In the end, no one — at least none of those who were talking — seemed satisfied. Last month, after five days of intense negotiation in the Cairns, Australia, convention center, the tenth meeting of the Western and Central Fisheries Commission closed, having achieved little if anything to reduce pressure on stocks of bigeye tuna that have been subject to a decade or more of overfishing by both longline and purse seine fleets.

Glenn Hurry, executive director of the commission, said he was disappointed by the group’s failure to adopt tougher measures to constrain fishing.

Amanda Nickson, director of the Pew Charitable Trust’s tuna conservation project, described the entire meeting as “enormously frustrating.”
“Despite more than a decade of scientific advice on the need to reduce fishing of bigeye, the commission failed to put adequate science-based conservation measures in place,” she said in a news release issued by her organization.

The European Union’s representative to the commission weighed in as well, stating that the EU was “disappointed by the lack of ambition of the new Conservation and Management Measure for tropical tunas… [M]ore drastic reduction of effort of purse seiners and of longliners would have been necessary to reduce bigeye tuna fishing to sustainable levels.”

Greenpeace International described the agreement as “a license to overfish.” “Nobody will benefit from this in the long term,” said Greenpeace spokeswoman Sari Tolvanen. “Fish will become harder and harder to catch as stocks decline.”

There was this from the World Wildlife Fund’s Bubba Cook: “It is heartbreaking to observe the various member states acknowledge the dire state in the fishery, but then take few meaningful steps to address the problem.”

On and on the withering comments came, as one after another non-governmental organization or association of fishing nations lashed out at the almost meaningless agreement that emerged from the WCPFC meeting.

Paper Cuts

That does not mean, however, that everyone left angry. There were definite winners; they probably had the good sense not to boast. Sean Martin, a Hawaii longliner and a U.S. commissioner on WCPFC, responded to Environment Hawaii’s invitation to remark on the outcome with a terse “No comment.”

Although all the science says that bigeye “fishing mortality” — i.e., fish that are caught — needs to be reduced by at least 40 percent if stocks are to be restored to the point that reproduction is in equilibrium with removal, the Hawaii fleet emerged relatively unscathed.

In 2014, Hawaii can continue to catch its current quota of 3,763 metric tons. For the years 2015 and 2016, it will be curbed by about 5 percent (to 3,554 MT), and for 2017, it will operate under a limit of roughly 10 percent (3,345 MT).

But those limits mean little, since the Hawaii Longline Association, representing most of the Honolulu-based boats, has executed agreements with U.S. territories in the Pacific that allow it to increase its catch by as much as 5,000 MT a year above its quota. According to the National Marine Fisheries Service’s Pacific Islands Regional Office, the Hawaii longliners met their 2013 quota on December 4. Everything caught since then has been attributed to the catch of the Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands — and never mind that the vessels catching the tuna don’t need to go any further from Honolulu than an inch past the 200-mile limit of the U.S. exclusive economic zone.

In other words, almost all the fresh ahi that comes to Hawaii markets during the high season for sashimi does not count against the longliners’ annual catch limits. (The law that allows these arrangements with the territories expired on December 31, but it is likely that another legal framework will be developed in the next few months to allow such fishing to continue.)

According to one participant in the tuna negotiations, the United States’ adamant stance against further real cuts in the limits on Hawaii longliners made it difficult for other parties to agree to tougher measures.

To be sure, the quota assigned to Hawaii is the smallest of the six WCPFC member nations with substantial longline fleets. Japan’s quota of more than 19,000 tons of bigeye is far and away the largest, with South Korea coming in next at 15,014 MT. That is followed by Taiwan (11,288), China (9,938), and Indonesia (5,889). None of the fleets is being asked to reduce its longline catch for 2014. For 2015 through 2016, reductions in quotas range from 17 percent (China) to 14 percent (Japan) to no reduction at all (Indonesia).

The proposed reductions are far short of what is needed to reduce bigeye fishing by 40 percent, the amount scientists say is needed to make the fishery sustainable. Taken together, by 2017, longline fishing effort will be reduced by roughly 15 percent – and that is if every country lives within its limits and there are no disruptions to recruitment.

Pointing Fingers

In defense of the weak cuts proposed for the longline fleets, their advocates claim that the real damage inflicted on bigeye stocks is caused by the purse seiners that catch juvenile bigeye tuna in their huge nets deployed in the South Pacific.

In recent years, the tonnage of bigeye taken by the purse seine fleets has been roughly equal to that of the longliners. However, almost all the bigeye caught in the longline fishery are adults, while those in the purse seine nets are juveniles. That means, in terms of sheer numbers of individuals caught, the purse seiners’ catch is several times that of the longliners’.

This has led to a stand-off between the member nations of the WCPFC whose economic interests are aligned with the purse seiners, on the one hand, and those where longlining is held to have greater value, on the other. The former claim that the longliners are to blame for declining stocks, since they remove the reproducing animals. The latter point to the purse seiners’ removal of juveniles, which suppresses the stock’s future reproductive capability. (Recent research suggests that both gear types have an equal impact.)

Longliners also point to what is called the sub-optimal utilization of the fish taken by purse seiners. In 2012, the landed value of an adult tuna was $10 per kilogram, while that of a juvenile was $2/kg.

This disparity was noted in a press release issued by the Hawaii-based Western Pacific Fishery Management Council the week before the WCPFC meeting. Council chairman Arnold Palacios stated that the “excessive purse seine catches of small bigeye means that 75 percent of the potential yield … is being lost. These small fish could grow up and become valuable adult fish, which could bring global economic benefits.”

The global economic benefits Palacios refers to are not so apparent to the purse seiners, however, which would forgo the income from the sale to canneries of the bigeye catch in order that longline profits could increase. Furthermore, since there is no feasible way to release juvenile bigeye from purse seine catches, and no surefire way of eliminating bigeye juveniles from the haul, reducing the bigeye catch would likely entail reducing the total number of purse seine sets. The United States, through Wespac, has devoted substantial funds to experiments aimed at finding a way to make purse seining more selective, but a solution remains elusive.

To address purse seine catches of bigeye, the WCPFC has restricted the practice of setting nets on fish aggregating devices, or FADs. The juvenile bigeye and also yellowfin tend to congregate with skipjack under FADs. Purse seine sets on free-swimming schools of skipjack tuna — the targeted species — tend to have fewer associated bigeye. But whether restrictions on FAD sets have had any effect on bigeye stocks is not known yet; the last stock assessment of bigeye for WCPFC was based on 2011 reported catches.

Not surprisingly, the purse seiners, as well as the small Pacific island states that derive a major part of their revenues from licensing purse seiners to fish in their territorial seas, oppose cuts that favor longliners over purse seiners.

This point was addressed in a paper published in 2012 in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Science. Although adult bigeye have a much higher market value than the juveniles, the authors write, “the multitude of fishing companies and the Pacific Island developing states all have divergent interests.” The authors — John Sibert of the Joint Institute for Marine and Atmospheric Research at the University of Hawaii and John Hampton, Inna Senina, and Patrick Lehodey of the Secretariat of the Pacific Community — estimate that rebuilding bigeye stocks will take at least 15 years under the best environmental conditions.

Climate change could prolong or even derail the process, they caution. “Environmental changes induced by anthropogenic release of greenhouse gases should be clearly visible in the 2030s and will affect the BET stock… The future of the bigeye population will depend on timely implementation of effective conservation and management measures” as well as on mitigation efforts, they write.

About the author: About the author: Patricia Tummons is editor of Environment Hawaii, a publication she helped to found in 1990. Before that, she wrote editorials for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch.

Reprinted with permission from the current issue of Environment Hawaii, a non-profit news publication. The entire issue, as well as more than 20 years of past issues, is available free to Environment Hawaii subscribers at Non-subscribers must pay $10 for a two-day pass.