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Beyond the bycatch

Merewalesi Laveti And Josua Turaganivalu
Wednesday, November 16, 2011

FISHING is a way of life for our coastal communities, not only here in Fiji but throughout the Pacific. We depend on the sea for our livelihood and this has been an integral part of our culture and tradition for countless generations.

Fishing gear and techniques have continued to develop over the years, geared towards improving fish catch. The offshore or pelagic fisheries are without exception, for both the longline and purse seine fisheries.

Incidental catch or bycatch refers to marine species which are caught, other than, the intended or targeted tuna species.

For instance, longline and purse seine fishing for albacore and skipjack tuna may end up catching species such as turtles, sharks and juvenile tuna. Because of this, bycatch has become an issue of both fisheries management and marine conservation.

Bycatch differs among fisheries and is highly dependent on the type of fishing gear used. The most notorious fishing gear for bycatch includes that utilised by longline and purse seine fishing.

Unfortunately many longline fishing vessels use wire lines instead of nylon wires which are safer for sharks. In purse seine fishing, sharks and turtles get entangled in the nets of the purse seine vessel.

Ocean dreaming

For many years, sharks and marine turtles have been a part of the traditions of people in Fiji and throughout the Pacific. Revered as mythical gods, sharks have been known as protectors and guides during the pre-colonial period, and this has been part of our culture and passed down through generations.

Turtles were once considered to be the guardians of the ocean. One particular turtle was featured in a famous novel (often part of the school curriculum here in Fiji) called The Silent One รน an enchanted tale that talks about a voiceless boy in a village set in the Cook Islands.

Shunned by his own people, he finds comfort under the sea and develops a relationship with a white turtle.

Sadly, these amazing marine creatures are seriously threatened by the use of inappropriate fishing gear and methods.

Deadly bitter soup

Recent research conducted by the Coral Reef Alliance found that shark fin operators have been working in the Fiji islands for a significant period of time, with approximately one tonne of shark's fin exported to Asia on a monthly basis.

Shark's fin soup is a so-called delicacy, historically sought after by Chinese emperors because of its unusual preparation. Shark's fin dishes are popular for important occasions such as weddings and business deals, symbolising prosperity and dominance.

Studies have actually discovered that shark's fins hold very little nutritional value and may even be detrimental to your health over the long-term.

This illogical need for shark's fin soup is pushing these majestic creatures to the brink. As apex predators, healthy shark populations are essential for a functioning marine ecosystem.

The lure of fishing aggregating devices

Bycatch of juvenile tuna is also a great concern to both fisheries scientists and conservationists alike. Many purse seine fisheries use Fish Aggregating Devices (FADs) to target tuna. FADs are artificial devices like floats or markers, which are used to draw in schools of fish.

Catching fish during the juvenile stage of their lifecycle places that species at much greater risk of collapse from overfishing.

In the Western and Central Pacific Ocean, purse seiners are prohibited from fishing in certain areas at certain times of the year in order to protect the stock of juvenile tuna. Purse seine fisheries must also use specialised gear to minimise interactions with turtles and follow specific handling requirements if one is accidently caught.

Swimming towards a brighter future

However there is cause for hope. WWF believes that by adopting smart fishing gear and best practice management guidelines, fisheries can drastically minimise their bycatch.

For instance it has been proven that the use of circle hooks reduces marine turtle bycatch on longlines fisheries without affecting the rate of tuna catch.

Circular hooks are less likely to be swallowed by turtles than the traditional J-shaped hooks.

The opportunity exists for the uptake of circle hooks by fishing companies and to start moving towards sustainably caught seafood products.

Other regulations are in place to minimise the impacts on sharks and other protected marine species. Longliners fishing for swordfish in shallow-set fisheries are required to use mackerel-type bait and circle hooks to avoid catching turtles.

There are several other management measures in place to limit and prevent interactions between longline gear and sea turtles.

Major seafood retailers in the European Union and North America are now seeking to source sustainable and responsibly caught seafood including tuna.

Fishing and bycatch best practices are what "green" fish buyers and retailers are now looking for.

There is a growing awareness and desire for sustainably caught tuna. This growing international demand will influence where they will source and who they will buy their tuna from.

* Merewalesi Laveti and Josua Turaganivalu are staff members of WWF-South Pacific Program in Suva.

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