Transforming the Last Tuna Stronghold
A high-tech reboot has the power to stop unsustainable longline fishing—and preserve the Pacific Ocean for future generations.
When you're out there, it seems infinite. Frothy waves reach for an endless blue horizon. A hypnotic rhythm creates a sense of tranquility. But this is the Pacific Ocean. Beneath the surface is a bustling universe of underwater life–rays, tuna, swordfish, leatherback turtles and thresher sharks cruise the waters.
It's a stunning ecosystem that has proven remarkably resilient, accustomed to chaos. But today, a combination of climate change, pollution and overfishing is putting pressure on the Pacific. Even the most adaptable species are struggling to survive.
Take tuna, for example. These hearty fish swim fast and far, easily adjusting to a range of ocean temperatures and depths. Yet 39 percent of the world's tuna stocks were classified as overfished in 2014, with the Western and Central Pacific bigeye stock sparking significant concern. The proportion of bigeye old enough to reproduce has fallen below the acceptable limit set by the Western and Central Pacific Fisheries Commission (WCPFC), the regional fishery management authority. If nothing changes, this species may not be able to rebound, further jeopardizing other tuna stocks.
And the effects of unsustainable fishing are also rippling across the food web, with devastating results. Longline tuna vessels lay waste to thousands of sharks, sea turtles and seabirds each year—and this mass destruction could throw the entire ecosystem out of balance.
Increasing ecological degradation threatens to crush Pacific Island economies that rely heavily on tuna revenues and disrupt the global seafood supply. The waters of the Western and Central Pacific produce 60 percent of the world’s tuna—a haul of nearly 3 million metric tons worth almost $7 billion each year. And the repercussions could extend to restaurants and supermarkets around the world, impacting consumer’s access to everything from high-end sashimi to basic tuna sandwiches. Regional governments and fishing companies are looking to chart a more sustainable course, but to replace harmful fishing practices, the industry needs a viable alternative.
That’s where The Nature Conservancy comes in, driving innovation that could truly make a difference. By conducting research on the water, rolling out electronic monitoring technology and informing environmental policy, the nonprofit is working with local partners to transform this far-flung tuna fishery.
Go behind the scenes to learn how conservationists are working with regional government agencies, global industry players and Silicon Valley innovators to disrupt the status quo and provide the catalyst to solve this complex problem.
BENEATH THE SURFACE
Unsustainable fishing isn’t just putting the ocean in peril. The region’s cultures and economies are also at risk.
The air hangs thick in the humid forests surrounding the capital of Palau. Minister Umiich Sengebau, who oversees the country’s Ministry of Natural Resources, Environment and Tourism, stands in front of a canoe-shaped meetinghouse.
The white facade of the bai displays traditional drawings, each with its own meaning. The sharks signify bravery; the schooling fish, cooperation. Storyboards share values passed down for generations.
“The story of the breadfruit tree is a story about greed,” says Minister Sengebau, referencing a pictograph inside the bai. The legend tells of a special tree that produced fish when its branches were cut.
The message? “Overharvesting is not sustainable,” he says.
Living in balance with the environment is an intrinsic part of life in the Pacific Islands. But today, the region’s natural resources are being strained to feed a global population. The demand for tuna in particular has put stress on stocks—creating an ecological house of cards.
According to the International Seafood Sustainability Foundation, tropical tuna stocks are fully exploited—and some, such as the Western and Central Pacific bigeye stocks, are overexploited. This means there’s no room to increase tuna yields as demand continues to rise.
A crash in this final stronghold of tuna would send the global seafood market reeling. Decreased supply would also take an enormous toll on Pacific economies, especially the Parties to the Nauru Agreement (PNA). The eight island nations that make up the PNA control 70 percent of this resource and get as much as 50 percent of their national income from fishery revenues.
“It could bankrupt these countries when they’re already struggling to cope with the impacts of climate change.”
And tuna aren’t the only ones at risk. A recent study, using data collected by the Palau government, found that one-third of the catch of locally based pelagic longline tuna vessels was made up of unwanted species. This bycatch cuts across species, ranging from sharks to sea turtles.
“There has been growing concern over the sustainability of shark mortality rates,” says Eric Gilman, Ph.D., fisheries adviser to The Nature Conservancy at Hawaii Pacific University and an author of the study.
The stock assessment for the Western and Central Pacific Ocean silky shark found the estimated fishing mortality rate for this species is more than four times higher than what is predicted to be sustainable, Dr. Gilman says.
And in some systems, removing apex predators in large numbers results in complex, ecosystem-wide changes. For instance, the reduced abundance of large sharks can reduce the natural mortality and increase the abundance of some prey species, changing the balance of the pelagic food web.
“Our oceans are under tremendous pressure from threats like warming seas, pollution and acidification. Add unsustainable fishing practices to the mix and you have a perfect storm making it nearly impossible for species to adapt and thrive,” Mr. Zimring says.
Keenly aware of what’s at stake, the PNA nations are working toward better management and monitoring solutions in the longline tuna fishery. But they’re missing some critical information needed to roll out more sustainable fishing practices.
The Nature Conservancy is helping close the data gap by funding scientific research on longline fishing practices. This investment not only provides a lifeline to an ailing ecosystem, but will also help regional leaders create more informed—and more sustainable—fishery policies.
In tandem, The Nature Conservancy is rolling out electronic monitoring (EM) technology in the tuna fishery. EM systems connect motion sensors and GPS systems with cameras that record everything that happens on deck, allowing government and industry players to see what species are being brought on board. Today, a sever shortage of oversight makes it nearly impossible to create accountability across the tuna fleet.
“We know there’s a problem,” Mr. Zimring says. “We need to define the problem by filling these data gaps. Getting to 100 percent coverage will help to fill those gaps and then drive us toward more sustainable management.”
The Nature Conservancy is also working with data scientists to develop a machine learning solution that will make it more efficient for regulators and boat owners to review the footage coming off of tuna boats. This multi-faceted approach will help stabilize regional ecosystems, protect the world’s tuna supply—and preserve Palau’s cultural traditions, says Minister Sengebau.
“Fishing is a very important part of being a Palauan,” he says. “Going out trolling and fishing for those tuna is a very special time for a father and son to share. And as a father of two boys, I would like them to experience the same activities that my dad and I used to share out fishing on the water.”
THE LONG HAUL
Facing an uncertain future, the Pacific longline tuna industry is ready to make a change.
Ten miles off the coast of Palau, rolling ocean waves rock the Shen Lain Cheng from side to side. Its Chinese fishing crew mirrors the boat’s movements instinctively; it’s second nature after so many months at sea.
Ten miles off the coast of Palau, rolling ocean waves rock the Shen Lain Cheng from side to side. Its Chinese fishing crew mirrors the boat’s movements instinctively; it’s second nature after so many months at sea.
The boat’s captain watches the crew haul in the fishing line from his place at the helm. They set over 1,000 hooks that morning, but most are coming in empty. In his 10 years working these waters, he has seen the tuna catch decline and the proportion of bycatch rise. That’s a bad sign for the tuna industry—and the countries that rely on fishery revenues.
The eight Parties to the Nauru Agreement (PNA) that regulate these waters are working to reverse this trend before it’s too late. In 2016, the countries rolled out a vessel day scheme that limits pelagic longline tuna fishing in each country to a set number of days. But to position the fishery for long-term success, countries must also manage the size of each vessel’s catch—and the fishing practices they use.
The Nature Conservancy is supporting this systemic change by investing in research that will test which longline fishing techniques do the most to reduce bycatch. The nonprofit is also tracking shark mortality rates by tagging live sharks that are caught and released by tuna vessels. The results of previous academic studies have suggested that rethinking the tools tuna vessels use could make the industry more sustainable, but none have assessed the potential impact of specific modifications.
“This research will help to define these best practices.” The Nature Conservancy purchased vessel days from Palau to investigate the effects of longline hook size and bait type on what species are caught and catch size. One theory being tested is whether increasing the size of the fishing hook will reduce the likelihood that specific groups of bycatch species, such as sea turtles, will be caught, Dr. Gilman says. “For some species, the larger the hook of a given shape, the lower the probability of catching smaller organisms,” he says. The Nature Conservancy’s goal is to determine which techniques will maintain an economically viable tuna haul with the minimum amount of bycatch. To that end, the nonprofit has engaged key industry players, such as Luen Thai Fishing Venture, in the research process. The study, which is taking place on one of Luen Thai’s tuna vessels, will demonstrate the economic viability of the recommended gear changes.
The Nature Conservancy’s goal is to determine which techniques will maintain an economically viable tuna haul with the minimum amount of bycatch. To that end, the nonprofit has engaged key industry players, such as Luen Thai Fishing Venture, in the research process. The study, which is taking place on one of Luen Thai’s tuna vessels, will demonstrate the economic viability of the recommended gear changes.
The stakes are high—with a direct impact on industry bottom lines. Luen Thai controls 25 percent of the global sashimi-grade tuna market and operates roughly 100 longline vessels within the Western and Central Pacific region. It also owns tuna processing plants and cargo airplanes that move fresh and frozen tuna to markets in the United States, Japan and China. For Luen Thai, it comes down to a maintaining the delicate balance between profitability and sustainability.
“With overfishing or lack of a control, the fish supply cannot last for the long term. That’s really something we don’t want to see in this region.
” Looking to preserve this fishery for the future, many companies, including Luen Thai, are willing to change their fishing practices. And PNA countries are ready to lead the charge to update regulations in the region. But they need more eyes on the water to help make that happen.
Today, only two percent of longline tuna vessels have human observers on board monitoring the catch, and illegal, unreported and unregulated fishing is largely unchecked. That makes it harder for governments to enforce regulations—and make sure they’re producing the desired results.
To fill this gap The Nature Conservancy is installing electronic monitoring (EM) systems on vessels fishing in Palau, Solomon Islands, Marshall Islands and Micronesia. Using a combination of on-vessel cameras, sensors and geo-locators to collect fishing data, the systems will start to record what is happening on board. The nonprofit is also developing a machine learning technology that will make it more efficient to review the massive amount of footage that will soon start flooding off the region’s tuna boats.
These tools will offer actionable data that will help reduce poaching, make Pacific longline tuna fisheries sustainable—and stabilize the ocean ecosystem.
“The electronic monitoring system can improve the control of how fishing vessels fish in the sea and develop a sustainable fishery in this region,” Mr. Wang says. “We have to have long-term conservation. It’s the only way to make this business—and the seafood supply—viable.”
A DEARTH OF DATA
A data gap in the Western and Central Pacific Ocean is hampering regional regulation—because island nations can’t manage what they can’t measure.
Ivan Sesebo has spent most of the last 17 years at sea. He works on longline tuna fishing vessels, where the crew sets thousands of hooks each morning and then hauls them in every night. The grueling schedule doesn’t allow for much sleep.
“On the big longliners, we set six hours, we sleep three hours, then we haul 12 to 15 hours,” he says.
Unlike the rest of the crew, Mr. Sesebo isn’t required to help set the line or haul it in. He’s a human observer who collects data and tracks a vessel’s compliance with fishing regulations. But the job requires building a lot of goodwill with the crew, so he makes it a point to pitch in.
Yet, language barriers often complicate matters—and sometimes relationships break down. For instance, he once had to jump overboard to escape an angry captain. Many of his colleagues have been bribed. Others have been lost at sea. “I worry about my family. I worry about what’s going to happen if the boat sinks or if we run out of food,” he says. “Some boats, they don’t get good enough supply, so sometimes we have problems with the water.”
Given the perilous nature of the job, it’s no surprise there’s a shortage of human observers in the longline tuna fishery. Only 2 percent of boats have human observers on board. By contrast, the purse seine3 tuna fishery in this region boasts 100 percent observer coverage. This shortage translates to a dearth of data about what’s being caught on longline vessels, some of which drop more than 2,000 hooks every day.
The Parties to the Nauru Agreement (PNA) are working toward more observer coverage for longline vessels. But in the meantime, the region’s economies pay a high price. The losses caused by illegal, unreported and unregulated (IUU) fishing, or poaching, is estimated to be as high as $1.5 billion—with longliners responsible for the lion’s share.
“If there are no observers, then the boats sometimes misreport the catches,” says Mr. Sesebo.
The lack of oversight also enables the use of unpaid labor and brutal fishing practices, such as shark finning. But to change the way this fishery operates, governments need better information about what’s happening on the open water. Comprehensive camera coverage is a cost-effective way for these counties to fill the data gap. So The Nature Conservancy is rolling out electronic monitoring (EM) systems across four countries, with a long-term goal of 100 percent coverage in the longline tuna fishery over the next five years.
Because captains will be less likely to misreport a boat’s catch if they know they’re being watched, EM systems can curb IUU fishing and illegal practices like shark finning. Plus, EM systems have the potential to give boat owners a significant advantage: lower operating expenses.
This, of course, creates another challenge: how to quickly review all that video. To avoid creating a massive backlog, The Nature Conservancy is harnessing the disruptive power of machine learning technology to improve conservation outcomes. The nonprofit is currently developing a solution, in conjunction with data scientists, to fully automate the review process. The right algorithm will mark every instance where a specified species, such as a tuna or a shark, is pictured on board a tuna boat.
In addition to increasing accountability, 100 percent camera coverage will also make it easier to collect core scientific data and assess ecosystem health. This will help PNA countries develop smarter regulations. And in some ways, that’s the more pressing goal, says Mr. Merrifield.
“We’re not going out and saying, ‘You’ve got to shut down all fishing,’” he says. “We’re saying, ‘Let’s go get some evidence that things are either going right or wrong in this industry and then work with that evidence to help reform it or change it.’”
Mr. Sesebo says there will always be a role for human observers on fishing vessels. Machines can’t take tissue samples and tag sharks. But he thinks cameras will help him do a better job of creating accountability—and protecting the ocean. “For us observers, we can’t monitor all the things that go on on the boat,” he says. “The cameras, they can.”
Machine learning could provide the transparency needed to transform a troubled fishery.
From tech titan Google to the local grocery store, organizations around the world are harnessing the power of machine learning — and environmental nonprofits are no exception.
Facial recognition software has been particularly useful to help track endangered or at-risk species, such as lions or right whales. Scientists use this technology to collect critical data without trapping, sedating or otherwise interrupting the lives of wild animals.
In the Western and Central Pacific Ocean, The Nature Conservancy is taking conservation-focused tech in a new direction. The nonprofit is developing software that can distinguish between specific species in a video—and tag various types of activity happening on the boat.
The algorithm the nonprofit is creating has the potential to transform longline tuna fishing in the region. Knowing what is being caught when will help governments create more effective regulations—and enforce those on the books. By investing in this enabling technology, The Nature Conservancy is filling an R&D gap and giving regulatory agencies a tool to increase accountability on the water, says Mr. Merrifield.
“Our business case is certainly around a conservation problem,” Mr. Merrifield says.
To answer this question, the island nations that manage a majority of this fishery need a scalable solution. After a 70-day journey, each longline tuna vessel with cameras on board will return with 800 hours of footage. It then takes human observers back on land roughly 480 hours to sift through all that video. “What we’re trying to do is reduce the amount of time it takes to review the video data coming off of these platforms,” he says.
The Nature Conservancy is already rolling out electronic monitoring (EM) systems in Palau, Marshall Islands, Solomon Islands and Micronesia, says Mr. Merrifield. And the nonprofit is turning to Silicon Valley to develop the machine learning software that will support these systems. By tapping a community already immersed in the machine learning space, the organization hopes to identify the most accurate and effective way to apply this technology.
Backed by funding from Vulcan Philanthropy, an investment company with experience in machine learning projects, The Nature Conservancy has launched a challenge offering a $150,000 prize to the team that creates the best solution. “We’re going to be asking people to produce an algorithm that will look through all that video and predict, with some level of certainty, when it actually sees that there is a tuna or a turtle on board the boat, and whether shark finning is happening,” Mr. Merrifield says.
The challenge will be managed by Kaggle. The startup boasts a community of more than 550,000 data scientists from around the world, all vying for prizes and status points on its website. The competition is designed to ensure fishery stakeholders, such as electronic monitoring vendors who ultimately will need to implement this solution, are part of the software development process.
“We will include it as part of our EM system, because the final result will facilitate the localization of when and where fishing activities are done,” says Jens Heinsdorf, chief technology officer for Satlink in Madrid, Spain. “It will reduce the analysis time. It will also let us have, in the near future, satellite-based, real-time analysis and activities detection triggering.”
The end result of the challenge will be a minimum viable product3 that can be improve over time. Plus, The Nature Conservancy is working with tech-sector advisors to develop an investment roadmap that will help the nonprofit drive toward full automation, Mr. Merrifield says.
“If you walk electronic monitoring forward five years, you’ll have a system that’s so robust with cameras that it’s taping and recording everything that’s happening, with algorithms combing through that video in a highly automated way.”
The Ripple Effect
Lessons learned in the Western and Central Pacific could fuel conservation efforts around the globe.
The capital of Palau isn’t a bustling city, à la Paris, Tokyo or Washington, D.C. As visitors approach, the Capitol building’s stark white dome peeks out of thick tropical forest. Its sand-colored buildings sit along an isolated shoreline in the eastern state of Melekeok. Population: 391.
Here, in the executive building, Minister Umiich Sengebau shapes the policies that govern the nation’s fisheries. As head of Palau’s Ministry of Natural Resources, Environment and Tourism, Minister Sengebau is responsible for regulating how people—and companies—interact with the environment. His goal is to keep the system in balance.
But to truly make a difference, Palau can’t go it alone. Conservation success in the region requires the support of the consortium that regulates the region’s fisheries, the Parties to the Nauru Agreement (PNA). Given Palau’s history of working with its counterparts in the region, most recently with the Micronesia Challenge, Minister Sengebau says the nation has a good opportunity to make a difference in the longline tuna fishery.
“The Micronesia Challenge was something that Palau led and has inspired other or similar challenges around the world,” he says.
The Nature Conservancy is helping to support this collaboration by rolling out electronic monitoring systems in four PNA countries: Palau, Micronesia, Marshall Islands and Solomon Islands. Armed with the program’s results, The Nature Conservancy can push for fishery reforms across the entire PNA.
“By demonstrating what’s possible on the water, our program will help the industry and countries transition to a more sustainable approach,” said Mike Sweeney, director of global fisheries and executive director of The Nature Conservancy in California.
The program aims to secure the long-term health of this fishery, reduce poaching and support local economies. It also has the potential to protect the wider ocean ecosystem, allowing populations of at-risk species, such as blue and silky sharks and sea turtles, to recover.
The payoff could be even more substantial, as many of the tools, approaches and solutions being developed in the Pacific Islands are adapted and adopted by fisheries worldwide. By getting things right in the Western and Central Pacific Ocean, The Nature Conservancy can demonstrate that governments and commercial fleets don’t need to make a trade-off between profitability and sustainability, says Mark Zimring, director of the Tuna Program for The Nature Conservancy.
“I wouldn’t underestimate the importance of having demonstrated success in a real fishery,” he said. “The challenges of long-line tuna fishing in the Central and Western Pacific are not unique. The solution developed here could be adapted for fisheries around the world.”
The disruption could ripple across the Pacific—and throughout the seafood supply chain. If retailers, restaurants and consumers are confident their seafood was caught legally and managed sustainably, many are more likely to buy solely from these highly transparent fisheries. That, in turn, will inspire other governments and industry players to adopt similar fishing strategies, creating a virtuous cycle.
The program also has the potential to spur on global conservation efforts by helping governments, companies and non-governmental organizations get cameras on boats all around the world. And the machine learning solution could be refactored to address specific conservation challenges in other fisheries. By making it easier for fishermen to collect more accurate, up-to-date information about fish populations, The Nature Conservancy’s technology could inform smarter, more effective regulations.
Bleeding-edge tech tools, partnered with next-gen fishery management strategies, are more than a silver lining in otherwise dark clouds. While the global environmental outlook may seem doom-and-gloom, Mr. Zimring is downright optimistic about the potential to solve systemic environmental problems—starting with the Pacific tuna fishery.
“We know that yes, things are rough and the trends globally are not positive—but there are also pathways out of our current trajectory,”he says. “If we can get it right here, I would suggest that we can get it right anywhere.”