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[PALAU] Pacific island nations and conservation groups have failed to persuade the body that oversees tuna fishing in the Pacific to introduce more stringent measures to protect tuna supply.

Negotiations broke down at a meeting in Guam last month (March 26-30) of the Western and Central Pacific Fisheries Commission (WCPFC), as Pacific island nations – backed by Australia – failed to reach agreement with the United States, European Union, China and Japan on ways to conserve big-eye tuna and protect other species.

According to the WCPFC's Scientific Committee, big-eye tuna, which is used mainly for sushi, is 80 per cent depleted, and continues to be overfished.  It also said that yellowfin tuna is being fished to the limit of sustainability, and skipjack -- the variety commonly used in cans -- needs to be watched closely.

Joanna Benn, senior officer for international policy of the Pew Environment Group, a Washington-based think-tank, said "science shows that management measures are necessary, but [agreement is needed] at a political level."

The main sticking points have been proposals to extend restrictions on the use of fish aggregating devices (FADs) beyond the current three-month ban each year, and to limit the use of purse-seine nets, both of which are fully supported by eight Pacific states – Federated States of Micronesia, Kiribati, Marshall Islands, Nauru, Palau, Tuvalu, Papua New Guinea and Solomon Islands – and civil society groups.

Purse-seine nets are encircling nets that closes at the bottom, preventing even juvenile fish from swimming down and escaping. These nets stretch about 1.6-kilometers wide and 1,000 feet deep.

FADs are man-made floating objects equipped with sonar devices that take advantage of the habit of fish to gather around floating objects, making it easier to catch them. But other species are caught as well, from tuna to sharks and turtles.

The Guam meeting also failed to make progress on illegal fishing, and the countries were unable to agree on the issue of port controls or vessels identification.

The collapse of the talks means that the existing measures will continue for another year, in particular the three-month ban on the use of FAD, and 100 per cent observer coverage on purse-seine fleets.

An outcome of the meeting was that the Philippines will be allowed to resume tuna fishing on limited scale in an area known as Pocket 1.  

Mark Dia, oceans campaign manager for Greenpeace Southeast Asia, said "all eyes will now be on the Philippines to make good on its commitments to conservation and management measures."

Greenpeace had earlier opposed the Philippine appeal to allow its vessels to fish once again in Pocket 1.

However, tuna is the Philippines' top agricultural export and economic driver in the insurgency-troubled Mindanao region, and any significant decline could threaten livelihoods -- and thus its political stability.

The country will host the next round of tuna conservation talks, scheduled for December.

Adam Baske, International Policy officer of Pew, said in a telephone interview with SciDev.Net that purse-seine fleets from Taiwan, Korea, Japan and China had surprisingly made commitments to reduce the amount of FAD fishing.

However, he said that the US and EU had not made a similar commitment, even though there was clear scientific evidence that it was needed.