Marine pollution originating from purse seine and longline fishing vessels / by Francisco Blaha

Once in while we get in the news that some companies are fined for illegal waste dumping. In the pacific to my recollection is always in Pango Pango (American Samoa) last week an American based company was fined 1.6 millon USD, a few years ago NZ based Sanford endured the same issue in the same place.

Marine Pollution issues are “governed” by MARPOL 73/78 is the International Convention for the Prevention of Pollution from Ships, 1973 as modified by the Protocol of 1978. ("MARPOL" is short for marine pollution and 73/78 short for the years 1973 and 1978.)

It was developed by the International Maritime Organization in an effort to minimize pollution of the oceans and seas, including dumping, oil and air pollution. The objective of this convention is to preserve the marine environment in an attempt to completely eliminate pollution by oil and other harmful substances and to minimize accidental spillage of such substances.

From my time in the fishing boats and from the workbooks I see from SPC/FFA fisheries observers that include a Regional Observer Pollution Report Form GEN-6 (See at the end of the post for an example). I assumed the issue must be substantial, even if nothing gets done with the findings (a bit like compliance issues). And unfortunately… I wasn’t wrong.

At last years WCPFC TCC (Technical and Compliance Committee) and group of SPREP lead by Kelsey Richardson presented a report on the issue. I quote it in the post… the original is here.

The report examines more than ten years of collected data on more than 10,000 pollution incidents by purse seine vessels and more than 200 pollution incidents by longline vessels within the Exclusive Economic Zones (EEZs) of 25 Pacific countries and territories, and in international waters. The report finds that 71% of the reported purse seine pollution incidents related to Waste Dumped Overboard; 16% to Oil Spillages and Leakages; and 13% to Abandoned, Lost, or Dumped Fishing Gear.

When the category “Waste Dumped” was examined further; Plastics were found to make up the largest portion of total purse seine pollution incidents (37%). Only 4% of the incidents occurred in International Waters, while the rest occurred in the EEZs of Papua New Guinea (44%), Kiribati (13%), the Federated States of Micronesia (12%), Solomon Islands (7%), Marshall Islands (6%), Nauru (6%), and 19 other countries and territories in the Western and Central Pacific Ocean.

While based on limited data, the report finds evidence that pollution from fishing vessels, particularly purse seine vessels, in the Western and Central Pacific Ocean is a serious problem and highlights the need for three initiatives:

  1. Increased monitoring, reporting, and enforcement of pollution violations by all types of fishing vessels, especially longliners, which currently have a very low (5%) mandatoryobserver coverage;

  2. A regional outreach and compliance assistance programme on marine pollution prevention for fishing vessel crews, business operators and managers; and

  3. Improvements in Pacific port waste reception facilities to enable them to receive fishing vessel wastes on shore.

This report provides the first consistent and substantive documented evidence about the nature and extent of ocean-based marine pollution in the Western and Central Pacific Ocean. These incidents were all reported by regional fisheries observers through use of the Secretariat of the Pacific Commission/Pacific Islands Foreign Fisheries Agency (SPC/FFA) Regional Observer Pollution Report Form GEN-6.

The pollution reports are overwhelmingly biased to the purse seine fishery, due to high levels of observer coverage in the fishery, which is mandated by the Western and Central Pacific Fisheries Commission (WCPFC). Prior to 2009, observer coverage for the purse seine fishery was around 5-8%, increased to 20% in 2009, and to 100% required coverage from 2010 to the present (P. Williams, personal communication, March 18, 2015, WCPFC, 2009). By contrast, observer coverage of the approximately 3,000 longline vessels operating in the Western and Central Pacific Ocean is only 5% for the entire fishery as of 2012 (WCPFC, 2014).

There is also likely to be some bias in observer reporting particularly through some observers not reporting MARPOL issues, although the extent of this bias is not yet known.

 The report is structured in seven sections.

  • Section I Introduction

  • Section II provides a background on ocean-based marine pollution.

  • Section III describes the history and structure of the SPC/FFA Regional Observer Pollution Report Form GEN-6.

  • Section IV describes and analyzes the pollution report data, including types, quantities and locations of pollution events.

  • Section V importantly highlights that pollution incidents by fishing vessels are not isolated to the purse seine fishery, but there is limited information and data for pollution activities by other fisheries, particularly the longline fishery, due to extremely low to no observer coverage in other fisheries. Thus, the pollution data analyzed in this report likely represents only a portion or snapshot of total pollution incidents by fishing vessels throughout the region.

  • Section VI addresses the need for revisions and updates to the current version of the SPC/FFA Regional Observer Pollution Report Form GEN-6, particularly the need for updates that more clearly communicate revisions to MARPOL Annex V which entered into force in 2013.

  • Section VII concludes the report and provides recommendations designed for a variety of stakeholders and policymakers to reduce incidents of marine pollution by fishing vessels in the Western and Central Pacific Ocean. The report ends with suggestions for further data analysis and research.

The International Convention for the Prevention of Pollution from Ships (MARPOL) is the strongest and most important international regulation to prevent sea-based sources of pollution, including pollution of oil (Annex I) and garbage (Annex V), arising from operational or accidental causes. Despite these regulations, there is limited actual monitoring of MARPOL, and, consequently, little information exists about illegal pollution activities by vessels at sea.

One study in Australia did find that in 1992 and 1993, at least one-third of fishing vessels with onboard observers did not comply with MARPOL regulations prohibiting the dumping of plastics overboard. Of the 14 Pacific island countries who are SPREP members, 11 are Contracting Parties to MARPOL Annexes I/II and V, and therefore have specific responsibilities to implement this important treaty to prevent pollution from ships, particularly in the forms of oil and garbage.

At the fourth SPC/FFA Tuna Fisheries Data Collection Committee in December 2000, SPREP submitted a request for fisheries observers to collect information on marine pollution. This resulted in the creation of the SPC/FFA Regional Observer Pollution Report Form GEN-6. Form GEN-6 was designed by SPREP in partnership with SPC and FFA as a tool to monitor fishing vessel violations to the International Convention for the Prevention of Pollution from Ships (MARPOL).

Pollution categories were created based on MARPOL’s Annexes I and V which provide regulations for the prevention of pollution by oil and garbage by ships, respectively. SPC is responsible for maintaining and managing all observer data including the Form GEN-6 data which it started collecting in 2004. In March, 2015 SPREP requested access to the GEN-6 data from SPC and were provided with more than 10 years of data from 2003 through 2015.

Form GEN-6 documents marine pollution incidents by fishing vessels in three categories: Waste Dumped Overboard, Oil Spillages and Leakages, and Abandoned or Lost Fishing Gear. Each category has its respective subcategories, and revisions have occurred to improve reporting over the years, such as the addition of the category Abandoned or Lost Fishing Gear in 2009. Subcategories reported here are from the most current form, revised in March, 2014. Subcategories under Waste Dumped Overboard include: Plastics, Metals, Waste Oil, Chemicals, and General Garbage. Subcategories under Oil Spillages and Leakages include: Vessel Aground/Collision, Vessel at Anchor/Berth, Vessel Underway, Land-based Source and Other. Subcategories under Abandoned or Lost Fishing Gear include Lost during fishing, Abandoned, or Dumped.

The form provides an area to report whether there was information posted on and around the vessel about compliance with the latest revisions to MARPOL, as an indicator of vessel and crew awareness of MARPOL regulations. It also includes a section for ‘Other comments’ where observers can add more details about the pollution event. The reverse side of the form provides notes which clarify definitions and reporting areas. At the bottom of the form it is clearly stated for the observer that under MARPOL regulations “It is illegal for any vessel to discard any form of plastics into the sea at anytime; It is illegal for any vessel to discard any form of oil into the sea at anytime and It is illegal for any vessel to dump any form of rubbish into the sea within 12 nautical miles of the seashore.”

Since recent revisions to MARPOL Annex V entered into force in 2013, dumping of almost all garbage types which were previously allowed beyond the 12 nautical mile zone referenced by this note are now prohibited.

In addition to comments, observers are provided an area on the Form GEN-6 to describe the different types of pollution per category and material (subcategory), as well as to describe quantities. There are no standard categorical options for observers to report quantities of pollution and quantities are reported as written comments by observers, which complicates data analysis.

Table 1. Summary of Written Pollution Descriptions and Quantities as Reported by Observers

Table 1. Summary of Written Pollution Descriptions and Quantities as Reported by Observers

Figure 1 shows the pollution incidents mapped by the latitude and longitude positions given by observers at the time of reporting. The incidents are overlaid on a colorized map that shows purse seine activity from April, 2013 through March, 2014, using FFA fishing vessel databases and Automatic Identification System (AIS) vessel tracks. The high numbers of incidents in these countries’ EEZs, especially in Papua New Guinea, is consistent with the fact that these EEZ waters are also highly active purse seine fishing grounds.

Figure 1. Purse Seine Pollution Incidents Mapped by Latitude and Longitude

Figure 1. Purse Seine Pollution Incidents Mapped by Latitude and Longitude

Seventy-one percent of the purse seine pollution incidents were documented in the form of Waste Dumped Overboard, 16% as Oil Spillages and Leakages and 13% as Abandoned, Lost or Dumped Fishing Gear. When the subcategories under “Waste Dumped” were analyzed further and compared to total pollution incidents, Plastics were found to make up the largest portion of total pollution incidents at 37% followed by Metals (15%), Waste Oil (9%), General Garbage (8%), and Chemicals (2%).

See Figure 2 for a summary of the composition of purse seine pollution incidents by pollution types.

Figure 2. Percent of Purse Seine Pollution Incidents by Pollution Types, 2003-2015

Figure 2. Percent of Purse Seine Pollution Incidents by Pollution Types, 2003-2015

When total pollution incidents from 2002-2015 were compared against total observer trips during this time period (with and without reported pollution incidents), there was an average of 1.2 pollution incidents for every trip undertaken by an observer aboard a purse seine vessel during these years.

When the total number of pollution incidents was compared more selectively against only observer trips with reported pollution incidents, there was an average of 3.2 pollution incidents for every observer trip with a reported pollution incident during this time period also.

Purse Seine Pollution Incidents by Flag States

Seventy percent of the total pollution incidents from 2003-2015 were reported by purse seine fisheries observers aboard vessels from Distant Water Fishing Nations (DWFNs). Papua New Guinean flagged vessels comprised the greatest percentage of pollution incidents at 18%. It is interesting to note that more than 85% of the pollution incidents by Papua New Guinean flagged vessels occurred within the Papua New Guinea EEZ. By contrast, the next highest number of pollution incidents occurred by vessels flagged to Taiwan (16%), USA (15%), Korea (12%), Philippines (10%), Japan (10%), and China (8%).

Figure 4. Percent Purse Seine Pollution Incidents by Flag States, 2003-2015

Figure 4. Percent Purse Seine Pollution Incidents by Flag States, 2003-2015


1. Increase observer coverage and more data
Increased observer coverage aboard other fishing vessels such as longline vessels would provide more information about the amount and types of pollution by other fisheries, which fish more heavily in other areas of the Pacific not covered by the purse seine fishery. The current SPC/FFA Regional Observer Pollution Report Form GEN-6 is designed for reporting of pollution incidents aboard any type of fishing vessel. After necessary revisions and updates, covered in section VI, this would continue to be an appropriate form for use by an expanded observer program. The primary challenges anticipated for expansion of fisheries observers programs are financial, technical, and human resource capacity constraints, especially for some observer programs that are already struggling to meet full coverage requirements each year. Future efforts to decrease marine pollution from fishing vessels should include all fisheries and vessel types within the Western and Central Pacific region.

2. Reporting
SPREP should report the Form GEN-6 pollution incidents to member countries where the pollution incidents occurred and to the flag States whose vessels are responsible for the pollution violations. This will allow port States and flag States to follow up with appropriate enforcement mechanisms such as fines and penalties. SPREP should also report incidents to the Noumea Convention to be shared at the biennial Conference of Parties (COP), and to the IMO’s Marine Environment Protection Committee (MEPC). Data and incidents will need to be further organized, quality controlled, and standardized to the IMO’s Global Integrated Shipping Information System (GISIS) reporting format.

3. Enforcement
Opportunities may exist for more effective enforcement of MARPOL and other anti-pollution regulations. If provided with documentation of marine pollution incidents and violations, member countries and port States, particularly those with high numbers of violations in their EEZ waters, could penalize violators through fines and restrictions. Countries could also prohibit operational dumping of wastes as a condition of their fishing licenses, with associated penalties and restrictions if pollution incidents do occur. This is another method to prevent pollution incidents from vessels by holding vessels accountable to their license requirements. Effective enforcement programmes send a message to fishing vessels that marine pollution is not acceptable.

Some fishing vessels, operators and crew may engage in especially severe pollution activities with full knowledge that such activities are illegal and harmful to the marine environment. In the case of particularly egregious or criminal polluters, a list of vessels and operators could be kept for records to ensure against repeat offenders. If certain vessels and operators prove to be repeatedly engaging in pollution events, steeper fines or criminal proceedings could be levied. Vessels could also be added to a marine pollution ‘blacklist,’ similar to the WCPFC’s blacklist for vessels who have engaged in Illegal, Unregulated or Unreported (IUU) fishing activities (WCPFC, 2010). Such a blacklist system could both serve to stigmatize vessels and owners, in addition to providing opportunities for more stringent and focused monitoring and regulation to ensure that such vessels do not continue to engage in illegal activities. A marine pollution blacklist could then be compared to the WCPFC’s IUU blacklist, to determine range and regularity of illegal activities by particularly problematic vessels.

4. Outreach and Compliance Assistance Programme
An Outreach and Compliance Assistance Programme should be developed within the Western and Central Pacific region through coordination and collaboration between regional organizations including SPREP, the Regional Fisheries Management Organisations (RFMOs), fishing and maritime industry representatives and Non-Governmental Organisations (NGOs) in consultation with the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP), the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) and the IMO. The Outreach and Compliance Assistance Programme should inform ship masters, mariners, and ports about the proper manner for disposal of all garbage, wastes and pollution types generated onboard fishing vessels in the Western and Central Pacific region and the adjacent high seas areas.

5. Invest in expanded capacity of port waste reception facilities
Most Pacific island countries and territories have few if any waste reception facilities for ships at their ports, and many of those which are in place are inadequate to meet the needs of ships using those ports. Adequate reception facilities are defined by the IMO as those which “mariners use; fully meet the needs of the ships regularly using them; do not provide mariners with a disincentive to use them; and contribute to the improvement of the marine environment”. The facilities must also “allow for the ultimate disposal of ships’ wastes to take place in an environmentally appropriate way”. This lack of port waste reception facilities could provide further incentives for ships to dump waste at sea rather than store their wastes without anywhere to later responsibly dispose of them.

Given these challenges, the locations and availability of existing port waste reception facilities should be clearly communicated to all fishing vessels, with input from the IMO. SPREP has taken important first steps in this area through its Regional Reception Facilities Plan, which recognizes five Pacific shipping hubs (Apia, Suva, Port Moresby, Noumea, and Papeete) as regional centers for safe offloading of wastes from ships.

Areas for Further Data Analysis and Research

1. Specific pollution categories
Further data analysis should be undertaken of the specific pollution categories Waste Dumped Overboard; Oil Spillages and Leakages; and Abandoned, Lost or Dumped Fishing Gear. For example, an investigation into Oil Spillages and Leakages would likely offer a better understanding of how to improve data reporting fields and specific drop down menus to standardize observer descriptions and quantities of discharge during pollution incidents, in addition to a better understanding of conditions associated with spillages and leakages, and the number of oil spills which occur in fishing grounds. An investigation into the data collected on Abandoned, Lost, or Dumped Fishing Gear could include amounts of each subcategory which are lost, abandoned, or dumped, and types of gear per category, such as remnants of fishing gear discarded after repairs, and Fish Aggregating Devices (FADs).

2. Examination of the Abandoned, Lost or Dumped Fishing Gear incidents involving FADs
Within the comments and pollution description sections of the Abandoned, Lost or Dumped Fishing Gear category, numerous reports included the deliberate dumping of FADs either whole, discarding of damaged FAD nets, or retrieval of the GPS buoys before dumping of the old FAD. Lost or discarded FADs in the marine environment can be harmful to marine life through ghost fishing, entanglement and acting as habitat for the spread of invasive species, and have the potential to eventually wash ashore to coastlines and reefs as marine debris. An area for further data analysis is an examination of the Abandoned, Lost or Dumped Fishing Gear incidents that involve FADs.

3. Survey fishermen, crews, vessel operators, port authorities and observers about causes behind and drivers for pollution incidents
Surveys could be conducted of fishermen, crew, vessel operators, port authorities and observers to better understand the drivers of pollution incidents from fishing vessels, and identify solutions that address underlying causes. For example, interviews with and surveys of crews and vessel operators could explore motivations for dumping of wastes at sea, such as issues around convenience, time, and costs associated with disposal on shore. Interviews with and surveys of port authorities could investigate adequacy of port facilities to receive wastes from vessels, human resource capacity constraints, and time pressures to process vessels quickly through ports.

4. Identify appropriate laws, regulations and procedures by which countries and territories can monitor and enforce penalties against pollution incidents by fishing vessels
Enforcement of pollution incidents will largely depend upon existing national laws and regulations within port States where the incidents occur. Procedures for differing levels of enforcement will need to be identified within national contexts, which may be more complicated than prosecution based upon an observer’s report alone. Barriers to enforcement specific to different States can additionally be identified, as well as challenges experienced by vessels which may act as barriers to compliance. For example, vessels may only carry gear they are licensed for, and might be hesitant to retrieve abandoned fishing gear if it doesn’t meet their licensing requirements.

5. Overlay of purse seine marine pollution incidents with marine ecosystem information
Latitude and longitude data from the pollution incidents could be overlaid with regional and country specific marine ecosystem information such as ecologically and biologically important or unique areas, and migration routes for highly migratory, threatened, or endangered species. These overlays, such as between abandoned nets which can result in ghost-fishing and wildlife entanglement and highly migratory species like whales and turtles, could be used to show possible repercussions of the pollution incidents upon surrounding ecosystems and wildlife.

6. Fish sampling for plastic ingestion
Fish species consumed by Pacific islanders or sold commercially could be sampled for plastic ingestion to link plastic pollution with potential socioeconomic impacts, as much of the Pacific region is dependent upon healthy fish stocks for livelihoods and food security. This could identify an area of potential linkage between plastic waste dumped at sea and within fishing grounds by fishing vessels and ingestion by marine wildlife and fish later sold in commercial markets.

This is what a Gen 6 looks like