Tuna trouble

PRIME Minister Qarase of Fiji opened the first Pacific Islands Regional Oceans Forum in February this year by calling on delegates ‘to continue to be vigilant against those intent on poaching and plundering our marine resources. The region has the world’s largest remaining sustainable tuna fishery – an essential source of food for the global market. But the commercial reality is that more than 95 per cent of the value of the South Pacific tuna catch goes to distant water-fishing countries.’

Over 60 per cent of the world’s canned tuna and 30 per cent of the sashimi comes from Pacific fisheries. Local fleets catch about 200,000 tonnes: 10 per cent of the total catch. The rest – a whopping 1.8 million tonnes – is taken by foreign fishing fleets that pay licence fees to access the Pacific fishing grounds. These licence fees are small. The industry is worth $2 billion each year. Yet Pacific islands receive a fraction of this through fees: less than 4 per cent ($79.3 million) in 1999, and this shared amongst 14 Pacific Island Countries (PICs).

Kiribati – a nation of islands strung across hundreds of kilometres of the Pacific Ocean – has an Exclusive Economic Zone over 3.6 million square kilometres in size. In 2002, Kiribati earned $32.5 million from access fees, which is estimated to be over 30 per cent of its GDP. But to do this, Kiribati ‘rents’ its oceans out to 393 fishing vessels. A bilateral agreement – in force since 2002 – gives Kiribati $44.45 for each tonne fished out by a European Union fishing vessel. Yet world markets are paying up to $800 for Skipjack tuna and $1,100 for Yellowfin.

The increase in the scale and number of boats, the use of high-tech fishing equipment, like the aerial spotting of tuna schools, and the catch of juvenile fish are all causing problems for the four main tuna species that we eat.

Overfishing is the result. Just as happened in Canada when cod fisheries collapsed in the early 1990s – with catches of North Atlantic cod going from over four million tonnes to zero in two years – anecdotal evidence abounds that the Pacific fisheries face a similar threat. A 2003 scientific stock take con- firms Big Eye Tuna are at extreme risk of being exploited beyond the point of no return. Yellowfin are also at risk.

The tuna catch in the Pacific has more than quadrupled in the last 30 years. And – with the collapse of fishing grounds around the world – more and more fishing vessels are being steered into the Pacific. The stark reality for Pacific countries is that if the trends continue, then within three to five years all stocks may be critically overfished.

ACTION: Read more in the new Greenpeace report Development without Destruction: Towards Sustainable Pacific Fisheries. Contact Greenpeace Australia Pacific Oceans Campaign, c/o Old Town Hall, Suva, Fiji Islands;
email [[email protected]](mailto:[email protected]?Subject=Action%20from%20NI%20366%20-%20www.newint.org)
or phone +67 9 331 2861.

New Internationalist issue 366 magazine cover This article is from the April 2004 issue of New Internationalist.
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