Ready to hear the truth about South Pacific Albacore?

Originally published on Pina.com

These are worrying times for our local tuna industry. In Fiji boats are being tied up, and staff are being laid off in Samoa, Tonga and in American Samoa where entire fleets are up for sale. Now there is talk of Starkist’s American Samoa cannery potentially losing 2,000 jobs due to limited tuna supplies.

What this tells me is that the current business model and dependency on foreign fishing access and modern technology with destructive fishing techniques is not working for Pacific islanders.

Recent news stories have exposed some of the worst business practices of the fishing industry – including labour abuse, terrible bullying, slavery and human trafficking.  These stories are just the tip of the iceberg, and with a Western and Central Pacific Ocean fishing ground three times the size of Africa, there are many stories yet to be told.

I’ve been working for Greenpeace for 11 years, and have been privileged to join, and lead, some of Greenpeace’s expeditions in the Pacific region (in 2004, 2006, 2008, 2010, 2011 and 2013). Today, I am onboard our latest mission.

Commercial tuna fishing in the Western and Central Pacific started around the 1960s, and has intensified since the early 1980s when tuna fleets from the already crowded Indian Ocean, Atlantic, and Eastern Pacific headed down for the tuna gold rush.

The migration of fishing fleets from distant water nations quickly became an invasion, out-competing local fishers with new technology and leaving the future of these large ocean communities under threat. They came in different faces, phases and sizes, bringing overfishing, overcapacity, pirate fishing, laundering, and dumping, to name a few, not forgetting corruption, prostitution, drug smuggling and people smuggling. The region, once peaceful, is now a sea of crime.

The high value sushi and sashmi grade bigeye and yellowfin tuna was the first target fishery. Fishing was dominated by Asian fleets, which meant that the catch and profits almost exclusively ended up back in Asia. This was quickly recognised by the Pacific countries as inequitable, but changes didn’t help the stocks and now bigeye tuna is at 16% of their unfished levels and yellowfin at 38%.

The fate of skipjack, one of the most robust and productive species in the tuna family, was next in line. The competition was tough, with Spanish monsterboats, and the US treaty boats with nets the sizes of football fields and some of the world’s most advanced fishing technology. With the world competing for a dwindling number of fish to feed the canned tuna market, this fishery spiraled out of control, and quickly became overcrowded.

To try to control the overcrowded fishery, the region introduced regulations like a three month ban on the use of fish aggregating devices, the closure of certain high seas pockets, and a vessel day management scheme (where a fixed number of one day fishing permits are allocated across states, which in turn distribute them to fishing vessels.) But Pacific Island countries can only regulate within their own EEZs and the worst practices simple migrated to the high seas, where transshipping means thousands of tonnes of tuna travel straight to the other side of the world contributing nothing to local economies or dinner tables.

Now, the entire Pacific tuna fishery is home to over 3,000 fishing vessels pillaging these waters every day. Over the last two weeks we’ve been exploring the South Pacific Albacore fisheries. With less than 1% of fishing activity on longliners witnessed by independent observers in the region, it really is a fishery with little or no regulation.

All of the fishing vessels I’ve been on board so far were built in the last five years, despite warnings that fishing capacity shouldn’t be expanded, and having built the ships, companies need to recoup their investment and make their profit before the albacore stocks run out. So their ships fish night and day, with as little maintenance time as possible.

To maximize profits, many cut corners when it comes to working conditions. Cramped living areas, predatory contracts, 18 hour working days, and poor sanitary facilities are all common and seen by the fishermen as part of the job.

There is no doubt that some companies are trying to be good citizens, and that tuna fishing is a critical industry for Pacific jobs and life, but overfishing has put a strain on many in the Pacific tuna sector, and the trouble surrounding American Samoa’s Starkist cannery must be seen in this context.

Instead of investing in smaller scale, more sustainable fishing operations, large foreign seafood companies enlist foreign fleets to go after declining skipjack stocks, or turn to distant water fleets to find fewer and fewer albacore. Albacore are now down to 40%, currently too low to sustain a profitable industry. Economic growth should not come at the expense of natural resources and effective management. I’d like to see long term decisions that mean jobs and fish forever.

I believe it’s time to transform from a model of distant water fishing to local sustainable fleets, with Pacific Island countries working together to achieve these goals. I’m looking forward to meeting with local fishermen and officials to learn more about what is happening in American Samoa, and to talk about how a local, sustainable model with priority access for local fleets benefits everyone, from cannery workers to fishermen.