In Troubled Pacific Waters, Fish Tide is Turning

In Troubled Pacific Waters, Fish Tide is Turning

Economics as much as conservation is forcing an upturn in ravaged world fish stocks, and some scientists, once pessimistic, are taking hope again. The founding chairman of the Western and Central Pacific Fisheries Commission, Glenn Hurry, is encouraged by progress in the region which is one of the places in the world where sustainable fishing is achievable, partly because most of the resources are found within the 200 nautical mile Economic Exclusion Zone of each Pacific nation. More than half the world’s tuna is found in this vast region.

Paul Cleary in The Australian (5 June 2010):

WHEN oil prices nudged $US150 a barrel in mid-2008, the world’s marine life gained long overdue respite as high-seas fishing fleets returned to their ports. The record oil price made long-range fishing uneconomic, with the prices needed to make a profit well beyond what could have been charged at local fish markets.

Restaurants and consumers also played a role, with many refusing to sell or consume increasingly rare types of tuna, such as southern bluefin and bigeye, for reasons of conservation and cost. Restaurants are substituting expensive tuna with more plentiful fish such as salmon and kingfish.

Individuals and markets can help restore the natural order, and when combined with effective regulation there is less cause for concern over collapsing fish stocks.

But the alarmist narrative, most recently on show in the documentary film “The End of the Line”, pretends none of these responses actually exist. Hailed by The Economist magazine as “the inconvenient truth” about oceans, the film predicts a world with no fish, its oceans inhabited only by jellyfish and plankton. Evidently, the magazine appears to have forgotten its economics.

True, fish stocks have plummeted and are at critically low levels, particularly in the northern hemisphere. But the critical issue is to understand why this has happened, how it can be corrected and how it is being corrected.

The case of southern bluefin tuna shows how the combined failure of markets and regulation allowed the stock of this highly valuable deep-sea fish to plumb critically low levels. Scientists say spawning stocks are at 5 per cent of their original level, far worse than northern bluefin tuna, which are at about 20 per cent.

In the 1960s the fishermen in Port Lincoln, on the edge of the Great Australian Bight, profited from an annual catch of as much as 80,000 tonnes, as did Japanese fishing fleets. Diving into such a valuable resource spawned fishing dynasties in Port Lincoln and created a national figure in tuna fisherman Dean Lukin, who went on to lift 240kg at the 1984 Olympics and win a gold medal.

But then the fish became harder to find as stocks plummeted. Southern bluefin tuna was a modern-day case of the tragedy of the commons played out on the high seas, when individuals’ pursuit of self-interest can deplete of a common resource, even though it is not in their long-term interest for this to happen.

Australia, Japan and New Zealand, the three main nations that fish southern bluefin tuna, imposed individual quotas in the 80s, but these efforts failed. Collective action then led to the Commission for the Conservation of Southern Bluefin Tuna, which came into being in 1994. The commission cut the total quota drastically to less than 10,000 tonnes a year, which scientists said should have reversed the decline, but stocks continued to fall.

Regulation failed because Australia belatedly discovered that it was instead dealing with a black market, for Japan had been operating a high-seas smuggling operation for 20 years.

With the help of a firm of former CIA agents and the industry association, the Howard government revealed that Japan had smuggled as much as $8 billion worth of tuna into its local fish markets. In response, Australia succeeded in 2006 in punishing Japan at a CCSBT meeting with a 50 per cent cut in its quota, thereby giving some hope that stocks will recover. The industry says stocks have since bounced back.

The Rudd government is examining the creation of a chain of marine conservation zones similar to the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park all around Australia. It has proposed a massive area covering the west, north and east coasts of Australia, in total 5.4 million square kilometres, or 38 per cent of Australia’s exclusive economic zone.

Last March Environment Protection Minister Peter Garrett unveiled the Coral Sea “conservation zone”, although the proposal to create a “no take” area of almost one million square kilometres did not affect existing commercial, recreational or indigenous fishing while consultation was being carried out. A final decision is expected later this year.

Garrett announced several more areas off the east coast for assessment as “no-take” or “mix-use” marine reserves, covering a massive 2.4 million sq km stretching from the Torres Strait north of Queensland to southern NSW, and as far east as Norfolk Island. There is no date for a decision.

Garrett tells Inquirer that the case for creating such conservation zones is compelling. “The evidence we have from no take areas is showing pretty strongly that there’s a linkage to the overall health of fish stocks. There are significant opportunities for the spillover from no-take areas to mixed use areas to be clearly identified.

“The no-take zone on the reef shows that the effect of having a framework like that satisfies the goals we have for a healthier fish population generally. A UN Environment Program report released last week reinforces that view,” he says.

Asked where he sits on the spectrum of pessimist v optimist on fish stocks, Garrett is hopeful that regulation can prevail, although some species may be lost forever. “We always have hope, although it is difficult to generalise. For example, for a species with a low reproductive rate, if it gets hammered, recovery can be slow,” he says.

“Generally, it is about ensuring sustainable fisheries management balanced with a well-developed zoning regime to allow for stock recovery. This double-pronged approach can help ensure the sustainability of Australian fisheries.”

Beyond Australia’s water, Australian National University natural resource economist Tom Kompas has been advising Pacific countries on how they can achieve a win-win for conservation and commercial fishing though better regulation. He argues that as fish stocks decline, the cost of fishing rises because fleets have to exert more costly effort. By reducing the take and allowing stocks to recover, Kompas argues that fishing can continue at a more sustainable and more profitable rate.

Australia’s Pacific neighbours have been pursuing stronger regulation of their waters and neighbouring high seas in a bid to preserve what for many is their biggest source of foreign exchange. For more than three decades as many as 17 Pacific nations have pulled together under the banner of the Pacific Island Forum Fisheries Agency, which aims to create a single bloc for negotiating with foreign fleets operating in the EEZs of each country. The landed value of fish caught in this region is about $4bn a year.

Included in this membership is the eight-member Parties to the Nauru Agreement, which has taken very strong action in recent years to limit access by foreign fleets. In 2008 the PNA banned any foreign fleets from their EEZs if they fished in two large high seas areas in the Pacific.

The PNA includes some countries often dismissed as failed states, such Papua New Guinea, Nauru and the Solomons, and yet they have proved themselves capable of defending their resources. Australia officials praise the action taken by PNG officials in confronting nations such as Japan at international meetings.

Bolstering regulation on the high seas is the newly formed Western and Central Pacific Fisheries Commission, which has a brief to police an area covering one-fifth of the world’s surface. With 35 member countries, the WCPFC brings together Pacific island states and fishing nations such as Japan, South Korea and Australia.

Despite complaints by some conservation groups about ongoing abuses by fishing fleets, the founding chairman of the commission, Glenn Hurry, is encouraged by progress so far. Hurry says the region is one of the places in the world where sustainable fishing is achievable, partly because most of the resources are found within the 200 nautical mile EEZ of each Pacific nation. More than half the world’s tuna is found in this vast region.

“If ever there was a place where sustainable fishing has a chance it is here. The bulk of the fish is caught in the EEZs of the island countries,” says Hurry, who heads the Australian Fisheries Management Authority and has since stepped down as WCPFC chairman. Hurry says the body has the best set of tools for any fisheries management agencies anywhere in the world: vessel monitoring, an observer program and a boarding and inspection regime to prevent illegal fishing. This is in spite of its head office, in the Federated States of Micronesia, having a budget of about $3 million.

Hurry’s optimism also stems from the recent realisation by Pacific countries that they can make money out of defending their resources. There was “real strength” emerging from Pacific countries in the way they policed their EEZs, he says.

The progress is being made despite the very low priority given to supporting fisheries management in Australia’s aid program. A 2007 AusAID paper admits Australia’s support represented just 0.55 per cent of the aid budget in the region in the five years to 2004, well behind Japan at 13 per cent of its budget and Britain at 12 per cent of its.

A more recent estimate provided by an AusAID spokesperson says that support for fisheries management increased to $7m in 2009-10, up from $4.5m, although this still represents only 5.4 per cent of the aid program in the region.

The optimism in Australia and the Pacific is supported by a landmark study by 21 scientists published last year in Science magazine. The group declared that “after a long history of over-exploitation, increasing efforts to restore marine ecosystems and rebuild fisheries are under way”.

More startling than this finding was the appearance of Canadian marine scientist Boris Worm as the lead author, given that Worm had for many years produced dire estimates of declining fish stocks. Joining Worm as the second author was his former nemesis, Ray Hilborn, who has sought to dispel the popular fished-out narrative.

Even more significant is that some of the authors are reported to have published research pushing the overfished argument that has been funded by environmental groups, including the Pew Foundation, which is also backing the creation of the Coral Sea reserve.

The 21 authors say in the paper that over-exploitation had clearly declined, although more than half the world’s oceans were still in trouble.

“Combined fisheries and conservation objectives can be achieved by merging diverse management actions, including catch restrictions, gear modification, and closed areas, depending on local context,” they said.

“Most often it appears that a combination of traditional approaches (catch quotas, community management) coupled with strategically placed fishing closures, more selective fishing gear, ocean zoning and economic incentives holds much promise for restoring marine fisheries and ecosystems.”

The group of 21 saw optimistic signs of effective management efforts leading to improving levels of fish stocks in several places around the world, including Australia and NZ.

“Since the 90s, Iceland, [Canada's] Newfoundland-Labrador, the Northeast US Shelf, the Southeast Australian Shelf, and California Current ecosystems have shown substantial declines in fishing pressure,” they wrote.

But the paper warned that only in California and NZ would the reduced fishing effort meet established conservation targets of less than 10 per cent of the collapsed stock.

Even so, the authors concluded on an optimistic note: “We envision a seascape where the rebuilding, conservation and sustainable use of marine resources become unifying themes for science, management, and society.”

Hilborn, a professor of marine science at the University of Washington, likens the pessimistic view to the Titanic: it is too late to save the ship so we should run to the lifeboats. Hilborn characterises the idea of creating marine reserves as the lifeboat approach, which is being pushed in the US and elsewhere by the Pew Foundation.

One of George W. Bush’s last acts in office was the creation of three marine parks covering an area of 500,000 sq km that ban all fishing. Instead, Hilborn argues that the success stories involve “clear and simple institutional authority” that allocates fishing rights. He cites Chile as a place where strong management has recognised historical fishing territories and achieved sustainability and exploitation.

Instead of jumping for the lifeboats, individuals, markets and governments can indeed work together to sustain common wealth.


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