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Pacific Island Serious About July Ban On FAds

Until a group of small Pacific island nations imposed unheard-of restrictions on foreign fishing fleets in December, most tuna species were on the road to extinction, experts say.

The measures are expected to reduce the catch of yellowfin, bigeye and albacore species by between 10 and 30 percent over three years, enough to guarantee that the world's top tuna fishing areas, which earn an estimated $3 billion annually, will remain productive for the foreseeable future.

“This is exactly what's needed to reverse the decline of Pacific tuna stocks,”  said Eric Gilman of International Union for the Conservation of Nature.

The conservation measures, which take effect Jan. 1, 2010, were imposed after international fishing fleets, mostly from Europe, Asia and the United States, overfished the waters of the eastern Pacific Ocean and the Atlantic Ocean and sought new fishing areas.

“The tuna of the Atlantic are in shreds, just awful, from overfishing and failed management,” said Carl Safina, president of the Blue Ocean Institute in East Norwich, N.Y.

Atlantic fleets then moved into the central and western Pacific, where the tuna catch rose from 400 tons a year in the 1970s to 2.4 million tons today - 60 percent of the world's supply - according to James Joseph, who has long headed a commission that regulates tuna fishing in the eastern Pacific region.

The tuna belt is studded with tiny islands with such exotic names as Niue, Tuvalu, Kiribati and Nauru. By international law, these nations have control over 200 nautical miles from their shores where 80 percent of tuna are caught, Joseph says.

In May, eight of the 17 Pacific island members of the Western and Central Pacific Fisheries Commission imposed a series of measures aimed at halting overfishing of stocks these nations depend on for food and revenue. Joseph calls them “the most effective measures”  in any ocean where tuna is fished.

In December, the remaining nine islands on the commission joined in, imposing a conservation agenda on 20 million square miles.

“We were getting fed up,” said Sylvester Pokajam, Papua New Guinea’s top fisheries official. “Our so-called fishing partners have been taking us for a ride for far, far too long.”

The restrictions apply to purse-seine ships (large-net fishing), which sell to canneries, and to long-line ships (which use miles of baited hooks) and pole-and-line vessels, which supply fresh markets. They will be banned from using “fish aggregating devices” (floating platforms that attract fish, notably juveniles) for several months a year and the practice of throwing back small dead fish to fill a ship's hold with bigger, more valuable fish caught later.

Fishing fleets must also carry independent observers and tracking devices that disclose their position to monitor compliance, and must end fishing in 560,000 square miles of international waters most affected by overfishing. The latter measure dwarfs former President George W. Bush's creation in 2006 of a 140,000-square-mile no-fishing marine national monument in the northwestern Hawaiian islands, which lie north of the tuna belt and have been lightly fished.

It also contrasts with the island nation Kiribati's decision in 2007 to turn half of its waters in the uninhabited Phoenix Islands into a 160,000-square-mile reserve, touted at the time as the world's largest. That decision, however, has been clouded by demands from the Kiribati government that U.S. donors create a $50 million trust fund to compensate for loss of fishing revenue - losses that some experts predict will be offset by a hike in tuna prices.

Andrew Wright, director of the Western and Central Pacific Tuna Commission, says the landmark Pacific islander decision to restrict tuna fishing “stands out because (the other four global tuna) commissions have a history of avoiding decisions that have a real and measurable impact on fishing mortality of threatened stocks.” 

Tuna under siege
There are four main species of tuna exploited by international fishing fleets in the "tuna belt" that stretches some 700 miles north and south of the equator in the Pacific Ocean.

Bigeye, albacore and yellowfin are being fished faster than they can reproduce. Skipjack, the smallest and most fecund species, is still abundant and constitutes 60 percent of total annual catch.

Outside the tuna belt, bluefin - most valued in Japan for sashimi - faces extinction in the Atlantic, Indian, north and south Pacific oceans and the Mediterranean Sea. Dozens of nations have reduced annual catches in these areas, but not enough to stabilize bluefin populations, most scientists agree.