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[MANILA] Member countries and territories of the Western and Central Pacific Fisheries Commission (WCPFC) have agreed to adopt measures to conserve stocks of tropical tuna while increasing the catch limit of bigeye tuna, a decision criticised by conservation groups.

According to consensus reached at the 14th regular session of the commission, which concluded on 8 December in the Philippine capital Manila, the “bridging measures” — such as regulating and monitoring the use of fish aggregating devices (FADs) and long lines of baited hooks — will be in place for three years while WCPFC members prepare a comprehensive tuna harvest strategy covering catch limits and spawn stocks. “Conservation and management measures shall ensure, at a minimum, that stocks are maintained at levels capable of producing maximum sustainable yield, pending agreement on target reference points as part of the harvest strategy approach,” said the draft agreement dated 7 December.

“Commission members should ensure negotiations start immediately toward a stronger measure next year, to ensure precautionary, science-based management of its fisheries,”

Amanda Nickson

The western and central Pacific Ocean accounted for nearly 60 per cent of the global tuna catch in 2016, worth over US$5 billion.

The 26-member WCPFC, which is the governing body for international agreement on migratory fish in the Pacific, is composed mostly of small island states in the Pacific but also includes developed countries such as Australia, Canada, Japan and the United States.

The WCPFC said the use of FADs will be prohibited for three months in exclusive economic zones (EEZs) and for two months in the high seas. Exempted are Kiribati-flagged vessels operating in the high seas adjacent to Kiribati’s EEZ, and Philippine vessels fishing in similar environments.

FADs are semi-permanent floating structures made from any materials that can be used to lure fish such as tuna. But they end up trapping other marine animals like sharks, sea turtles and dolphins; and they also catch young tuna, which prevents them from breeding. 

Conservation and public interest groups welcomed the measures, but were critical of the commission’s decision to increase the catch limit of bigeye tuna by nearly 10 per cent. Critics have pointed out that the Commission misinterpreted a report its scientific committee issued in August as suggesting that bigeye tuna is not overfished.

Holly Koehler, vice-president of the International Seafood Sustainability Foundation based in Washington, DC, explains that the scientific committee had referred to uncertainty in the bigeye stock status, and recommended maintaining current levels so as not to decrease biomass.

“That’s why we asked that fishing mortality on bigeye and yellowfin tuna stocks not increase from current levels, to maintain current or increased spawning levels until the commission can agree on appropriate target reference points,” Koehler told SciDev.Net.

Amanda Nickson, a director at Pew Charitable Trusts headquartered in the United States, says that raising the catch limit will impact the bigeye’s biomass. “Commission members should ensure negotiations start immediately toward a stronger measure next year, to ensure precautionary, science-based management of its fisheries,” she says.

The western and central Pacific Ocean accounted for nearly 60 per cent of the global tuna catch in 2016, worth over US$ five billion.

This piece was produced by SciDev.Net’s Asia & Pacific desk.