31 Dec 2014

Outspoken - Tuna Collapse

From Outspoken, 5:32 pm on 31 December 2014
A school of yellow fin tuna encircled by a net

Yellowfin tuna inside a purse seine net Photo: Supplied / SPC

Preserving tuna stocks in the Pacific now needs the same profile in the region as climate change, according to Ambassador for Pacific Development Shane Jones.

Listen to Philippa Tolley's report for RNZ Outspoken.

Shane Jones.

Shane Jones. Photo: RNZ / Jane Patterson.

The former Labour MP, whose job is now to help island nations make the most of their fishing resource, described the meeting of the Western and Central Pacific Fisheries Commission (Tuna Commission) in Samoa in the past few weeks as "pretty bleak".

Others have branded the gathering of Pacific countries, foreign fishing nations, environmentalists and industry representatives as a failure and phenomenally disappointing.

Many industry players and conservationists believe the regional commission can no longer be relied on to protect declining stocks and the warnings over the threat facing this multi-billion fishery are dire. Bigeye tuna are down to 16 percent of their original level and yellowfin tuna are also at risk.

Call to deal with tuna at G20

Charles Hufflet - the director of New Zealand fishing company Solander, which also operates out of Fiji - said he believed the Tuna Commission had failed.

"The overfishing in this multi-billion dollar fishery needed to be dealt with at the G20 level," he said.

Man guides frozen tuna down a slide to waiting container

Frozen tuna are unloaded in Fiji from a Taiwanese vessel

Photo: RNZ / Philippa Tolley

The commission has agreed on some protection measures in the past - but, according to Mr Hufflet, it has never taken anyone to task for breaking the rules.

He also takes issues with countries skewing the market by supporting their fishing industries through subsidies for boat-building or reduced tariffs for fish caught from their own vessels.

Those restrictions that were introduced in past years have not been enough to stop the decline in what was one of the best stocks in the world. At the same time, countries such as China have declared their intention to increase their fleet of long liners operating in the region.

Difficult politics

Many worried about overfishing have been calling for a reduction in the number of fishing vessels, the closure of some areas and changes in some fishing methods.

But the politics involved are difficult to overcome, with a large number of so-called distant water fishing nations - such as Japan, Korea, Spain, the United States and China - involved in an industry estimated to be worth $6 billion annually.

Pacific Island nations get a share thought to be about 10 percent.

The World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF) points to the financial support offered to economically-challenged Pacific nations and the number of hospitals and roads around the region built by the Chinese.

The organisation's pacific tuna programme manager, Bubba Cook, said that Pacific nations had relations with foreign governments that "makes doing the right thing very complicated". That said, according to Mr Cook, action to stop overfishing needed to be taken yesterday.

Consumers may be force for change

It may be that if the regional body, the Tuna Commission, can't get agreement for protection measures, then consumers may be the force to create change.

Greenpeace has turned its attention to the markets, demanding that "international tuna brands should ensure their suppliers are not involved in driving Pacific fisheries collapse ... all the while blocking conservation rules from being adopted."

Mr Jones agreed that consumers could play a major role and looked back on his experience as the chairman of fishing company Sealord.

"When markets are whipped up and turn against you, the Sealord experience shows it can cost you a whole lot of money."

View a gallery of images from the tuna fishing industry in the Pacific