The Pacific Commons Attempts to Save Declining Tuna

The over-fishing of the oceans is an increasingly worrisome story. The good news is that a number of Pacific Island Nations – "PINs" – are calling for the creation of the Pacific Commons Marine Reserves.  The idea is to protect the biodiversity of the ocean waters, smaller-scale domestic fishing fleets, and the region's food security.

The Pacific Commons would be the first no-take marine reserves ever established in international waters. Pacific Island countries that support the reserves include Papua New Guinea, Solomon Islands, and Cook Islands. Greenpeace, which is supporting the effort, has called for 40 percent of the world's oceans to be declared marine reserves.

The basic problem is that the oceans have become a free-for-all zone that are easily exploited by globe-trotting industrial fishing fleets. An estimated 80% of the Pacific tuna catch is made by foreign fishing fleets that sell to Japan, Korea, China, Taiwan, the U.S. and the U.K.  Pacific Island Nations reap only about 6% of the value of fish caught in their waters.

This propels a nasty downward spiral:  The oceans become depleted of fish, biodiversity declines, regional fishers lose their livelihoods, and eventually, the ocean fisheries will collapse.

The fishers of the Pacific Ocean want to avoid this fate so they are taking pro-active steps to protect their fishing grounds from outsiders who have little interest in the long-term sustainability of the catch. The idea is to create marine reserves that function somewhat like national parks. They would be a safe haven for marine life and cannot be exploited by any fishing or extractive industries. A report by Greenpeace, “Rescuing the Pacific and Its Tuna,” (pdf) describes this campaign to restore tuna stocks in the region and stop "Illegal Unregulated, Unreported” fishing, otherwise known as IUU fishing. (More on the fishing problems in the Pacific can be found here.)

The Pacific Commons can't address the nearly 25% of Pacific tuna that are caught in international waters. These areas are too far offshore, and too difficult to monitor for violations of fishing rules. But by creating marine commons in several key areas, the hope is that Pacific Island Nations can shop fishing fleets from depleting fish in national country waters and then claiming that the catch came from international waters. Within the boundaries of the commons, the PINs can more easiy monitor and enforce the catch.

Progress is being made. Under the Parties to the Nauru Agreement – ratified by the states of Micronesia, the Marshall Islands, Papua New Guinea, Solomon Islands and other islands – over 4.4 million square kilometers of the Pacific Ocean are closed to purse seine fishing. This makes it one of the largest ocean protection measures yet taken.

The Pacific Island commoners have also been successful in persuading a number of UK major supermarket chains (Tesco, ASDA and Sainsbury's) and two major UK tinned tuna brands (Princes and John West) to stop buying fish that has been caught using “fish aggregation devices” or fish caught within the Pacific Commons reserves. The sustainable alternative is domestically based “artisanal” and commercial pole-and-line caught tuna.

East Asian countries are not happy about these developments. But then, the privateers responsible for enclosing the commons rarely are happy about being stopped.  It's great to hear that some positive, commons-based solutions are making some headway in stopping over-fishing.