What We Saw: South Pacific Albacore Fishery

Our main work on this trip has been exploring the South Pacific albacore tuna fisheries. With less than 1% of fishing activity on longliners witnessed by independent observers in the region, it really is a fishery with very little regulation.

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What We Saw: South Pacific Albacore Fishery

Our main work on this trip has been exploring the South Pacific albacore tuna fisheries. With less than 1% of fishing activity on longliners witnessed by independent observers in the region, it really is a fishery with very little regulation.

We found fishing vessels with the help of researchers on land, helicopter flights and other at sea monitoring. We called these ships by radio, were invited aboard, reviewed catch and ship logs, opened up freezers, documented fishing practices, working and living conditions. 

The information we gained will help us understand what rules are really working out here, what more is needed, and help pressure both governments and corporations to take the next steps.

This is our eighth expedition to the Pacific tuna fishing grounds, but the first time we’ve been aboard longliners in the South Pacific albacore fishery.

Here’s what we found:

The fish

Albacore tuna catch mostly ends up in cans, and the bulk of those cans end up on supermarket shelves in the US.  (Check out our tuna shopping guides to learn about what you might find in your local supermarkets.)

Recent research indicates that the South Pacific albacore population has been fished down to around 40% of its natural size.

In addition to several species of tuna, we saw sunfish, mahi mahi, wahoo, swordfish, marlin, sailfish, sharks (on one vessel) and oilfish in the ship freezers.

The ships

Most albacore fishing is done by ships like these, called longliners. We didn’t see any of the small percentage of ships using more responsible fishing methods. 

Tuna longliner

Longliners use a long main line, often over 100km (60 miles) long, with branch lines hanging down from it.

Tuna Longliner

By flag, China and Taiwan took the highest catches of South Pacific albacore in 2013. Overall, the tuna fishery is truly multinational. 

The vessels we visited were fairly new, but their owners seek to maximise fishing time - not maintenance. 

The work

Life on board is challenging. 18 hour working days are common. There’s little rest at sea.

Many of the crew we spoke to were at sea for months at a time. A two-year contract is normal.

Hard life on board tuna longliners

Crew quarters were cramped – with up to 8 people sharing a room. Some crew lacked access to a working toilet or fresh water shower. 

None of the crew said anything to about their working conditions being out of the ordinary. Though we have had other reports of more extreme conditions on other tuna longline ships

(See also our blog about the longline fishing process.)

Background 

Commercial tuna fishing in the Western and Central Pacific started around the 1960s, and has intensified since the early 1980s when tuna fleets from the already crowded Indian Ocean, Atlantic, and Eastern Pacific headed down for the tuna gold rush.

The migration of fishing fleets from distant water nations quickly became an invasion, out-competing local fishers with new technology and leaving the future of these large ocean communities under threat. They came in different faces, phases and sizes, bringing overfishing, overcapacity, pirate fishing, laundering, and dumping, to name a few, not forgetting corruption, prostitution, drug smuggling and people smuggling. The region, once peaceful, is now a sea of crime.

The high value sushi and sashmi grade bigeye and yellowfin tuna was the first target fishery. Fishing was dominated by Asian fleets, which meant that the catch and profits almost exclusively ended up back in Asia. This was quickly recognised by the Pacific countries as inequitable, but changes didn’t help the stocks and now bigeye tuna is at 16% of their unfished levels and yellowfin at 38%.

The fate of skipjack, one of the most robust and productive species in the tuna family, was next in line. The competition was tough, with Spanish monsterboats, and the US treaty boats with nets the sizes of football fields and some of the world’s most advanced fishing technology. With the world competing for a dwindling number of fish to feed the canned tuna market, this fishery spiralled out of control, and quickly became overcrowded.

To try to control the overcrowded fishery, the region introduced regulations like a three month ban on the use of fish aggregating devices, the closure of certain high seas pockets, and a vessel day management scheme (where a fixed number of one day fishing permits are allocated across states, which in turn distribute them to fishing vessels.) But Pacific Island countries can only regulate within their own EEZs and the worst practices simple migrated to the high seas, where transhipping means thousands of tonnes of tuna travel straight to the other side of the world contributing nothing to local economies or dinner tables.

Now, the entire Pacific tuna fishery is home to over 3,000 fishing vessels pillaging these waters every day. 

Conclusions

All of the fishing vessels we’ve been on board so far were built in the last five years, despite warnings that fishing capacity shouldn’t be expanded.  Having built the ships, companies want to recoup their investment and make their profit before the albacore stocks run out. So their ships fish night and day, cut corners with working conditions and make do with as little maintenance time as possible.

The fewer the fish, the more effort and expense (crew pay, fuel costs, etc) it takes to catch them.  Right now, this fishery is probably not sustainably profitable.  

There is no doubt that some companies are trying to be good citizens, and that tuna fishing is a critical industry for Pacific jobs and life, but overfishing has put a strain on many in the Pacific tuna sector.  Good ocean stewardship must be the priority. 

We believe it’s time to transform from a model of distant water fishing fleets to local sustainable fleets. Pacific Island countries need to work together – supported by ocean lovers and tuna shoppers everywhere - to achieve these goals.