Big Fish, Not Reef Fish

Big Fish, Not Reef Fish
By Steven Victor | Opinion | June 28, 2017

Even though I live near the ocean, I am not a fishermen. I catch fish sometimes, but they are mostly reef fish because in Palau you need to travel far to catch tuna. When I have extra time I work on my garden. I like growing things, but gardens take time and patience. But I see this as a part of solution to saving Palau’s fish, too,  letting the fish grow and reproduce to replenish their populations. Fishermen need to treat their fishing ground like I treat my garden.

I recently travelled to the island of Pohnpei, one of the states in the Federated States of Micronesia, to engage with local partners on tuna project. The Nature Conservancy is leading a project in countries that are part of the Parties to Nauru Agreement (PNA), which brings together nine Pacific island countries – Palau, Federated States of Micronesia, Marshall Island, Kiribati, Nauru, Papua New Guinea, Solomon Islands, and Tuvalu – ­to work together to manage 50 percent of the world’s tuna source.

I have travelled to Pohnpei many times, but I have never had a chance to see what fishing is like in Pohnpei. In fish markets I see mainly reef fish of very small size and some yellowfin and skipjack tuna. Pohnpei, like many Pacific islands, is facing a serious decline in their reef fish. It is estimated that fishermen are taking more than 400 percent of sustainable catch levels. In addition to overfishing, the reefs are also being impacted by land-based sources of pollution. This is quite troubling for an island community that relies heavily on reef fish as their primary source of protein.

But today I would catch fish for myself, beyond the reef. I was going on a fishing excursion with Ricky Carl, external affairs director for the Conservancy’s Micronesia program and a traditional leader in his community as well and with Noah Idechong, a renowned conservationist from Palau and also a Conservancy staffer leading the Pacific tuna project.

We left the dock and it took about 15 minutes to get through the reef channel and go beyond the reef. While cruising about 500 meters off the edge of the reef, we saw four boats anchored and Ricky says they are doing deepwater fishing for yellowfin tuna. Then he pointed to a purse seiner that had run aground on the reef about 3 years ago, and a long liner that had also run aground causing the vessel owner to declare bankruptcy. When I looked around, I saw other purse seiner and long liners docked in the lagoon. I thought to myself, tuna fishing here must be good, to have all these vessels here.
There may be an opportunity that can contribute to food security of these small Pacific Islands – tuna. PNA countries control 50 percent of the tuna that supplies the world market, but less than 10 percent of tuna fish that are caught by industrial fleets remain on the island to feed local community. Instead, tuna comes back to the island in the form of processed, canned tuna that costs a minimum of $1.55 per can and is less healthy. So why not eat the fresh tuna?

Fisherman holding his yellowfin tuna catch amongst the small reef fish in fishmarket in Pohnpei. Photo © Steven Victor / The Nature Conservancy

After about 5 minutes Ricky slowed down after seeing some birds and said let’s put out our lines and try here. I chose one of his trolling lures with blue and purple. I drew the line in the water and released it to about 30 meters behind the boat and we trolled for about 5 minutes and something caught the line. It felt heavy. Ricky stopped the engine and I struggled to pull the line in. Noah says its katsuo, Japanese for tuna, which is a commonly used name around Micronesia.
After about 2 minutes, I pulled the fish in and it was the biggest fish I’ve ever caught, a 15-pound skipjack tuna. I was so happy and I could have stopped fishing and been satisfied. However, Ricky says I need some fish for the breadfruit harvest festival tomorrow, so I drew my line again in the water and we continued chasing the birds. Two hours later we had caught about 20 fish, each ranging between 10 to 15 pounds.

20 lbs skipjack tuna caught off the waters in Pohnpei. Photo © Ricky Carl / The Nature Conservancy
Back on land I did the math on our fishing trip: We used only 10 gallons of gas, at a cost of $40 for the fishing trip. Each fish weighed an average of 10 pounds, so with 20 fish that is 200 pounds in just 2 hrs. With the price of fish at the market at $1.75 pounds that is a total of $350 profit. For fisherman targeting reef fish, catching 200 pounds of fish could take anywhere between 8 to 10 hours or even more. So one can do the math and see the potential for local fishermen to benefit from the relatively untapped tuna fishery. The main constraint is access to the fish, as local fisherman have relatively small and unsafe boats to take them out farther from the reef.

As part of my work in Micronesia, I have been encouraging fishermen to “save tomorrow’s fish” by letting the reef fish grown big and reproduce before catching them. But this trip made me realize that there is a real economic argument to be made by catching big fish and not reef fish.

There will be some level of effort that will be required to make the transition such as building awareness on the benefits of tuna as a source of protein as many Pacific Islands have traditionally preferred eating reef fish. The Nature Conservancy is working to make the tuna fish a bit more accessible to small artisanal fishers by installing a network of anchored fish aggregating devices (aFADs) that attracts and keeps the fish closer to the fishermen.

aFAD’s have been tested in many Pacific Island countries and they have proven to be able to support fishermen’s livelihood and food security, but there hasn’t been a consistent effort in ensuring fishermen can access them. The Conservancy is working with the Palau government in establishing a national program that supports a network of aFADs that provides fishermen with access to tuna. We are also working with the Secretariat of Pacific Community, a regional fisheries management organization, to provide sea safety training, strategies and techniques for fishing around aFADs, and training on fish handling that ensures good-quality fresh tuna.

Training fishermen on these techniques can enable fishers to access the aFADs, further reducing their pressure on reef fish and potentially making tuna more readily available in the markets.  These tuna can help support food security for local coastal communities as well as provide livelihood through access to restaurants where many visitors to Palau also prefer fresh tuna sashimi.

Transitioning coastal fishers from targeting at risk reef fish to targeting tuna and bringing them into local markets and into their homes can be a strategy to help save reef fish populations. Healthy fish populations help improve the health of coral reefs and protect biodiversity that can contribute to resilient coral reef systems which are very important to coastal communities for food security and protection from the impact of climate change.
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Oishi-ne!!!!!! Now all the islands nations should prioritize on the use of these excellent devices. The article speaks for itself.

This is a sign of great optimism and I am so glad Palau's leadership is acting to implement the use of this magnificent marine technology. We should be the first ones to benefit directly from our marine resources. With such a device, a lot of households can have a steady supply of fresh katsuo. This is a step towards that direction.
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