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Longline Tuna Fishing: “Use Or Lose It” For Bermuda

If we don’t take our quota of fish, other countries might, say officials, who also insist that we can minimize peripheral damage to the environment

Environment chiefs believe Bermuda can sustain a small scale longline fishing industry without seriously threatening the island's marine environment.

This despite statistics that reveal 36 blue sharks were killed during two months of trial expeditions into the 200-mile exclusive economic zone.

Under a ‘use it or lose it’ clause in international fishing regulations, Bermuda risks having its annual quotas for swordfish and tuna reassigned to other nations if it does not harvest them. Dr Fred Ming, director of environment protection, said the fish would be caught anyway but Bermuda wouldn’t get the benefit.

As we reported recently, environmental watchdogs have raised objections to longline fishing, principally because of the threat posed to other species like sharks and turtles.

The report into the trial expeditions conducted by a 90-foot U.S. longline fishing vessel - Eagle Eye II - has not yet been released. But the Bermuda Sun has seen a draft copy of the findings which indicate that six endangered loggerhead turtles were also incidentally caught during the expedition, though all were released alive.

Threats to sea-birds, like the Cahow, appear to be unfounded, with the method of using deep-set hooks ensuring that no birds were incidentally caught during the trial in early 2007.

Officials at the Department of Environmental Protection believe the ‘by-catch’ for smaller local vessels (one is already operating in Bermudian waters) would be considerably less and are currently compiling and assessing data from local boats. This second phase of the project will be completed by the end of March.

Dr. Tammy Trott, acting senior marine resources officer for Bermuda, said that phase one had been an exploratory mission using a large industrial vessel to “see what's out there.” Phase two would provide more accurate information on the effect of local longline fleets, which would operate on a smaller scale.

She said some by-catch was still “inevitable” but the department would impose “best practices and the most conservative methods of fishing” to keep incidental death of other species to a minimum. “There are places in the world where longlining is a horrendous thing but here we are following best practices. Some people don't want any by-catch but that is unrealistic with this type of fishing.”

Dr. Ming says longline fishing had never been prohibited in Bermuda and that his department was not attempting to create a new industry. Rather, their job was to provide information and training to local commercial fisherman and to allow them to choose whether or not to pursue longlining.

The research will also inform Government policy on how many longline fishing boats Bermuda could sustain and what regulations they should operate under.

Dr. Ming believes modern methods such as using only non off-set circle hooks can keep the threat to ‘non-target’ species to “acceptable levels... Different countries have different standards when it comes to longline fishing. Bermuda will enforce standards that we feel will minimize by-catch to levels that are acceptable and we have to determine what this will be in consultation with other stakeholders.”

High standards

He accepted that longline fishing was not globally popular: “There is a lot of misunderstanding. People may have been looking at the methods and techniques used in different parts of the world, operating under different standards and extrapolating that on to Bermuda when in fact we are going to be operating under very high standards (similar to those in the U.S.). We are not talking about the creation of an industry here. There is not sufficient demand for pelagics nor the supply of fish in Bermuda to support such an industry. We are talking about a few people using a method of fishing that allows them to catch fish and deliver them to the market, enabling them to make a living within the constraints and regulations of this department.”

Dr. Ming said Bermuda was a fully fledged member of ICCAT (International Commission for the Conservation of Atlantic Tunas) and was required to meet certain annual quotas for pelagic fish like tuna and swordfish.

”If we don’t take our quota it will be taken by somebody else. Why should Bermuda deprive itself of the economic wealth of its resources when all other countries are exercising their right and privilege to do so? It doesn’t seem to make sense.”

Dr. Ming added that fishing was part of Bermuda’s culture and an essential aspect of the island’s economy: “Conservation does not mean preservation. The natural resources of the ocean are what sustained Bermuda in the first place. Had those resources not been there (to harvest) we wouldn't be sitting here today.”

”Conservation engenders sustainable use or harvest of a resource.”
Fishing facility: ‘If you want it, we’ll build it’

Plans for a fish processing and storage facility in the east end are not designed to kick-start a longline commercial fishing industry in Bermuda, say environment chiefs.

Dr. Fred Ming said the application to build a shoreside facility at Ship’s Wharf, St Davids was ‘pre-emptive’ and insisted the facility would not be built unless commercial fishermen on the island wanted it.

Dr. Ming said the proposed facility - which would include a loading dock, processing hall, packaging, air blast unit, cold storage room, fishing gear shop and ice machines - would make it easier for some fishermen to engage in longlining.

But he said the centre had a wider purpose to provide basic support to commercial fishermen of all types as the former centre at Morgan’s Point did.

”We have a role to provide such a facility. We don’t want to provide something that people aren’t ready for or that isn’t needed because we’re doing this with taxpayers’ money. At the same time we don’t want to put up barriers that make it impossible to achieve future goals.”

He said the department was currently consulting with commercial fishermen to see if they wanted the facility and were prepared to run it.