Pacific tuna managers must set science-based policies, fight illegal fishing

By Dave Gershman and Dawn Borg Costanzi

Parts of the Pacific Ocean are home to some of the world’s largest, most productive and valuable tuna fishing grounds. Under the management of the Western and Central Pacific Fisheries Commission (WCPFC), these waters contain the tropical tunas—bigeye, skipjack, and yellowfin—that are consumed in sandwiches, salads, and high-end sushi and sashimi.

But without science-based, effective management measures, the health of these species could be in jeopardy. At this year’s WCPFC annual meeting 10-14 December in Honolulu, Hawaii, U.S., managers must work together to reinforce their commitment to sustainable tuna fisheries by taking three critical steps to ensure the long-term health of the species in these ocean waters and by reinforcing these actions with measures to end and prevent illegal fishing.

3 pillars of effective tuna management

Fisheries management has come a long way from the days when catch limits were seen as the only tool for promoting sustainability. Today, science-based strategies coupled with effective limits can make all the difference. In Honolulu, WCPFC attendees should agree on three actions to create balanced tuna management plans for the region:

  1. Take steps to further develop harvest strategies.

Harvest strategies, in which science-based models help set pre-agreed fishing limits that can fluctuate with the health of fisheries, are critical to modern fisheries management. While the WCPFC has made some progress on harvest strategies, which also take into account carefully considered objectives for the stocks, many vital details are still to be decided.

At this year’s WCPFC meeting, managers should refine objectives for bigeye and yellowfin tuna and agree on a healthy target for South Pacific albacore. To help modernize its fisheries management approach, the WCPFC also should create a harvest strategy development working group to improve the dialogue between scientists and managers on the best way forward for each stock under Commission management.

  1. Reduce the impacts of fish aggregating devices.

FADs—floating rafts that tuna gather around, making them easier targets for fishing vessels—are a major component of the purse seine fishery, which can scoop up huge amounts of tuna with each set of a net. Unfortunately, due to a lack of regulations, FAD use is unsustainable. The WCPFC’s FAD Working Group has recommended design guidelines for the devices to reduce the entanglement and deaths of sharks and turtles in FADs; the Commission must mandate that fleets adopt these designs as soon as possible. This would help the WCPFC catch up to other tuna regional fisheries management organizations that have adopted these standards.

Because many FADs are not recovered from the ocean and thus contribute to the growing problem of marine debris, the WCPFC also should reduce the number of the devices that each vessel can have in the water at a time, phase out the use of plastic in FADs, and determine better ways to control and retrieve FADs before they break up and sink or wash onto coral reefs.

  1. Ensure the sustainability of bigeye tuna.

According to this year’s updated stock assessment, bigeye tuna, or ahi, is not experiencing overfishing. But scientists have nonetheless advised against increasing fishing pressure. Because this valuable species needs to be managed for long-term sustainability, the WCPFC should accelerate efforts to develop a harvest strategy that would help promote responsible decision-making before bigeye are too depleted. In the meantime, the Commission should follow the scientific advice and take other steps to strengthen management by, for example, maintaining catch limits in the longline fishery and limiting how often purse seine vessels can set their nets on FADs, which would improve controls on managing bycatch of bigeye.

Fighting IUU fishing

Even if the WCPFC takes all the right steps on tuna management, the organization will be ineffective if it fails to adopt enforceable controls to end and prevent illegal, unreported, and unregulated (IUU) fishing.

One proven way to minimize IUU fishing is to ensure that fishing vessels can be positively identified, specifically through International Maritime Organization (IMO) numbers, which stay with ships—regardless of changes in name, flag, or ownership—until they are scrapped.

The WCPFC has made progress by requiring IMO numbers on vessels weighing 100 gross tons or more and by increasing compliance with that rule. Now, the Commission must continue to enforce the measure and ensure that IMO numbers are submitted with vessel records. The WCPFC should also expand the IMO number requirements to all motorized inboard fishing vessels 12 metres or longer that are authorized to operate outside the waters of their flag State.

Improving the use of IMO numbers is only one factor in combating IUU fishing. As part of the WCPFC’s commitment to guard against the landing of illegally caught fish at ports, its members should designate one or more ports where suspected IUU vessels can be inspected. The Commission should also help small island developing States better fund the implementation of anti-IUU fishing measures in their ports.

Moving forward

This year’s WCPFC agenda is packed with opportunities for better management of valuable tuna fisheries. If Commission members can set the right limits on fishing, better control fishing gear like FADs, and fight illegal fishing, the WCPFC can become a global leader of sustainable management. It is vital that decision makers take action at this meeting and demonstrate that they are serious about keeping Pacific tropical tunas healthy now and well into the future.

Dave Gershman and Dawn Borg Costanzi are officers with The Pew Charitable Trusts’ global tuna conservation and ending illegal fishing campaigns, respectively.

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