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Is a complete shift to pole-and-line caught tuna realistic?

12 August 2009

In a report entitled ‘Developing sustainable and equitable pole-and-line fisheries in the Pacific’, Greenpeace highlights the socio-economic benefits of a Pacific pole-and-line tuna-catching and processing industry, based on the case of the Maldives. The report states that ‘Many coastal states, such as the Pacific island countries and states along the Atlantic and Indian Ocean tropical coasts, are in a prime position to develop a sustainable pole-and-line industry, benefiting local communities, instead of selling their resources cheaply to distant-water fishing fleets’. To do this, they will however need assistance from market players in, for example, building capacity and establishing conditions that meet the hygiene requirements of the global market place.

However, an editorial in World Fishing states that ‘this might prove not to be fully realistic considering today’s tuna-catching capacity ... Less than 10% of the world tuna catch is done by pole-and-liners, mostly small vessels. A large-scale shift to the method would imply a major turn-around within the global tuna industry and would require major financial investment in training and personnel by fishing companies and the construction of new vessels’.

Annual catches from pole and line are close to 400,000 tonnes, less than 10% of the world tuna catch: ‘from every tuna caught, only 40% of the meat goes inside the can. This means 160,000 tonnes of tuna meat from pole-and-line fisheries. The UK alone imported 124,000 tonnes of canned tuna in 2008 ... What if the rest of the world decides to start buying pole-and-line as well? ... The UK’s top canned tuna suppliers include Mauritius, Ghana, Philippines, Seychelles, Ecuador and Thailand - countries processing tuna almost 100% caught by purse-seiners’.

However, pole-and-line fisheries can only take place in coastal regions - close to shore. ‘Unlike purse-seiners, pole-and-line vessels cannot move across thousands of miles of ocean looking for skipjack schools. When there is no fish in their coastal zones for weeks or even months, coastal fishermen cannot deliver their tuna to the canneries, making such a processing plant quite inefficient and unreliable in its deliveries’, according to World Fishing.

Editorial comment

Pole-and-line fisheries generally provide a less capital-intensive model for exploiting tuna resources. They also can provide high-quality fish (provided it is handled correctly following capture), thereby offering profitability at lower fishing levels. If only for these reasons, ACP countries, given their limited capital availability as well as diminishing tuna resources, should give consideration to this mode of fishing and whether it can be developed in ways that optimises the benefits received. However, Greenpeace may be misguided in recommending the use of potentially high-quality fish for canned tuna, which provides small margins to the producers. Rather the ACP should look at other types of markets, such as for fresh fish, either in the EU or elsewhere, and see whether and if so how pole-and-line caught fish can be best used. Moreover, the requirement for baitfish raises many questions about how sustainable scaling up pole and lining may be, as would be required for canning.

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