Pole & Line Fishing

What is ‘pole and line’ fishing?

‘Pole and line’ is a traditional small-scale fishing technique where individual fishermen use manual hand-held or mechanically operated wooden or fibreglass poles with a barbless hook at the end to catch ‘one fish at a time’. The technique is artisanal, and a fisherman needs to have skill, strength and stamina to catch fish. Small bait fish are attached to a hook or thrown into the water to attract the target species in a process called ‘chumming’. Tuna and other schooling pelagic fish, including mackerel and sea bass, are often targeted for capture using this method. Once caught, fish are easily landed onto the deck of the boat. Handline fishing involves a line and hook only, with no rod.

Pole and line fishing is used in many small-scale, community fisheries, and is becoming more widely used in large-scale commercial fishing operations. Pole and line fishing is a more sustainable method compared to other methods in use today, although it isn’t as widely employed as other methods are. In 2019, the global catch of major commercial tuna fisheries (albacore, bigeye, bluefin, skipjack and yellowfin) was 5.3 million tonnes, with 7.8% of total catch made by pole and line (65.7% was made by purse seine) (ISSF 2021).

Environmental impacts

The pole and line fishing method is low-impact as the equipment and lines are suspended in the water column and do not have any contact with the seafloor, so marine habitats including coral reefs, seagrass beds and mangrove forests are not damaged when the target species are captured (see Coral Reefs, Seagrass Beds & Mangrove Forests under Impacts).

Pole and line fishing requires live bait, usually sardines, which amounts to about 10% of the tuna catch by weight (IPNLF 2016), which is caught separately from the main catch.

The pole and line fishing method may not be as fuel efficient a technique to catch tuna as other methods are, using 1,485 litres of fuel to land a ton of the target species, compared to 368 litres of fuel used by purse seine fishing vessels (Tyedmers & Parker 2012).

Bycatch reduction

Most tuna caught for canning is captured via the purse seine method, using huge nets and fish aggregation devices (FADs), which attracts the target species, but other marine species as well, including sea turtles, sharks, seabirds, whales and dolphins – known as bycatch, or incidental capture (see Bycatch & Incidental Capture of Cetaceans under Impacts).

The pole and line fishing method is a highly selective way of extracting target species from the ocean, unlike other methods which are indiscriminate. Non-targeted marine species are rarely caught and if captured, can be returned to the ocean unharmed.

As pole and line fishing uses individual rods and lines to catch fish, bycatch or incidental capture is greatly reduced. The rate of bycatch in the largest tuna fishery in the world (the Western and central Pacific tuna fishery) is 1 – 2% (ISSF 2019), while the rate of bycatch in the Maldives tuna fishery is less than 1% (Miller et al. 2017). This is a lower rate of bycatch compared to purse seine fishing with an average rate of between 1 – 9.5% (ISSF 2019).

Benefits to local economies and local communities

The tuna most often caught are Skipjack, Albacore and Yellowfin, with most fisheries operating within the Exclusive Economic Zones (EEZs) of the Maldives in the Indian Ocean and around the western and central tropical Pacific Island regions (Atlantic Bluefin tuna are caught in the Mediterranean Sea). Tuna generally prefer warm waters between 20°C – 30°C.

Because the pole and line fishing method involves ‘one fisherman – one rod – one tuna’ at a time, it is a labour-intensive fishing technique, so more fishermen are needed to work on the tuna boats. Usually 15 – 20 fishermen are employed on each boat.

Pole and line fishing benefits developing nations. Pole and line fishing leads to increased local employment and retention of profits in local communities and economies, providing ownership opportunities for fishermen in coastal communities. The Skipjack fishery in the Maldives employs 30,000 fishermen (15% of the total workforce), compared to a purse seine fishery employing 200 fishermen which sends its catch and its profits offshore (IPNLF 2016).

‘Pole and line’ fishing and sustainability

Choosing canned tuna caught by the pole-and-line method, without use of fish aggregation devices (FADs) seems to be the most ethical choice to make if you wish to eat canned tuna. Many brands of canned tuna are now caught by the highly selective pole and line method.

Sirena Tuna is labelled 100% Pole-and-Line Caught, Dolphin-Safe and Drift-Net Free, although the species the products utilise are Skipjack and Yellowfin. The IUCN Red List classify Skipjack as ‘Least Concern’ with a ‘Stable’ population, while Yellowfin are classified as ‘Near Threatened’ with a ‘Decreasing’ population (IUCN 2021).

© 2016 – 2021 Seafood Free September


International Pole and Line Foundation, https://ipnlf.org/

International Pole and Line Foundation, International Markets for Pole and Line Tuna: Opportunities and Challenges, 2016, https://ipnlf.org/perch/resources/ipnlfinfofish0116.pdf

ISSF. 2021. Status of the world fisheries for tuna. Mar. 2021. ISSF Technical Report 2021-10. International Seafood Sustainability Foundation, Washington, D.C., USA, https://iss-foundation.org/knowledge-tools/technical-and-meeting-reports/download-info/issf-2021-10-status-of-the-world-fisheries-for-tuna-march-2021/

IUCN Red List of Threatened Species, https://www.iucnredlist.org/

Miller KI, Nadheeh I, Jauharee AR, Anderson RC, Adam MS (2017) Bycatch in the Maldivian pole-and-line tuna fishery. PLOS ONE 12(5): e0177391. https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0177391

Sirena Tuna, https://sirena.com.au/sustainability/

Tyedmers, P. and R. Parker. 2012. Fuel consumption and greenhouse gas emissions from global tuna fisheries: A preliminary assessment. ISSF Technical Report 2012-03. International Seafood Sustainability Foundation, McLean, Virginia, USA, https://iss-foundation.org/download-monitor-demo/download-info/issf-technical-report-2012-03-fuel-consumption-and-greenhouse-gas-emissions-from-global-tuna-fisheries-a-preliminary-assessment/