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“America Uses Treaty To Defy New Tuna Fishing Rules”

Next year, as Asian and European purse seiners begin reducing their catches of bigeye tuna, the United States will be doing just the opposite—to a chorus of criticism from environmentalists and Pacific islands nations.

By invoking a treaty it signed with 16 Pacific nations, the US has deemed itself immune from the reduction in fishing that fisheries scientists of the Secretariat of the Pacific Community say is long overdue.

In the coming year, the US fleet will probably double its catch of bigeye, the tuna most valued after bluefin—but send it to canneries instead of sushi bars.

“Is the Obama Government deliberately acting in an anti-conservation role and preventing the development of Pacific Islands countries, or is it misguided by its advisors?” wonders Sylvester Pokajam, director of fisheries in Papua New Guinea, the country that pushed the hardest for conservation measures. US officials aren’t saying.

Ethical practices: When it was signed in 1988, the South Pacific Tuna Treaty was hailed as a model of generosity and of ethical fishing practices.

Under it, the US taxpayer pays most of the cost of the fishing licenses, only it’s called foreign aid.

In exchange, a set number of US flagged ships can go where they want and fish as much as they want. To this day, the US fleet is seen as the most law-abiding and provides scientists with the most accurate catch data.

Just last April, William Gibbons-Fly, the official who effectively manages it for the US State Department, praised it in a testimony to the US Congress as a “vital component” of “a strong and mutually beneficial relationship between the US and the 16 nations”.

Today, say Pokajam and others in the Pacific community, it is nothing of the sort.

Last year, the nine Pacific nations grouped in the so-called Parties to the Nauru Agreement in whose waters 60% of the world’s tuna is fished were given alarming news by the fisheries scientists: their stocks of bigeye had fallen to a sixth of what they were a half-century ago and would collapse unless fishing was cut 30% or more immediately. This came three years after a recommendation to cut the catch by 25% was ignored.

The scientists also said yellowfin stocks were down 60% and needed a 10% cut and albacore was down 80% and may need a cut soon.

Only the irrepressible little skipjack, the most fecund of tunas, seemed unfazed by an increase in harvest levels of 1600% percent in 40 years.

Last December, the Parties to the Nauru Agreement (the Federated States of Micronesia, Kiribati, Marshall Islands, Nauru, Palau, Papua New Guinea, Solomon Islands and Tuvalu), with US support, persuaded the fishing nations who are their partners in the 32-member Western and Central Pacific Fisheries Commission to take a series of measures that will come into force on January 1.

No-take areas: They mandated that all 225 purse seiners—large ships with huge nets that can take entire schools of tuna in a few hours—must carry observers to discourage illegal fishing practices; they cut by 25% the use of floating platforms called fish aggregating devices, which not only considerably increases the amount of fish caught but disproportionately attract juvenile fish.

And they closed to all fishing—including by long-liners—two large pockets of international waters surrounded by the waters of the islands nations, creating the world’s biggest no-take areas.

When two smaller pockets are added in December, as is expected, the total will be 475,000 square miles, by far the biggest set of no-take areas in the world.

They are three times larger than California—and than the Papahanaumokuakea Marine National Monument in the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands, which would have been the largest one when fishing there ends in 2011.

Jim Joseph, the former head of the Eastern Pacific’s tuna commission, calls the package of measures “the broadest and most effective of any tuna fishery in the world.”

The US pledged to follow these new rules.

Separately and outside the tuna commission, the Nauru group created a new system called the Vessel Day Scheme to control foreign fishing in their waters and increase revenue.
The system, which started this year, is based on controlling the numbers of days fished and replaces a system that limited the number of ships in each fleet, but not how much they fished.

Since the fisheries scientists say the closure won’t have much effect if the same ships can fish elsewhere, the islands nations used the new controls to tell the international fishing fleets that they won’t be able to recoup the days previously spent in those high-seas pockets: they will have to fish about 10% fewer days, says Pokajam.

That’s when the United States demurred, claiming that its treaty exempts its purse-seiner fleet, capped at 40, from any limits on how much they can fish.
Instead of cutting its fishing days like the other nations, it has embarked on a program to increase its purse-seiner fleet by allowing ships not built in the United States to take up the US flag and escape the limits imposed on other fleets.

Nearly all of them are Asian. And last year, American purse seiners fished on average 200 days, while non-American ships averaged 127, according to official statistics.

The US fleet in 2007 included 14 ships, mostly based in Pago Pago, where they supplied the Chicken of the Sea and StarKist canneries. This increased to 25 ships last year and it’s expected to reach 40 soon, according to the State Department.

Overall, purse seiners account for about a quarter of the total catch of Western and Central Pacific bigeye, with long-liners and pole-and-line boats taking the rest.

But the US fleets are lopsided the other way: they are dominated by purse-seiners, whose catch of bigeyes is almost entirely made up of juvenile fish that are killed before they can reproduce, the fisheries scientists say. This makes it harder for the stocks to rebound.

US about face: In 2007, with 11 ships, the US accounted for 9% of the total regional bigeye catch, with most of it taken by purse-seiners.

When the US purse seiner fleet is nearly tripled, the US share of the regional bigeye catch will probably more than double, the experts say. So with the coming reduction of the other fleets, the US take of Pacific bigeye could grow to 30%.

Until the treaty is abrogated or the US makes an about-face, the Pacific nations like Papua New Guinea, Solomons and the Marshalls that have built tuna processing facilities and are trying to create their own fleets feel stymied by the American intransigence, even though, they say, two international agreements give priority to the development of home-grown fisheries.

Gibbons-Fly, who is director of the State Department’s Office of Marine Conservation and a member of the Honolulu-based Western Pacific Fishery Management Council, declined to discuss the US position with Islands Business on the record.

In his testimony before Congress, he said the treaty, which expires in 2013, should be renewed but he did not mention the scientists call for cutbacks, the conservation measures taken or the pressure on the US to follow them.

“The US fleet has been a conservation leader in many ways, like carrying observers, supporting the closures of the high seas pockets and using the VMS tracking system,” wrote Sari Tolvanen, an oceans campaigner for Greenpeace International based in the Netherlands, in an e-mail.

“But this simultaneous increase in capacity and refusal to cut fishing days makes a mockery of its record. The tuna need less fishing, not more, and this policy is incredibly irresponsible.”

Carl Safina, a marine scientist who has written several books on the oceans, says the US position “is particularly disappointing now. We’ve seen how disruptive it is for the US to act as a rogue nation regarding climate science. Fortunately, those days are over. Now it’s the same with fishing, and it’s time for the United States to join the world.”