Challenges facing the region’s tuna fisheries / by Francisco Blaha

What sort of year will 2014 be?

013 ended with the development by the Western and Central Pacific Fisheries Commission (WCPFC) of a conservation and management measure for skipjack, yellowfin and bigeye tuna that will not achieve the objective of removing 100% overfishing of bigeye tuna within three years. The measure that was adopted will only remove 71% of overfishing.

While the failure to adopt measures to remove 100% of overfishing of bigeye tuna is lamentable, there are some positive aspects which if built on at the 2014 WCPFC meeting will contribute to further reducing bigeye tuna mortality.

The key to this is going to be the development of mitigation measures to address the disproportionate burden that Small Islands Developing States (SIDS)are being asked to absorb in order for the rich developed countries that target bigeye tuna to enjoy their bigeye tuna sashimi and sushi. The principle of ensuring the WCPFC does not transfer a disproportionate burden of conservation on SIDS is enshrined in Article 30 of the WCPFC Convention.

However, it is the fist time that a conservation and management measure incorporates this principle. What it means therefore is that additional FAD closures that would contribute to further reducing bigeye mortality in the exclusive economic zones largely of SIDS would be dependent on the WCPFC adopting mitigation measures. Now these mitigation measures may take the form of financial compensation for loss of revenue to the coastal states because of the FAD closures or they may take other forms such as closing off the high seas to longline fishing, or close the high seas to longline fishing unless vessels that fish on the high seas land their catch in a SIDS port. Balancing the costs and benefits of the conservation and management measures in ways that is not tilted against SIDS is going to be one of the issues confronting Pacific Islands countries in 2014.

Much of what will have to done or redone will be determined by the new information that will become available from stock assessments in 2014. This will inform Pacific Islands States of what they will need to do. The telling lesson from the WCPFC is that Pacific Islands States simply cannot rely on a body like the commission to ensure its stocks are managed effectively. A consensus-based body where decisions are driven by economic interests is inimical to sound, effective and precautionary fisheries management and conservation. So what should Pacific Islands States do? In 2014, Pacific Islands States should develop further conservation and management measures without waiting for the commission to adopt them. They should develop plans to have in place FAD set limits which they can allocate by EEZ. These FAD set limits can be sold and traded like the vessel day scheme. Pacific Islands States do not need to ask the commission for permission to do this. They can do it as a measure which they can adopt and implement by regulation. Supporting this initiative should be a FAD Tracking and Monitoring Registry. Trials have been undertaken by the PNA Office in 2013, and with the need for a more systematic approach towards FAD set limits, the work on the trials on FAD tracking should be integrated with the work that will be done on FAD set limits.

Pacific Islands States should also develop a limited registry for fishing vessels both for longline vessels and purse seine vessels. Any vessel that wishes to fish in the Pacific Islands waters must be on the register. The limited registry will act as an overall cap on the total number of vessels that can be allowed to operate in the region. In order for a vessel to be on the register, it will have to be sponsored by a Pacific Islands State. This idea is not new and has been discussed by the PNA since 2010. There will be attempts to address vessel capacity issues in ways that are tilted towards the interest of vessel operators, but Pacific Islands States have the wherewithal to develop a measure that controls the number of vessels operating in their waters if they want. On albacore, Pacific Islands States should develop an albacore management arrangement, similar to the Palau Arrangement. This will have to be spearheaded by one of the Pacific Islands States and should only involve the Pacific Islands States including the French Territories. The participants of such an arrangement could adopt limits and ask the commission to establish compatible limits for the high seas. Leaving it to the commission to determine limits for parties is a failed approach. The PNA countries will be reviewing the VDS after five years through an independent reviewer supported by the Pacific Islands Forum Fisheries Agency. The Review will explore several issues including governance of the VDS, application of VDS monitoring systems, setting of the total allowable effort (TAE) and the party allowable effort (PAE) and the basis for allocation. The review will inform PNA countries of how they can strengthen the VDS, in particular, augment mechanisms through which they can maximise the value of their days. The new minimum benchmark fee of US$6,000 a day will come into effect on January 1, 2014.

The PNA Economic Model developed by the PNA Office indicates the minimum benchmark is actually US$8,300 a day, while the super seiners can afford to pay US$12,000 a day. More effort will need to be made into exploring ways in which the value of the days can be better maximised other than through access agreements. Ordinary citizens are being deprived of the value of their tuna resources because of compromises that are made as a result of access negotiations. No one knows what else goes on at these negotiations but I have been a strong advocate of their replacement because they are the outcomes of compromises.

The proposal to have a joint PNA Fisheries and Finance Ministers Meeting to receive the report of the VDS Review with support from the World Bank is intended to broaden the scope of economic discussions surrounding the value of our tuna resources. Hopefully, this will lay the platform for considerations of other more innovative means of maximising economic outcomes through job creation, contract processing, tendering, auctioning, pooling of days and direct licensing. 2014 will see efforts to conclude a comprehensive Economic Partnership Agreement (EPA) with the EU. Much of this now hinges on agreement on the fisheries chapter. It remains to be seen whether a comprehensive EPA will be concluded by October 2014.

The prospects at the time of writing are slim with both PNG and Fiji having withdrawn from the most recent discussions with the EU Trade Commissioner Karel de Gutch in Honiara, Solomon Islands, in December. It is somewhat paradoxical that the EU is insisting on incorporating fisheries conservation and management issues in a trade agreement and insisting on the application of its high standards on illegal, unregulated and unreported (IUU) fishing when its vessels have been fishing in contravention of the limits under which they were authorised to fish under WCPFC Conservation and Management Measure 2008-01. Indeed, a series of reports to the WCPFC prepared by the Secretariat of the Pacific Community (SPC) on behalf of the Western and Central Pacific Commission (WCPFC) secretariat as the contracted science and data provider shows large-scale systematic illegal fishing by the EU fleet in the high seas areas of the Western and Central Pacific.

The data is set out in the same report that the EU had used to misinform the EU Parliament as a basis for its fisheries strategy in the Pacific region. What the report to the EU Parliament did not say is that the purse seine fishing effort of the EU fleet in the high seas has greatly exceeded the EU limit since limits on high seas purse seine effort were introduced by the WCPFC in 2006. According to the reports to the WCPFC, the EU overfished its allocation by 318% overall from 2006 to 2012.

This is a very serious case of systematic IUU fishing, depleting resources on which Pacific Islands States depend and undermining conservation and management arrangements in the region. These large vessels have very high catch rates of juvenile bigeye tuna, contributing significantly to the overfishing of bigeye tuna which is a major problem for the WCPFC and Pacific Islands countries who are seeking to develop their domestic longline fisheries targeting bigeye tuna. This is a bit of a damp on EU’s proselytising on IUU fishing!

Finally, 2014 will see more MSC certified skipjack tuna under the Pacifical label on the shelves in Europe and other markets. There will be increased production and marketing of PNA MSC Pacifical tuna as the markets take on this fish with a story from the pristine waters of the Pacific.

• Dr Transform Aqorau is the CEO, Parties to the Nauru Agreement (PNA) Office.