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Seasonal Bans Not Enough to Save Pacific Tuna

SAN SALVADOR, Nov 16 2010 (IPS) - The countries that fish for tuna in the Eastern Pacific Ocean see seasonal bans as a form of responsible fishing, but environmentalists argue that they are not enough to ensure the survival of a resource that is threatened around the world.

A school of yellowfin tuna.  Credit: NOAA

A school of yellowfin tuna. Credit: NOAA

The Inter-American Tropical Tuna Commission (IATTC, based in California), whose member countries fish for tuna in the tropical Pacific, on Oct. 1 adopted new seasonal bans for 2011, 2012 and 2013 for the three most prized tuna species in the zone: the yellowfin (Thunnus albacares), bigeye (Thunnus obesus) and skipjack (Katsuwonus pelamis).

“What we are doing is preserving for the future; these are necessary conservation measures,” Miguel Peñalva, director of operations for the Spain- based Calvo Group in El Salvador, told Tierramérica.

The Calvo Group started its tuna operations in El Salvador in September 2003 with an investment of 138 million dollars. Although this Central American country does not have a tuna industry as such, in virtue of Calvo’s presence, it has become the region’s principle exporter of canned tuna.

Four of the Calvo Group’s boats fish in international waters of the Pacific off the Salvadoran coast, and more than 80 percent of its exports, which totalled 100 million dollars in 2008, are destined for the European Union.

“If we don’t comply with the seasonal bans, they would declare our fishing illegal and we wouldn’t be able to sell it,” said Peñalva.

The IATTC bans, based on studies by its scientific committee on the state of the Pacific’s fisheries, halt fishing 62 days per year and are required for all members: Belize, Canada, China, Colombia, Costa Rica, Ecuador, El Salvador, EU, France, Guatemala, Japan, Mexico, Nicaragua, Panama, Peru, Taiwan, South Korea, United States, Vanuatu and Venezuela.

Independent observers report to the IATTC about the countries’ compliance with the bans, and the fishing fleets are monitored using satellites to determine their positions.

“The bans take place during the tuna’s growth period,” said Peñalva, underscoring the importance of heeding the seasonal fishing stoppages.

But according to Sari Tolvanen, of Greenpeace International’s oceans campaign, “the bans don’t necessarily mean a reduction in fishing.”

First of all, the periods are too short to make much of a difference, Tolvanen told Tierramérica from Amsterdam. The fleets that use purse-seine techniques fish 75 percent of the year, and cease operations when they have to undergo mechanical updates anyway, she said.

The purse-seine is one of the least eco-friendly fishing techniques because it allows huge captures in which there is a great deal of bycatch — fish that are too small or species that are not marketable.

In addition, the purse-seine vessels are quite large and increasingly use artificial floating objects to catch more fish, such that the seasonal bans make little sense, said Tolvanen.

When fishing for skipjack, those floating devices increase the bycatch of yellowfin and bigeye tuna that are still too small to be sold, further endangering these and other species, like sharks and sea turtles.

“Calvo and other companies rely heavily on the objects,” which makes their operations “completely unsustainable,” said the Greenpeace activist.

In its resolution, IATTC recognised that tuna fishing in the Eastern Pacific is increasing and that populations could begin to decline if the catch is excessive.

In other parts of the world, tuna populations have fallen to critical levels.

Bigeye and yellowfin tuna have been over-fished in all seas and face serious problems in the central and western Pacific, where their populations were relatively robust just a few years ago, according to Greenpeace.

The bluefin tuna (Thunnus thynnus), native to the Atlantic and adjacent seas, is one step away from extinction, and the bluefin of the Mediterranean has seen its population drop 80 percent since 1999.

The International Seafood Sustainability Foundation (ISSF) maintains a tuna stocks status chart on its website, using colour coding for each of the world’s seas and their tuna species — with red indicating the most critical stocks.

On the ISSF chart, the yellowfin and bigeye species are marked in yellow for the Eastern Pacific, because those populations cannot support any increase in catches, and in some cases suffer from overfishing. Only the skipjack is marked in green, indicating a healthy population.

In 2009, approximately 595,000 tonnes of tuna were caught in that region, 14 percent of the world tuna catch, according to the report updated in September, titled “ISSF Status of the World Fisheries for Tuna.”

Spain, with the largest fishing fleet of the EU and third in the world after China and Peru, catches most of its tuna in the North Atlantic, the Mediterranean, and off the coast of Western Africa, but according to Greenpeace, the “Spanish fishing armada” sails the world’s oceans pursuing more substantial catches of tuna, shark and codfish.

That would explain the presence of the Calvo Group in El Salvador.

For the 2009-2011 period, IATTC established specific quotas for some of the big fishers in the Pacific: China, Japan, South Korea and Taiwan.

In Tolvanen’s view, the IATTC and other regional tuna commissions are a long way from achieving adequate management of the tuna species.

The Greenpeace expert stressed that it is just a handful of fishing nations that are negotiating the “tuna pie” and how to make more money, without considering the long-term health of the tuna stocks, the oceans, the means for people to make a living and their food security.

(*This story was originally published by Latin American newspapers that are part of the Tierramérica network. Tierramérica is a specialised news service produced by IPS with the backing of the United Nations Development Programme, United Nations Environment Programme and the World Bank.)

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