Tuna’s Last Stand

In our latest investigation, for the PRI’s The World, Shannon Service reports from Palau in the Western Pacific, where the island-nation struggles to protect the world’s last healthy stock of tuna.

Last week, Service reports, scientists released jaw-dropping data showing that Pacific bluefin tuna has plummeted to just 4 percent of its population. As tuna—America’s favorite fish—becomes scarce, prices go up. Earlier this month, a single bluefin sold in Japan for $1.7 million.

That exploding demand, Service explains, means that the tuna-rich waters around Palau and its neighbors attract more and more fishing boats—both legal and illegal. Skipjack tuna from this region ends up in cans on America’s grocery store shelves.

The challenge is enforcement. Palau, for example, has only one patrol boat to protect nearly a quarter-million square miles of ocean from illegal fishing.

“Every time our one patrol boat goes [out],” Palau’s new president, Thomas Remengesau, Jr., tells Service, “it’s almost a given thing that they’re going to catch some poachers out there. Every single time.”

So Palau has banded together with seven of its Pacific island neighbors to try to protect their healthy tuna populations. They have even worked with regional authorities to largely ban big tuna operations in the international waters between their countries. An infographic that accompanies the story explains the island-nations’ unconventional scheme.

Service is there as Greenpeace sends a helicopter to help Palau’s patrol boat monitor its waters. The crew discovers three fishing boats engaging in what’s called “transshipping” or “tuna laundering”: illegally transferring caught tuna to a refrigerator vessel, which hides the origins of the catch. The Palau patrol can do nothing, however, because the fishing boats are in international waters.

A few days later, the monitors again encounter one of the three boats that was caught transshipping, this time with its name painted out and lacking documentation. But, again, there is little that officials can do, as jurisdiction is unclear. The investigation, says Service, is ongoing. A slide show of photographs by Service captures the incident.

“Basically what this shows is that you need an INTERPOL for the oceans,” Farah Obaidullah, leader of the Greenpeace expedition, tells Service.

With tuna prices rising and tuna populations crashing elsewhere, says Service, the pressure on Palau and her neighbors will only increase.

“We’re living the depletion of stocks of fish.” says President Remengesau. “We used to fish very close to shore, now we have to go miles away. And this is only the window of what will eventually be affecting everybody.”

You can listen to the radio report and see the infographic and photos on PRI’s The World or here on our website.