Bitung: Plight of the baby tuna

Meet you on the corner of skipjack street and yellowfin street

Recent news announced that Indonesia will become a full member of the Western and Central Pacific Fisheries Commission, instead of a cooperating non-member as it has been so far. This is good news, because the country is an important player in the Western and Central Pacific tuna fishery. Indonesia caught more than 900,000 tons of tuna in 2010, about a third of which was skipjack (cakalang, as the Indonesians call it), and another substantial share is yellowfin (madidihang), bigeye, and other species. What’s more, Indonesia and the Philippines are known to catch a large number of juvenile tuna:

Number of yellowfin tuna caught (vertical axis) by 2-cm size class (horizontal axis) in 2012. Blue colours indicate tuna caught by purse seines; yellow indicates tuna caught by fisheries in Indonesia and the Philippines. Yellowfin matures by about 100 cm. Source: Williams, P. and Terawasi, P. 2013. Overview of tuna fisheries in the Western and Central Pacific Ocean, including economic conditions. WCPFC Scientific Commission, Ninth Regular Session.

You can use juvenile tuna as bait, consume it yourself, or sell it. But each juvenile tuna you don’t catch may become an adult. This adult tuna would then produce more tuna. It might also fetch a higher market price, especially if it is yellowfin tuna. Granted, it may also be caught in Pacific areas outside Indonesia. In that case Indonesia would not benefit from this one juvenile tuna it leaves in the ocean, although other countries would. So the catch of juvenile tuna is one of the issues WCPFC would like Indonesia to address.

Shinta in action on a handline vessel

Shinta Yuniarta, one of our PhD candidates on BESTTuna, is currently trying to estimate the magnitude of the catch of juvenile tuna (or baby tuna, as the Indonesian fishers call it) through a survey in such ports as Bitung and Ambon. I visited Shinta last week in Bitung to learn as much as I could about the situation on the ground, and to work with her in further sharpening the survey questions and the rest of her research. It was one of those trips that stay with you long after you have boarded the airplane back home.

Everything in Bitung says “fish”. And very often, it actually says “tuna”. The hotel even smelled of fish when I arrived. It sports a picture of a bigeye tuna right above the breakfast buffet. Small eateries (warung makan as the Indonesians call them) offer pieces of yellowfin tuna in a spicy sauce, or delicious coral fish roasted on a charcoal fire. Everywhere you look there are huge fish processing plants, canneries, or fishing companies that have their own fishing wharf. The small-scale fishers land their fish at the central landing place in the port. Originally it was meant to be an auction, but for some reason the auction never really got off the ground, so fishers sell their fish directly to traders who bring the fish to local markets or to processing companies.

As far as I could see the small-scale fleet featured three main types of fishing. The most common seemed to be the handline fishery, where fishers use a single line with some bait on a hook to catch the tuna. Another important fishery is the pole-and-line fishery, where bait is simply thrown into the water (and water is also sprayed on the surface) to get the tuna into a feeding frenzy, so that it will bite anything that comes along. Fishers then only have to throw in a hook and the tuna will bite; these vessels are usually larger than the handline vessels, and employ a lot of crew. The third common method turned out to be the pajeko, or small purse seine, but this method was mainly used to catch not tuna, but small pelagic species such as anchovies and Indian Mackerel.

Special offer: room with a view in Sulawesi. Water and food not included

In all cases the Fish Aggregation Device (FAD), or rumpon as the Indonesians call it, is important. It’s an interesting system. Before I came I was wondering: when you make a FAD and place it in the sea, how do you make sure that it is used by nobody else but you? The solution turned out to be simple: you put a guard on it. Yes, every rumpon has somebody guarding it 24 hours a day. This guy lives in the small hut built on top of it, with probably some sort of radio communication, and makes sure that nobody but the owner catches the fish gathered under it unless the owner is paid a comfortable sum of money. The rumpon guard also informs the owner or his vessels of the amount of fish under it, so they won’t waste their time coming to a rumpon with no fish under it.

So what did we learn so far? First, a lot of fishers readily admit that they catch a fair amount of baby tuna. They use it as bait, consume it on board, or take it home to their families. It is not illegal to catch juvenile tuna, so they seem willing to tell us how much they usually catch. And although the weight of baby tuna may be small, the number of baby tuna caught, and the fact that each baby tuna could have become a big, valuable tuna makes that the catch of baby tuna can still be a serious problem. Second, the catch of baby tuna is by far not the only unknown in the Indonesian tuna fishery. There may be unreported or even illegal catch. Some authors argue that Indonesian ports lack sufficient staff to check the accuracy of logbook data. Third, although it was fairly easy to contact and survey small-scale fishers, it turns out to be a lot more difficult to contact large-scale fishing companies.

But perhaps the most important lesson was the reminder that “small-scale” does not necessarily mean “sustainable” or “green”. The idea of small-scale fishers tends to conjure up the idyllic images of hardy, honest folk that you see on Discovery Channel, read about in stories like Hemingway’s The Old Man And The Sea, or hear about in songs like The McCalmans’ “Five O’Clock In The Morning”. No doubt that the people we spoke to in Bitung are honest, hard-working people who must endure many hardships to scramble a meagre income for themselves and the family they support. But a lot of fishers and consumers may benefit greatly if less baby tuna were caught. It’s a difficult dilemma: a lot of very poor people depend on a fishing method that might disadvantage a lot of others.

Stuff I do: Pacific tuna

Chances are you’ve thrown one of these on your barbecue this summer:

 Tuna is massively important for many Pacific island nations. Kiribati, a country whose land mass is only 0.02% of its total area (the rest is sea), gets about 30% of its GDP from tuna fishing. Not that the I-Kiribati (people from Kiribati, that is) catch much of that themselves: most of it is caught by fishers from other countries, like Japan, Spain, and the United States, who pay Kiribati for the right to fish in its national waters.

Actually, to just call it “tuna” is misleading, because there are several species of it. If you have ever had a tuna sandwich you will probably have eaten skipjack tuna. It is the cheapest, least tasty, but also the most abundant tuna species: the IUCN is not particularly concerned about it, and the FAO assesses we can catch some more of it without depleting its stock (pdf). The species in the pack in the picture, yellowfin, is doing less well: the IUCN labels the species “near threatened”, and the FAO argues against catch increases of this species. Other species are doing worse or much worse than that: bigeye tuna, for instance, is labelled “vulnerable” 1.

Save the apples, don’t eat pears
So we should all eat skipjack instead instead of yellowfin and bigeye, right? If only life were that simple. Yellowfin and bigeye are often caught as so-called bycatch of skipjack tuna. Many fishers use Fish Aggregating Devices (FADs) that attract all kinds of fish, starting from small fry all the way up the food chain to several species of tuna. When this includes a school of tuna, fishers draw a purse seine net around the FAD and haul in their bounty. Fishing this way, you are likely to catch a lot of skipjack, yellowfin and bigeye at once, where the yellowfin and bigeye you catch is probably still young and difficult to separate from the adult skipjack. And hence yellowfin and bigeye often end up in a tuna sandwich at a young age where they could have had a glorious career as sushi or tuna steak.

Therefore, the FAO recommends not to increase skipjack catches: not because it is concerned about skipjack stocks, but because catching more skipjack will likely have a negative impact on stocks of yellowfin and bigeye. So perhaps to preserve yellowfin and bigeye stocks, the last thing one should do is buy skipjack tuna.

Governments have used all kinds of different policy instruments to manage fisheries, such as days-at-sea restrictions, or individual transferable quota, or a variety of gear regulations. Such instruments, however, are not everywhere as easy to implement, and governments are in a difficult situation themselves. It is often difficult to observe how much fishers have caught. Moreover, if Kiribati limits its tuna catch in order to preserve tuna stocks for the future, fishers gladly move on to the next Pacific Island Nation to fish there. Perhaps retailers, NGOs, and consumers should step in? We could reward fishers who fish more selectively with some certification scheme: guilt-ridden consumers may be willing to pay some extra for guilt-free tuna. But what if that simply increases demand for fish, and thereby fishing pressure?

Note the neat batik BESTTuna shirts – courtesy of our Bogor partners

Last week I was in Bogor, Indonesia, to discuss this problem with colleagues from Wageningen University and other institutes. We were at the kick-off of BESTTuna, a project of Wageningen University together with many other organisations, including Bogor Agricultural University, University of the South Pacific, University of the Philippines, University of California, Santa Barbara, WWF, and Anova Seafood. The objective of BESTTuna is to look deeper into the management problem with skipjack, yellowfin, and bigeye tuna, considering the different countries involved, the different fishing techniques, the companies involved, NGOs, fishers, and so on. Should Indonesia introduce individual tradable quota? Will MSC certification give fishers an incentive to fish sustainably or will it only enhance fishing pressure as green consumers can start eating tuna with a seemingly clear conscience? How can we make sure that Pacific Island Nations cooperate to manage their tuna stocks sustainably? It’s a complex, but therefore also fascinating problem – and it’s one of those problems you’re reminded of every time you enter the supermarket.

One of the most depressing cases of tuna overfishing is the southern Pacific bluefin tuna. It is currently at no more than about 15% of its 1973 stock. Bluefin, however, is quite a different story than the species I describe in this post.