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Tuna Longlining And “The Shark Effect” Tonga, June 24, 13

The ‘shark issue’ is a popular one around the region and Tonga is no exception. If sought out, similar stories could be told right throughout the region, but in this instance, it’s Tonga’s story. Such situations have in other places resulted in policies that do not encourage development.
From time to time this surfaces and more recently there has been e-media and social network stories on shark finning and the need to stop this practice. A valid argument, but like any other there are multiple factors that surround this issue which should not be ignored, such as the tuna fishery is the single highest earning sector in the fishing industry throughout the Pacific region. Like most Pacific Island countries, outside agriculture, tourism and fisheries there is not much else in terms of economic activities that derive income.

Tonga’s tuna fishery is longline and the hard fact is, as long as you allow tuna longline fishing in your waters, shark will be an incidental bi-catch. When a longline vessel sets its line to catch the tuna it targets which swims at a much deeper depth than shark, anything that swims above the tuna will inevitably at some point be caught.

Equally as important to note is the fact that there are 27 known species of shark, and not all species are impacted by tuna fishing.

Having said that, the threat to some of the shark species that fishing poses is a real one. Stock assessments done by the Secretariat of the Pacific Community (SPC) for the Western and Central Pacific Fisheries Commission (WCPFC) a Regional Fisheries Management Organization (RFMO) for the Conservation and Management of Highly migratory fish stocks in the Western and Central Pacific Ocean (WCPO) says that there are some species that are in danger of becoming overfished.

In 2006 the WCPFC recognizing the ecological and cultural significance of sharks in our waters introduced a management and conservation measure that called on its members, including Tonga, to implement the Food Agricultural Organization (FAO) Shark International Plan of Action (IPOA). This IPOA directly compliant with international laws put in place by the United Nations, called for the conservation and management of sharks by putting in place National Plans of Action (NPOA) to manage sharks.

This measure has been improved on in 2008, 2009 and 2010 but the basic fundamental requirements call on its members to minimize the waste and discard of shark catches and encouraged the live release of this incidental catch. The measure also included the requirement to have on board no less than 5% of the weight of sharks on board at the time of landing. This ratio was also to be reviewed periodically. And that the main species of concern were blue sharks, oceanic white tip sharks, mako and thresher sharks.

Most recently in the set of measures to come out of the WCPFC in its annual meeting of 2011 was the measure that prohibited the landing of the oceanic white tip shark. Tonga then as a member of the WCPFC, FAO and the United Nations has the obligation to through its regulations and policies manage the catch of sharks accordingly.

CITIES, the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora lists the whale shark, basking shark and the oceanic white tip in its appended list of endangered species. Tonga, however is not a member to CITIES but China is, where the fins are exported to.

The overarching piece of fisheries legislation for Tonga is the Fisheries Management Act of 2002, then there are the Fisheries Conservation and Management Regulation, the Processing and Export Regulation both of 2008, the Tuna Management Plan which is frequently amended and updated and the terms and conditions of a fishing license which is reissued annually. There is no lack of legislative framework with which the government governs fishing practices.

It would be remiss not to acknowledge and take responsibility for the impact of fishing on sharks and other bi-products, and the important role the sharks play in maintaining a healthy ecosystem. However, when there is lobbying of any kind, which is why these public statements are made, full disclosure of, all relevant facts are important.

In these e-media releases figures were also quoted such as in 2002 6.8 metric tons of shark fins were exported out of Tonga, it is also crucial to acknowledge the fact that this is in relation to an overall catch of 190,000 plus metric tons of tuna and tuna like species caught in the same period.

Half statements, half-truths are designed to provoke emotion and create public pressure to achieve a one-sided story. Emotion has no place in fisheries management, nor in economic recovery for a struggling economy like Tonga.

This statement is not intended to defend the practice of shark finning nor to shift the blame of the impact of fishing to any particular party but rather to clearly put the facts out there, and paint a more complete picture of the truth of the situation.