More than half of the world’s tuna supply comes from the western and central Pacific Ocean. Tuna fisheries contribute more than $5 billion to the region’s fishermen annually, and by the time tuna from the region reach the final point of sale, they’re worth more than $22.68 billion a year across the supply chain.

The tunas of the Pacific are an incredibly valuable natural resource to Pacific islands, and Hawaiian fishermen in particular benefit from a healthy population of bigeye tuna, one of the larger species that traverse the Pacific. Sustainable management of the species is critical to ensuring not only a healthy ocean but also strong local economies.

Bigeye tuna. The prized catch is in danger of overfishing and depletion, the author warns.

Allen Shimada/NMFS

There were high hopes among countries, industry, and nongovernmental organizations that the Western and Central Pacific Fisheries Commission would, at its meeting earlier this month, secure the long-term health of the tropical tuna fisheries through further development of a more effective and transparent management approach known as harvest strategies. This approach uses available data on a fish stock to create frameworks and rules that member countries can agree on in advance of decisions on quotas, taking much of the political pressure out of management.

But instead, after days of intense debate, the commission agreed to a measure that does not meet scientific advice — and, by raising the quota, could actually lead to future overfishing and depletion of bigeye.

The decision represents a lost opportunity for the WCPFC. Just a few years ago, scientists believed that the bigeye population was depleted and being overfished. This year’s stock assessment, however — based on new and different data — showed that the situation may be better than previously believed, and the population may actually be in a healthy state.

Spread The Pain

While many other regional fisheries management organizations spend a large portion of their effort working to rebuild tuna stocks that have already been overfished and have even become endangered, the new data presented the WCPFC with a chance to secure the future for stocks while they are still in good shape — instead of having the much harder job of determining how to spread the pain of reducing catches in order to rebuild a stock.

Because of a high level of uncertainty with the new data, and to avoid any negative impacts on the population in what remains a precarious time, the commission’s scientific committee recommended that catch levels not be increased.

But, despite the unprecedented efforts by the WCPFC chair to achieve a measure that would ensure appropriate mortality reductions, the full commission adopted a measure that increases catch of bigeye by 10 percent over last year’s level and also allows the United States to re-allocate catch limits from its territories to Hawaii.

Sustainable management of the species is critical to ensuring not only a healthy ocean but also strong local economies.

Together these elements of the three-year measure — though a positive move away from the traditional, short-term management — put the long-term health of the population at risk in return for short-term gains. The measure is, when it comes to bigeye, a failure.

And the impact on the Hawaiian fishery could be enormous. Bigeye makes up more than 50 percent of the longline fishery, and given its economic value, any decline in the species’ population could have a detrimental impact on the industry in Hawaii.

Healthy fisheries aren’t the only thing that Hawaiians stand to lose from the WCPFC’s risky decision. Although a catch increase may seem like a boon to fishermen, the potential for population decline means that fishermen may suffer the consequences in the long run. And the ripple effect of the decision could touch shops, restaurants, and the industry supply chain, all of which depend on sustainable bigeye.

Next year and in 2019, the WCPFC will have a chance to re-evaluate the bigeye management agreement in light of any new information on stock levels or advice from scientists. The commission must seize these opportunities and ensure that sustainable management is its top priority. Without such a commitment, the tropical tunas that so many fishermen and businesses rely on may be in jeopardy.

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