Foreign fleets pushing Pacific tuna fishing industry to the brink of collapse

Foreign fleets pushing Pacific tuna fishing industry to the brink of collapse

Foreign fleets pushing Pacific tuna fishing industry to the brink of collapse

Updated 27 February 2014, 10:32 AEST

Fishing nations in the Pacific say their industry is close to collapse because they can no longer compete with foreign fleets.

Tuna fishing nations in the Pacific say their industry is close to collapse because they can no longer compete with the growing number of foreign fleets fishing in their waters.

The Western and Central Pacific has the world's largest tuna fishery, worth an estimated $7 billion a year.

But the Pacific countries say their local industry is in crisis and they are being fished out of their own market.

"Their fuel is subsidised, their boat building fees are subsidised by their governments, that's an unfair advantage as they come here to Fiji with the local boats that don't have fuel subsidies," Robert Matau from the Suva-based Islands Business magazine said.

Mr Matau's son was an engineer on one of Fiji's tuna fishing boats, but now - like many others across the Pacific's tuna fishing industry - he is struggling to find work.

"The president of the Fiji Tuna Boats Association owns a company called Fiji Fish company," he said.

"They have 35 boats and there are only 5 boats operating because there is not enough fish.

"Their tuna catch has dropped and it's not viable enough for them to continue fishing in Fiji anymore."

Pacific tuna industry struggling with international competition

Many blame the foreign tuna fishing fleets with their large-scale operations that buy the rights to fish in Western and Central pacific fisheries, and whose numbers are steadily increasing.

In the past decade, China's fishing fleet has ballooned with hundreds of new heavily state-subsidised boats now operating in the southern Albacore tuna fishery.

Greenpeace's Nathaniel Pelle says in return the Pacific nations are paid access fees but often their slice of the estimated $7 billion a year Pacific tuna industry is less than 10 per cent.

"We're talking Fiji, Solomon islands, Vanuatu, Tonga, these countries have been trying and having some success in recent years to develop their own fisheries," Mr Pelle said.

"But with the influx of especially Chinese longliners with heavy fuel subsidies, these guys just can't compete and just in the last couple of months we've seen one of the major fleets in Fiji has tied up most of its 35 vessels and laid off staff and that's a real concern for the industry locally."

And it might just be the edge Pacific nations need, to revive their local tuna industry.

Rosetti Imo, a bio-economist with the Pacific Islands Forum Fisheries Agency, says the loss of the local tuna industry would be a huge economic blow for the region.

"In terms of value to the Pacific islands and how our economies rely on this resource its very, very valuable and most of our small economies rely on this resource absolutely", he said.

Fisheries management experts say one solution might be withdrawing or cutting back foreign access to their exclusive economic zones.

Greenpeace's Nathaniel Pelle agrees: "In the long term there is no benefit of having this system of reliance on selling access to foreign vessels, the economic benefit is going to come from having a stable fishing population."

One of the big problems for local fleets is when they get out to sea the fish are already gone.

Ian Cartwright, the forum deputy director at Forum Fisheries Agency, says instead of just blaming foreign fishing fleets what's needed is stronger fishery management from Pacific nations.

"The reality is that often these fishing vessels are not the problem, the problem is that they've been provided with fishing opportunities that are rather larger than they should be," he said.

"The reality is it's very much easier to demonise foreign fishing vessels rather than tackle the much more difficult problem of international agreements on limiting catch."

Push for more sustainable fishing

Greenpeace has been urging Pacific nations to transform the region's tuna fisheries to a more sustainable model.

While regional agreements have led to a ban on purse seine tuna fishing in much of the Central and Western Pacific, longlining is still widespread.

And while it's cost effective, it's also indiscriminate, Greenpeace said.

"Methods like pole and line fishing use smaller vessels, they fish closer to land, they're less technically challenging operation so it's a way the Pacific can really get involved," Nathaniel Pelle said.

"We have seen an enormous change in the global tuna market in countries like the UK and Australia in particular, every single tuna brand has made commitments to switch to more sustainable types of fishing."

Safcol is one of those companies who has switched its business model to rely on pole and line tuna.

"Pole and Line you catch one fish at a time you can be much more selective of what you catch whereas purse seine catches everything that's in the net turtles, sharks, rays and tuna," Safcol Australia's CEO Andrew Mitchell said.

Safcol buys most of its tuna from the Maldives and Indonesia, where pole and line fishing is now well-established.

But Mr Mitchell says there's no reason why Pacific nations can't follow suit.

"It's certainly fantastic for the local communities because you obviously need more people to catch the fish and its more localised and that's a trend that they should tap into," he said.

"And believe me there is no question that there will come a time when the majority of canned tuna bought in Australia will be either pole and line or fad free and not purse seine as we're currently seeing."

Greenpeace says Solomon Islands provides a perfect example of how sustainable fishing can be a success story.

"They had an established pole and line fishery that declined over the years but now with increase in demand from the West we're seeing Solomon Island based tuna companies are buying more pole and line vessels", Mr Pelle said.

"There certainly is hope that the Pacific can turn it around and transform their fisheries but they need to stand up to the distant water fleets."