28 Apr 2017 - Pacific Islanders have been catching tuna since the earliest days of settlement some 3,000 years ago. For most of recorded history, the fish were harvested using traditional techniques. But the arrival of foreign vessels in the 1950s opened up the fishery to industrial-scale technology and global markets, and for the first time tested its ecological limits.
Today, nearly two-thirds of the tuna found in restaurants and supermarkets around the world comes from the Pacific Ocean. So it should come as no surprise that the Pacific Small Island Developing States, a group of 12 island nations from the region, led the campaign for the United Nations to designate a World Tuna Day, which will be celebrated for the first time on May 2.
To be sure, it is hard to overstate the fish's importance to Pacific islands. Not only is it their primary protein source, the revenue it raises underpins the region's entire economy. It has been said that tuna is to the Pacific what oil is to the Middle East.
Few countries have done more to promote tuna conservation than ours. For instance, the Parties to the Nauru Agreement (PNA), a management arrangement between nine Pacific island states and distant water fleets, led to the creation of the world’s largest sustainable purse seine tuna fishery. It employs strict fishing regulations, such as limits on the days fishing vessels are allowed to spend at sea, minimum net-size regulations, 100 percent observer coverage, limitations on the use of Fish Aggregator Devices (FADs), and stiff penalties for targeting sharks, turtles, and seabirds.
These rules have important environmental objectives, of course, but they also led to a nearly four-fold increase in the fishery’s revenues between 2010 and 2014.
Still, the highly migratory tuna faces a host of challenges beyond the reach of management, particularly illegal, unreported, and unregulated (IUU) fishing.
A recent report by the Forum Fisheries Agency, which monitors fishing activities in the region, found the IUU haul costs Pacific island states upwards $616 million a year in lost revenue. Moreover, pirate fishing undermines the fishery's long-term productivity.
Of the five major Pacific tuna varieties - bluefin, skipjack, albacore, yellowfin, and bigeye - the bluefin is by far the most depleted. The latest stock assessment indicates that its numbers are less than 3 percent of its original population. Scientists warn that without draconian conservation efforts, it may vanish entirely.
The other tunas are doing better, particularly skipjack (the target of the PNA's pure seine fishery). But IUU fishing takes a toll on them all and the loss of coastal ecosystems, particularly coral reefs, is increasingly damaging essential tuna habitat.
What’s more, warming ocean temperatures and acidification due to carbon dioxide emissions is altering migration patterns and fundamentally eroding the larger marine ecosystem they depend on.
In response to these unprecedented challenges, Pacific island states are calling for improvements to tuna management.
First, the PNA demonstrates that giving local communities an economic stake in fisheries leads to better conservation and greater economic value. Other island nations should be empowered to manage their own marine resources, which in many cases offer the best opportunity for development. At the same time, traditional and artisanal fishers, who have a relatively small impact on the fishery, should be allowed access to a fair share of the catch.
Second, economic subsidies that promote overfishing should end. Finally, addressing IUU fishing will demand greater public and private partnerships from the dock to the supermarket. Requiring tuna exports to be certified as to where and how they were caught will go a long way toward weakening demand for illegal fish.
Early next month, the United Nations will host the first ever Oceans Conference. It will call on countries to address a host of urgent threats to marine systems, such as climate change, ocean acidification, and pollution. As with the tuna, the fate of the world’s marine life today, is in all our hands.
Ambassador Marlene Moses is the permanent representative to the United Nations for the Republic of Nauru and chairs the Pacific Small Island Developing States.
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