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New research reveals the secret life of Fish Aggregating Devices (FADs)

Honolulu - Tons of plastic waste smashing into reefs, entanglement of vulnerable wildlife and long journeys across the Pacific are only part of the life of the tens of thousands of Fish Aggregating Devices (FADs) placed in the ocean every year by the tuna industry.

Now the mysteries of FADs are starting to reveal themselves to a FAD tracking project being conducted by the Parties to the Nauru Agreement (PNA).

Photo by Pew Charitable Trust

The PNA are eight Pacific Island countries that control the world’s largest sustainable tuna purse seine fishery supplying 50 percent of the world’s skipjack tuna. The eight members are Federated States of Micronesia, Kiribati, Marshall Islands, Nauru, Palau, Papua New Guinea, Solomon Islands, and Tuvalu. Tokelau is a participating partner in implementing the Vessel Day Scheme together with the eight member nations.

“We took an interest in FADSs back in 2009 and 2010 because we realized it wasn't just an important part of the fishery but it was one of the main driver of some of the conservation problems,” Maurice Brownjohn, PNA commercial manager told reporters today on the sidelines of the Western and Central Pacific Fisheries Commission (WCPFC) taking place in Honolulu.

Today’s fishing no longer relies on Mother Nature alone as FADs has made it easier for fishermen to find fish.

Technology advances in FADs are making tuna-catching more efficient, especially for commercial fishing, and there is a threat that without more regulation, they could end up depleting the stocks.

FAD’s have evolved. Devices now have sonar and satellite buoys attached which allow the fishing industry to know what’s swimming underneath the objects even if they are miles away from the vessels.

The PNA first started tracking FADs in January of 2016 by requiring FAD buoys to be registered and report their location to PNA’s Fisheries Information Management System (FIMS).

The PNA has many questions. “If there are a lot of FADs in the water, does it impact the schooling behavior of the fish? Does free school fishing suffer if fishing boats are deploying many more FADs?

The information coming from other oceans, where there is a very high proportion of FADs suggests that more do impact free school fishing. “And then this has impact on your stock assessment and your fisheries modeling and everything else,” Brownjohn said.

This directive from PNA ministers to start the tracking program led to FAD workshops in Brisbane in June and in Honiara in late October to upgrade the FAD program to a policy document to be endorsed by PNA leaders.

The FAD tracking program has started to reveal the life of FADs many of which can float vast distances after they are no longer being used for fishing.

As marine debris they have been found to smash into reefs, repeatedly freeing themselves only to again be driven back onto the coral damaging a different section of reef.

Damage to ecosystems can also be caused by vulnerable species such as sea turtles and sharks being killed by accidental entanglement in the netting or ropes that often hand below a FAD.

Environmental group PEW recommend that the Commission must mandate that fishing vessels adopt FAD designs that devices to reduce the entanglement and deaths of sharks and turtles in FADs.

Meanwhile, the PNA is advancing FAD management to improve reporting of the current FAD tracking trial, integrate FAD log sheets with electronic reporting by fisheries observers, develop a PNA FAD buoy tracking and registration measure and address ecological issues associated with FADS, including FAD retrieval and liability for beaching of FADs.

Brownjohn said with the new technology, commercial operations are basically “ fishing from the office now.” According to PNA, although not all are used, there are an estimated 50,000 to 80,000 FADs deployed in PNA waters annually.

The work of the PNA FAD tracking program has highlighted the increasing technological sophistication of FADs in the purse seine fishery allows fleets to “cherry pick” FADs to set on through centralized monitoring systems that direct purse seine vessels to particular FADs, eliminating the need for vessels to visit individual FADs in search of schools of tuna.

“This allows fishing vessels to focus fishing on FADs with the largest schools, which has implications for tuna stocks and management of the fishery,” PNA said in an earlier statement.

In this week’s WCPFC meeting in Honolulu, FAD closure will be again under scrutiny as there are still concerns that while closures have been applied in their waters as part of WCPFC conservation management measures fishing on FADs has a substantial impact on the state of bigeye tuna, which has in the past been on the borderline of over-fishing.

“Largely because of PNA’s annual FAD moratorium, a much lower share of the catch in this region is taken by fishing on FADs,” said Ludwig Kumoru, CEO of the PNA. “It is likely that this contributes to the more positive status overall of the major Western and Central Pacific Ocean tropical tuna stocks.”

The FAD tracking program is in its infancy and has only just begun to reveal a potential treasure trove of information. Fisheries managers and conservations alike hope that information will make it easier to protect tuna as well as the ecosystems that make up their ocean home.

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