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Off the Hook: Can a New Study in the Pacific Reel in Unsustainable Fishing?


Mary Catherine O'Connor

The Guardian

Within seconds of being hauled onto the Shen Lain Cheng, a 79-foot tuna fishing boat from China, the crew’s most senior member, whose deeply wrinkled face conveys more than his 58 years, is plunging a T-handled spike between the glistening eyes of a 100-lb yellowfin tuna. The hope is that the swift death has minimized the release of lactic acid, which degrades the flesh meat and reduces the crew’s chances of earning a grade-A for this fish once it is offloaded back at port in Koror, Palau, a small island nation in the Pacific Ocean.

If the buyers back in Koror—who inspect and score the quality of each tuna’s meat—give it a high grade, this particular tuna could net around $2,800 wholesale in Japan, where it will be resold at great profit in a sushi restaurant.

It all looks like a typical day of tuna wrangling on the high seas, except that it’s not. Aboard are Lotus Vermeer, who directs the global fisheries program for The Nature Conservancy, a U.S.-based environmental organization, Michael Musyl, principal scientist of the Pelagic Research Group in Hawaii and a shark expert, and Ivan Sesebo, a tuna fishery observer, who works for an auditor hired by the boat’s owner, Hong Kong-based Luen Thai Fishing Ventures, to ensure compliance with fishing regulations.

This trio is executing an experiment, funded by the Conservancy’s Indo-Pacific Tuna Program, to test whether changing the designs of the hooks and other fishing practices could reduce the amount of bycatch—species that are unintentionally caught and often include sharks, turtles, reef fish and other threatened or endangered species—without also reducing the tuna catch, thereby keeping the business financially lucrative for fishing companies.

A Note From Our Global Leader

For twenty-five years, The Nature Conservancy has worked with the people of Palau and their government to help protect their ocean territory. In March, the Conservancy purchased a year’s worth of fishing rights (400 vessel days) in Palau’s longline tuna fishery to test new and innovative fishing practices that reduce the bycatch of turtles, sharks and rays by using different bait, hooks, time of day and depth of gear when setting the fishing line.

Once the fishing research is complete, the Conservancy will work with the government of Palau to set new conservation standards for fleets fishing their waters—standards that support a more sustainable tuna fishery, local economy and healthy ocean.

The goal is to use this multi sector approach and the scientific data collected beyond the waters of Palau in order to better inform regional fishery management decisions, reduce illegal fishing and help establish a premium for sustainable and traceable tuna in the marketplace.

Read this in-depth article from Mary Catherine O’Conner at The Guardian to learn more about the Conservancy’s funded program in Palau, and read my full piece on lasting solutions for fisheries.

Originally Posted on The Guardian

January 01, 1970