In early January, scientists released jaw-dropping data showing that bluefin tuna in the North Pacific will soon be “functionally extinct.” A favorite of Japanese sushi lovers, Pacific bluefin is now so overfished, they said, that only 4 percent of its population remains. Earlier this month, a single bluefin sold for $1.7 million at Tokyo’s Tsukiji fish market.
Tuna, America’s favorite fish, is in decline around the world, sending prices up and boats on longer voyages to chase the lucrative fish. But one corner of the Western Pacific holds the last healthy tuna stock on the planet, and a group of eight Pacific Islands is determined to keep it that way.
The eight island-nations control 5.5 million square miles of tuna grounds worth an estimated $5 billion. These waters attract legal and illegal fishers from as far away as Taiwan. Skipjack tuna from this region ends up in cans on America’s grocery store shelves.
The challenge is enforcement. One of the island-nations, Palau, has only one patrol boat to protect nearly a quarter-million square miles of ocean from illegal fishing.
Listen to the story of Palau’s struggle to protect its tuna, from PRI’s The World.
Encounters on the High Seas
Palau and its neighbors battle a wide range of illegal and destructive fishing practices, from “tuna laundering”—the practice of transferring caught tuna to a refrigerator vessel, which hides the origins of the catch—to purse-seining, a fishing method that is legal but scoops up all marine life including those that are in decline.
In this slide show, Palau’s marine police track and encounter miscreants in the territorial and international waters around the island.
A Rogue Plan
In response to the threat to their livelihood, the eight island-nations, collectively called “the PNA” for Parties to the Nauru Agreement, have developed a controversial tactic for protecting their “blue economy:” Tuna boats that seek a license to fish in the PNA’s waters must agree not to fish in the open ocean between the island nations—international waters where the PNA actually has no jurisdiction.
This illustration sums up the PNA’s rogue plan.