Data loading...

Pacific Tuna Stock Faces Growing Crisis Of Inaction

A showdown that could decide the sustainability of the USD 7 billion Pacific tuna industry is expected at the annual meeting of the Western and Central Pacific Fisheries Commission (WCPFC) in Cairns, Australia, on December 2-6. The Pacific countries and distant water fishing nations that are members of WCPFC will meet to decide on conservation measures at a time when tuna resources have never before been under so much pressure.

In 2012, a record 2.65 million tons of tuna were caught in the region by the most boats fishing ever. Coupled with the 2012 tuna totals—at a time when scientific advice has called for a 30 percent reduction in effort—is the refusal by some distant water fishing nations to provide operational catch data and efforts by others to undermine established management regimes adopted by the Pacific Islands, notably the eight members of the Parties to the Nauru Agreement (PNA). One bright light is a joint proposal for increased conservation efforts—including such initiatives as increasing the period of moratorium on the use of fish aggregation devices (FADs)—that will be jointly introduced for action at the WCPFC meeting in Cairns by PNA, Japan and the Philippines. This conservation plan breaks new ground not only by proposing a long-term conservation management scheme for WCPFC to adopt but because it is endorsed by 11 member nations of the WCPFC, not just the PNA as in the past. They are jointly proposing conservation measures focusing on bigeye, yellowfin and skipjack tuna.

Among the recommendations that will go to the annual meeting of the WCPFC is to reduce the catch of bigeye by long-liners by 45 percent of the 2004 levels by 2017, and for skipjack to expand an annual ban on the use of fish aggregation devices (FADs) by purse seiners from the current three months to four months starting in 2014 and to five months beginning 2017. In addition to conservation measures in the 200-mile exclusive economic zones of PNA nations, it seeks to cap the number of fishing days allowed annually on the high seas.

But Glenn Hurry, executive director of the WCPFC based in Pohnpei, is not overly optimistic about the PNA, Japan and Philippines measure. Hurry, an Australian, issued a blunt warning to the Pacific Islands Forum Leaders meeting in Majuro in September— a warning that surprisingly did not even rate a mention in the Forum communiqué. While the record catch in 2012 might appear to be good news, in fact this catch was taken “by an increased number of vessels fishing harder than they have ever fished before, fishing more efficiently with better technology and deploying more sets than in previous years”, Hurry said.

Despite scientific evidence that bigeye tuna is being overfished, Hurry said the WCPFC has been unable to get agreement from its membership to reduce bigeye catches. Of the PNA, Japan and Philippines proposal, Hurry said plainly: “There is still considerable disagreement between the WCPFC members on what actions might constitute the final text in this conservation and management measure.” He said the number of vessels fishing for tuna continues to increase in the Pacific, with last year’s 297 fishing boats setting an all-time high. But 45 more purse seiners are now under construction in Asian shipyards, which will “cause sustainability problems in the fishery,” he said and raised “serious concerns about the increasing number of vessels fishing in the region. “What we now see from the 2012 fishing data is more boats in the fishery, higher overall catches, smaller fish sizes and the lowest ever levels of fisheries biomass for these tuna stocks.”

Glen Joseph, Marshall Islands Fisheries Director

Marshall Islands Fisheries Director Glen Joseph said as bad as it sounds, the situation is worse. “It’s not just bigeye tuna raising concern,” he said. “Swordfish catches are raising a red flag.” And yellowfin tuna is reported by scientists to be near its maximum sustainable yield. “If distant water fishing nations support sustainability of the resource, then they need to commit to a 30 percent reduction in catches,” Joseph said. “It’s not a question of should they do it or not. They have to do it or face the consequences.”

The European Union challenge

Among the myriad of challenges facing the islands as they attempt to exert control over the Pacific tuna industry, recent European Union actions stand out. Ironically for the EU, as its parliament was passing a “Comprehensive Fisheries Strategy for the Pacific” in mid-October with the stated goals of improved management, the Spanish vessel Albacora Uno was being fined USD 1 million by a Nauru court for unlicenced fishing in Nauru waters. As a sign of good faith and willingness to adhere to the region’s fishing rules, the EU member vessel made a clear statement in Nauru as have EU fisheries and free trade negotiators in recent months. The EU’s new fisheries strategy has been derided by islands leaders, not the least for the fact that the EU produced its fisheries strategy for the Pacific without talking to anyone in the Pacific.

The Pacific Islands Forum Secretariat lambasted the document and the process through which it was produced. “We are extremely disappointed that the Pacific ACP (Africa, Caribbean, Pacific) region was not consulted nor did it have the opportunity to provide input into such an important initiative for both the EU and the PACP region,” said Forum Deputy Secretary-General Andie Fong Toy in a letter distributed to European Parliament members in late September. “We are extremely concerned with the misinformation in the draft report. A strategy based on wrong information, coupled with the departure from agreed consultation practices will not be the basis for a sustainable partnership.” Despite a detailed four-page letter from Fong Toy, accompanied by numerous documents to support its criticism of the EU fisheries strategy, the European Parliament adopted the strategy overwhelmingly in mid-October.

Undermining VDS

The EU has worked at undermining the vessel day scheme (VDS) that now controls purse seine fishing in the region, limits fishing days that can be sold, and has led to a quadrupling of revenue accruing to PNA members in three years. To convince the European Parliament, the strategy draft used faulty data to claim that VDS is not controlling fishing effort, said Fong Toy in a statement that was backed up by WCPFC director Hurry and Secretariat of the Pacific Community’s principal fisheries scientist Peter Williams. “The draft strategy states that the framework agreement should be based on VDS provided that the measures are transparent and are implemented by all parties concerned and based on the best available scientific advice,” Fong Toy said. “This would be a very positive change from the current practice during negotiations on bilateral Fisheries Partnership Agreements (FPAs), where the EU has insisted that the PACP states disregard the VDS to the detriment of the region. FPAs, by nature, do not limit effort or catch.” Earlier this year, the EU negotiated an agreement with Kiribati that makes no mention of VDS, and has opposed inclusion of VDS language in the fisheries section of the Economic Partnership Agreement under negotiation with the region. “PACP states maintain that their conservation and management measures, including the VDS, are credible and comply with relevant international laws and obligations,” Fong Toy said. “These measures are also recognised and adopted by the Western and Central Pacific Fisheries Commission, which the EU is a member of, and have been effective tools in the sustainable management of fisheries resources in the region. The same measures have been recognised by the U.S., Japan and all other distant water fishing nations. We expect the EU to respect our national and sub-regional conservation and management measures including the VDS.” Not all islands nations are bending in fisheries negotiations with the EU. The Solomon Islands recently refused to renew a fisheries partnership agreement with the EU. In a September 27 letter to the Forum Secretariat, Solomon Islands Permanent Secretary for Fisheries and Marine Resources, Dr Christian Ramofafia, explained why the Solomons took this action. The decision was based on the Solomon Islands solidarity with the PNA arrangements agreed by the eight members. “The EU refused to accept the application of the VDS to EU vessels,” said Ramofafia. “Secondly, as a signatory to the PNA Third implementing Agreement, Solomon Islands advised it could only licence EU vessels on the condition that they not fish in designated high seas areas.” Several years ago, PNA imposed a ban on fishing in two high seas “pockets” that were surrounded by the 200-mile exclusive economic zones of PNA members as a conservation measure to reduce fishing. The ban on high seas pockets became a licencing condition: if distant water fishing nations want to fish in PNA waters—which they do, because 50 percent of the world’s skipjack tuna is caught in PNA waters—they had to agree not to fish in these pockets. “I do not consider this action to be against the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea and WCPFC provisions as Solomon Islands is not unilaterally closing the high seas, but rather it is refusing, as is its right, to licence vessels to fish in its EEZ if they fish in these designated high seas areas,” Ramofafia said. “This approach was successfully used by Forum Fisheries Agency members to ban high seas trans-shipment in 1993, a move that was not legally challenged by distant water fishing nations.”

The EU appears to be repeating an unhappy history in its fisheries policies. It took FFA members years to get United States vessels under the VDS, but as of June this year, all American-flagged purse seiners now recognize VDS. How many years will it take to bring the EU into the VDS? Marshalls’ fisheries director Joseph believes some distant water fishing nations focus on in-zone management by islands nations as a way to derail urgently needed implementation of fishing rules on the high seas—the area that is the under jurisdiction of the WCPFC. “There has been a major effort at conservation and management in-zone,” said Joseph. “But less so on the high seas.” This is a huge issue for the WCPFC, whose members must begin demonstrating greater action in the high seas or the integrity of the commission will be called into question. Joseph points to key issues for the islands at the WCPFC. Recently, aerial surveillance discovered 19 Taiwan purse seiners in a so-called “buffer zone” within 100 miles of his country’s 200-mile EEZ. According to WCPFC rules, and Taiwan is a member, vessels in these buffer zones are required to have their vessel monitoring system equipment transmitting position data to the WCPFC in Pohnpei. But the 19 vessels were in violation of this rule and are now subject of a complaint lodged by the Marshall Islands with the WCPFC. Since the WCPFC was established seven years ago, a requirement agreed to by members was for distant water fishing nations to provide operational catch and effort level data for fishing on the high seas. “But after seven years,” said Joseph, “major players are not being forthcoming with this data. It’s a big gap. If the Tuna Commission and the Pohnpei secretariat cannot exert authority over the fleet on its high seas activities, then it is just rhetoric. They are agreeing but not abiding by it (the rules).” Joseph makes the point that the lack of data from vessels on high seas catches causes great uncertainty in scientific estimates of the health of tuna stocks.

Meanwhile, in-zone measures, such as those put forward by PNA, often get the most debate at WCPFC meetings because the islands are actively working to conserve the resource. “But the WCPFC should be focused on the high seas and it starts from the provision of catch and effort data,” Joseph said. “Coastal states are trying to comply (with WCPFC rules) with help from FFA and SPC. “We’re developing monitoring, control and surveillance measures to enforce rules, we are participating in the regional observer program, and we are providing catch and effort data.” But, said Joseph, the islands’ management measures “become the subject of scrutiny and debate at commission meetings and the high seas gets left off the agenda.” As this year’s annual WCPFC meeting approaches, Joseph said PNA and coastal states “have to be optimistic (about the Commission taking action) because we have something on the table. We have to capitalize on it. “If our measure is rejected, it will be a rejection by distant water fishing nations of coastal states’ interests and a breach of the WCPFC Treaty’s Article 30 (which requires the WCPFC to ‘give full recognition to the special requirements of developing states parties to this convention, in particular small island developing states’).”


WCPFC’s Hurry said the fisheries management organization has done “some great things” since its formation, including “functioning with the best set of management and monitoring tools of any Regional Fisheries Management Organization,” stronger domestic fisheries agencies, and better scientific knowledge of stocks. “The commission’s legacy and our collective legacy to the Pacific will not be in allowing highly unsustainable, short-term economic returns from this fishery. It will be in our ability to ensure through effective management the long-term conservation and sustainable use of tuna stocks. “The islands can generate greater wealth than they have to-date from the fishery, but the potential to achieve this is being seriously eroded by the continued increase in vessels entering this fishery,” Hurry said. The commission’s annual meeting in early December must take forthright action to reduce catch and effort levels, Hurry said. All commission members, including the Forum islands, must demonstrate this year that they are capable of taking hard decisions for the management of the region’s tuna stocks, Hurry said. “These decisions will mean reduced levels of catch for bigeye tuna, it will mean agreeing to management arrangements for the catch of yellowfin and skipjack tuna, and it will mean capping and reducing the number of vessels in the fishery. “If we as coastal nations want to sustain the resource for the next 50 years, we must insist on a 30 percent reduction in effort and mortality by key tuna species of concern,” Joseph said. These are decisions that can no longer be delayed, say Hurry and Joseph, but which are expected to make for a contentious WCPFC annual meeting.