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Tuna’s plight is a problem the world must solve

Too many boats and technology that is too good mean that nations must cooperate to preserve tuna and other fish stocks.

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In the Pacific Ocean, meanwhile, a move is emerging to protect tuna from overfishing by international fishing fleets. Nearly 2.5 million metric tons of tuna were caught in the Pacific last year, a record catch. But many were juvenile fish, caught by “illegal, unreported, and unregulated” (IUU) fishing vessels.

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Such “pirate fishing” is a huge problem in tuna fisheries across the western Pacific, particularly in “doughnut holes,” international waters between EEZ boundaries. In these waters, reflagged ships often use fish aggregating devices (FADs) that attract juvenile yellowfin tuna.

Globally, $9 billion is lost to so-called pirate fishing, according to a study last year by the University of British Columbia and Marine Resource Assessment Group. In the Pacific alone, IUU fishing takes 36 percent of the total catch, compared with a 19 percent global average.

In a first-ever agreement, the Western and Central Pacific Fisheries Commission (WCPFC) – whose 25 member nations include the European Union, the US, Taiwan, China, and Japan – will halt all tuna fishing in two of four Pacific doughnut holes next year. The EU has also adopted new rules to curb IUU fishing that take effect in January.

In one of its most significant steps, the WCPFC put a two-month ban (August and September) on the use of FADs. The devices, usually buoys, are often linked by satellite, and underwater cameras monitor fish densities until they reach a peak. Trawlers then come to scoop up the fish.

Such steps may be the foundation for a larger global shift toward tougher catch limits, stricter enforcement, lower national fishing subsidies, and the downsizing of overbuilt fishing fleets.

“Action finally has been taken in some places – and where it is being taken, things are turning around,” says Boris Worm, an associate professor of marine conservation biology at Dalhousie University in Halifax, Nova Scotia.

In seven of 10 key marine ecosystems worldwide where exploitation rates were at or below the rate required to maintain a sustainable catch, the fisheries were recovering, he and other researchers reported in a study in Science this summer. They also noted four aspects that well-managed fisheries shared:

•Restricting gear that is too good at catching fish. Nets with larger holes let younger fish escape, for example.

•Closing hard-hit and breeding areas to fishing to let them recover.

•Drastically reducing the number of fishing vessels chasing the fish.

•Reducing the total allowable catch.

Some “cynically imply it’s just human nature – that we cannot halt the decline in fisheries before a complete collapse,” Dr. Worm says. “I don’t believe that. Our research shows we can stop it if we want to – if we muster the political will.”