Sometimes when I sit down to write one of these posts, I get a sort of melancholy déjà vu. So many of the problems that plague our oceans stem from the same root causes; it’s almost like writing the same article over and over again. Avarice, financial myopia, cultural misunderstandings, and apathetic complacency are frustratingly ubiquitous when we try to decipher and disassemble the tangled, parasitic relationship that we’ve developed with our oceans.
It also seems like every time we start digging into ocean conservation issues anywhere on the planet, we find ourselves up against the same culprits: a small clique of nations that have taken to fishing in a serious way. I suppose this is logical given the total consumption (as well as the per capita consumption) of seafood in these particular countries: they are the source of a tremendous share of the world’s seafood demand, and thus have a vested interest in access the supply freely and without interference from other parties. Still, one would think that their respective decision makers would understand that in order to have fish tomorrow, we have to take proper care of the fish today…. right?
Anyhow, onto the matter at hand.
Last week, the Western and Central Pacific Fisheries Commission (WCPFC), a body which oversees the regulations governing tuna fishing throughout much of the world’s largest ocean, came together in Tahiti for its annual meeting. Representatives from over a dozen countries flew to Papeete in order to discuss the worrying state of Pacific tunas, concentrating especially on skipjack and bigeye.
There was a great hope that much could be achieved at this meeting. Scores of artisanal fishermen teamed up with local and international NGOs in any number of demonstrations to drive home the fact that these animals are in need of protection. The Pacific is the last ocean with bigeye tuna populations anywhere near healthy levels, and it was made clear that unless stringent and effective quotas are implemented — in conjunction with new closures and off-limits areas — we may lose this stock as well.
As I discussed in a previous series of posts, a great deal of the Pacific bigeye stock is taken as bycatch by seiners that are seeking skipjack tuna. In the Western and Central Pacific, these seiners tend to operate in what are known as “donut holes” or “high seas pockets”: areas of ocean that are surrounded by the territorial waters of various countries but are just beyond the 200-mile exclusive economic zone of any of them. Seining was banned in two of the four major pockets in the Pacific Ocean during the WCPFC meeting in 2008, and most of the Pacific island nations were hoping to seal the deal and protect the remaining two this year.
Alas. Enter the usual suspects.
There are three key states that have a long-standing track record of blocking this kind of progress in the Pacific: South Korea, Japan, and Taiwan. These countries tend to work as a bloc to forestall regulatory measures that would preclude their fleets from plundering the Pacific at will. Lamentably, this meeting proved to be no exception.
A group of small island states proposed a 50% reduction in the overall bigeye tuna quota. South Korea, Japan, and Taiwan, joined by China and the Philippines, opposed the measure — even though their own scientists advised them to do otherwise. In the face of this obstinacy, the proposal never had a chance. It died horribly right there in the room and left the Pacific bigeye populations unprotected.
To add insult to injury, I should note that it was actually the Japanese that raised the issue about tuna welfare in the first place. The Japanese delegation went on record early in the meeting stating that no other tuna species can be allowed to decline to the point of meeting the CITES Appendix I criteria, as the northern bluefin does (this was, by the way, the first time that the Japanese government has admitted that northern bluefin qualifies for CITES protection.) Japan also expressed concern over the state of sharks, especially hammerheads, in the Pacific. This is good news, right? The largest per capita seafood consumer in the world standing up for the oceans?
Well, a couple of days later, they reversed their stance, blocked all precautionary proposals and quota reductions, and ensured that bigeye and yellowfin tuna continue on the fast track to endangered species land. Thanks guys.
To be fair, there’s really no room for any kind of flag-waving on my part. The US delegation actually arrived at the meeting planning to oppose these precautionary measures as well. In the end they were persuaded to abstain from the vote, but still, hardly a pride-inducing course of action.
The presence of a new and woefully inexperienced chairman did not help matters. At one point, when one of the delegations raised concerns about the state of porbeagle sharks in the Pacific, the chairman was quoted as saying, “What? What’s a pork barrel shark?”
Yeah. I’m not kidding.
In the end, it pretty much all fell apart. Despite strong efforts from France, Australia, numerous Pacific island nations, Greenpeace, and several local environmental groups, the meeting ended not with a bang, but with a whimper. Two enormous high seas pockets remain open to purse seiners that regularly take large quantities of juvenile bigeye. Sharks and tuna are still without succor, their diminishing populations at the mercy of relentless longliners.
Still… there’s gotta be a silver lining here somewhere. Hang on, I’ll find something…
Oh, yeah. Here we go.
This miserable outcome has upset many of these Pacific island states to no end. In fact, it may lead renegotiation of access agreements by these tiny countries: if the WCPFC can’t effectively protect these delicate fisheries, the Pacific island governments may just have to go it alone. They’re even talking about withdrawing from the Commission if it can’t serve it’s purpose, and relying on bilateral negotiation in an attempt to keep these foreign fleets out of their waters.
Wait a minute — that’s it? That’s the silver lining? We’re finding our solace in the breakdown of an attempted multinational management body in favor of a clutch of one-off two-party agreements of dubious strength and effectiveness? In an emergency backpedaling in the face of failure? In the inability of key stakeholder countries to see the writing on the wall and to take the simple, logical action necessary to protect their economy, environment, and children?
Wow. Whatever’s happening in Copenhagen right now must be contagious.