru, Kiribati, Fiji and the Cook Islands as well as the so-called "distant water fishing nations" such as Japan, China, United States and the European Union.

Its annual meeting in December is also attended by conservation groups such as Pew Charitable Trusts, World Wildlife Fund, and Greenpeace.

The members must agree on conservation measures through consensus, but managing disparate interests in a fishery comprising nearly 20 per cent of the Earth’s surface is no easy task. The small island states, many with fish as their main source of income, often point out their economies suffer in the push for conservation, and at times accuse the powerful fishing nations of trying to violate their sovereign and economic rights.

As in previous years, the 26 members of the commission who met in Manila this month were seeking to forge an agreement on a critical issue: how much tuna could be caught while maintaining this vital fishery’s sustainability?

This year, after talks that went well past midnight on the fifth and final day, members agreed to maintain catches of most tuna species at current levels and forgo any increases — something of a victory for conservationists given rising demand.

States also agreed on a plan to control catches of Pacific Bluefin — the highly prized tuna species that is considered vulnerable, with its present-day population at just 2.6 per cent of historic levels.

In the Atlantic Ocean, fishing for tuna has been described as a “free-for-all”; geography prevents that from happening in the Pacific, but also creates challenges.

For example, the Cook Islands, a nation comprised of 15 tiny islands, controls a swathe of ocean nearly 2 million square kilometres in size through its exclusive economic zone. That’s 20 per cent of the size of China, yet the Cook Islands has 0.0013 per cent of China’s population.

The Cook Islands does not have the means to catch enough fish to reach economies of scale, so it monetises its fisheries by issuing licences and entering into agreements with the likes of the European Union and China.

Historically, small island developing states have often been played against one another by the big nations, who shop around for the cheapest access rights. That has changed in recent years, with some Pacific nations forming alliances and choosing the path of strength in numbers.

On such bloc is the Parties to the Nauru Agreement (PNA) — an alliance of eight nations including Papua New Guinea, Solomon Islands and Tuvalu. Together they claim to supply half of the world’s skipjack tuna — the most popular type of fish found in cans at supermarkets around the world.

Through its unique vessel day scheme, fishing rights are sold at a daily rate and distant water fishing nations have little choice but to pay up if they want access to these waters. Under this arrangement, PNA nations have seen their fisheries revenue rise from $60 million annually in 2010 to nearly $500m this year. But the success of the PNA has also raised important questions regarding ownership of the resource.

“Our understanding is that, though it’s a common commodity, when it comes into your water, during that time it’s in your water, it’s your fish,” a PNA official said.

On the other hand, the distant water fishing nations want to maintain their catch quotas at least at historical levels, and warn the smaller nations that their collusion must not contravene their obligations under international agreements.

As an American delegate pointed out, tuna are highly migratory and swim through the exclusive economic zones of several nations as well as international waters. A small Pacific nation, “as a WCPFC member, is obligated to ensure its laws do not undermine the convention and the adopted measures”, he said.

It is this issue that leads to heated discussions and, at times, shouting matches between delegates.

As in previous years, some NGOs expressed disappointment with the decisions at this year's meeting, saying not enough was done to prevent overfishing. But given the rising global population and its increasing demand for tuna, simply halting the trend of increasing annual quotas shows that a line has been drawn.

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