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Friday, 5 April 2013

Fishing for tuna with FADs is out, now to tackle the sustainability issue

Diver frees a sunfish caught in a fishing net.
Yes, there will be celebration at Greenpeace HQ in Sydney as consumer action has led to Australia's supermarkets refusing fish caught with fish aggregating devices (FADs), what the NGO calls a "destructive fishing practice". Thousands of regular Australians are responsible for this change. And I played a part as well, with stories in G Magazine and the National Times on destructive fishing practices, back in 2010. I had come into contact with Greenpeace for another, earlier story, and one of their media advisers by the name of Elsa Evers asked me if I was interested in writing about tuna. In February of that year I made a trip by plane to Sydney and met up with three staffers at tony Tamarama Beach. We sat around a picnic table in the bright sunlight and I switched on my voice recorder. I had already done a bit of research into the issue and the interview itself runs to about 5000 words. Here is part of what was said.
Lagi Toribau (Oceans Team Leader, Greenpeace Australia / Pacific, Fiji): We need a selective technique. Selective is the most sustainable [way] and that’s the pole-and-line that we’ve been recommending. Or troll.
The fish aggregation device, we call them FADs. We’ve been campaigning for a total ban on the use of FADs. Last year, part of the conservation act to reduce fishing on big eye and yellowfin, they put a two-month ban on the use of FADs by purse-seining. So they don’t attract everything else. The other fishing technique is on long lines, where they just set hooks and a lot of times, you know, sea turtles, sharks and seabirds [get caught as well] ... 
Genevieve Quirk (Greenpeace Oceans Campaigner): In tropical areas the by-catch on longlines can be 35 percent. And the unfortunate thing is [that] purse-seining did have a relatively low level of by-catch, but once you have FADs – because they attract a whole spectrum of marine animals – the by-catch is now really serious. When you’re fishing for the relatively stable stock of skipjack, unfortunately  - skipjack are smaller – and small big eye and small yellowfin schools with skipjack at the same sites. So the reason they put in that FAD ban is because they know this is devastating stocks of yellowfin and big eye.
Because of space constraints for the final story drafts none of this material made it into the stories, so it's just been sitting there on my hard drive waiting for an opportunity to see the light of day. But note that it took three years from the time of the interview - and for sure Greenpeace had been agitating for change before February 2010, when the interview took place - until Australian retailers agreed to stop sourcing tuna caught with FADs.

FADs are only part of the problem, of course, as you can see in the Greenpeace press release linked to above. In it, the organisation talks about a bigger problem which is "the massive expansion of industrial fishing globally". In July 2010 I had a chance to see how this industry is regulated - or, rather, how it regulates itself - when I drove to Brisbane to attend an international meeting attended by representatives from fishing nations globally. The dynamic was confusing at first and I didn't take any notes. I mainly sat at the back of the big room filled with chairs and tables where the delegates sat in close groups, by country. The two factions separating the people in the room seemed to be the industrial fishing nations, on the one hand, and the Pacific island nations, who actually own much of the resource due to maritime sovereignty rules that apply in the world's oceans, on the other.

There was plenty of talk, some of it spirited. But take-up of decisions is voluntary. As Greenpeace says in its press release, the number of people who want to eat fish is increasing as the Asian middle class grows. This demand exerts a force on companies who supply fish to shops and supermarkets, resulting in the construction of more, large-scale boats that are sent out into the oceans to hunt for fish. These boats are huge, in size like an ocean liner, and they capture fish from wild stocks at a tremendous rate, which can deprive people living in the Pacific who rely on fish for protein of a major part of their diet. Pacific island governments license boats to fish in the ocean areas they control, but regardless many boats fish without paying for the privilege, depriving Pacific island nations of much-needed revenue. There are boats from some countries that are unregistered; these are called "pirate" vessels. Some of the fishing boats remain at sea year-round, periodically offloading their valuable catch to transport vessels. The pressure being exerted on global fish stocks is enormous, and so boats from the European Union, for example, are lured by the promise of rich pickings to places like the western Pacific.

All of the country representatives at the Brisbane meeting had pressures working on them from companies at home that provide employment to hundreds or thousands of people. If one nation agrees to stop industrial fishing, their community loses jobs. Politicians hate that. And there is no guarantee that other nations will follow suit. So they all continue to fish, and they all turn up to meetings such as the one I attended to make sure the rules can enable them to do so. Meanwhile, Pacific island nations ask the industrial fishing nations to transfer fishing rights to them, so that they can secure for their own communities the valuable jobs and income that operating a fishing vessel delivers.

While all these people talk, real change happens because individual consumers take the time to ask their retailers to only sell tuna, for example, that has been ethically and sustainably caught. Getting rid of FADs takes care of the ethical part, because by-catch is minimised. But eliminating FAD-caught tuna is only a first step. Australian retailers can put pressure on Thai canneries to make sure no FADs are used to catch the fish, but the bigger problem remains in the form of the need to reduce the overall fishing effort, so that fish stocks can replenish. So that there will still be tuna to eat out of a can in 10 or 15 years' time.

The risk is real. When I wrote that first story linked to above, I quoted the figure of $170,000 for an individual tuna fish, for a sale made in Japan. These sums continue to rise. 'Toro', the delicious fatty tuna that Japanese - and you and me too - love to eat, is hardly available even in Japan. Last December I visited the country and ate sushi with my daughter in a suburban restaurant, and during the meal I noticed that toro was not even on the menu. In Japan this kind of food is only available, now, to the very wealthy. What has that got to do with canned tuna? Well, today toro is in short supply because the bluefin tuna it is taken from is so hard to catch; there just are not many of them left in the oceans. The reality is that, tomorrow, other, less valuable kinds of tuna will also become scarce. It's up to consumers to put pressure on their retailers to make sure that the fish that is sold in the supermarket is caught sustainably.

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