At the annual meeting of the Western and Central Pacific Fisheries Commission (WCPFC), the main controversial issue was to find measures to reduce the overfishing of bigeye tuna. Scientists say bigeye tuna stocks are at record low levels, although some fishing nations say that they are unwilling to limit their fishing effort any further. A Greenpeace Pacific representative highlighted that, last year, there were 3,600 longline vessels registered to fish in the Pacific – over half of the global longline fleet – as well as 297 large industrial purse seine vessels: “This is a record for the Pacific,” he said. The WCPFC Fisheries Yearbook shows that China, Indonesia, Japan, South Korea, Taiwan and the US together catch 80% of overfished bigeye in the region.
The executive director of the WCPFC admitted that there are too many purse seiners, but “this can be worked out by appealing to the distant water nations’ economic goals: the benefit to the distant water fleets and to the Pacific is to have profitable fleets, and you don’t have profitable fleets if you have too many boats in there.”
Costs also affect the fleets’ profitability. Prior to the meeting, the Pacific ACP countries’ Parties to the Nauru Agreement (PNA) said that foreign fishing nations must compensate them financially for their conservation burden – i.e. their work to manage sustainable tuna fisheries. For example, PNA estimated that their 3-month ban on the use of fish aggregating devices (FADs) means that they lose US$60 million a year – therefore, “the PNA will only impose a longer FAD ban if foreign fishing nations pay US$15 million per month of FAD ban to us to financially compensate us for the conservation burden of this extra measure,” emphasised the PNA director.
PNA, supported by the Pacific Forum Fisheries Agency (FFA), proposed that every conservation and management measure put to WCPFC is accompanied by a statement that reveals how the measure would impact on Pacific countries and territories. If the statement reveals the measure is likely to have a negative impact on Pacific islands countries, it should be changed to counter negative impacts. Such a statement should address various issues, including:
- Who is required to implement the proposed measure?
- On which small island developing states (SIDS) would this proposal impact, in what way(s) and in what proportions?
- What are the resource implications, including financial and capacity, of this proposal?
- What assistance mechanisms and associated timeframe, including training and financial support, need to be in place before such a proposal is implemented?
The meeting finally agreed to reduce catches of bigeye by foreign longliners, and to freeze the number of foreign purse seiners. However, the WCPFC executive director was “disappointed that again it’s a one-year measure… when we really needed a three-to-five-year measure with tough controls in it.” His disappointment was shared by the PNA director and by the European Commission which considered that more drastic reduction of fishing effort of purse seiners and of longliners would have been necessary to reduce bigeye tuna fishing to sustainable levels.
Although short-term measures have been decided, it is worrying that no overall reduction of fishing effort, or overall freezing of fishing capacity, has been agreed. The proposed measures – reduction of fishing effort and freezing of capacity – will only apply to foreign flagged vessels. It means that, if vessels reflag to a Pacific coastal country, none of these limitations will apply and overcapacity may continue to increase, leading to overexploitation. It will then be up to Pacific countries, as flag states, to ensure that these reflagged vessels do not contribute to overfishing in the region. Given their limited capacities this will not be an easy task; they clearly highlight that the current conservation burden of managing tuna fishing activities is disproportionate for SIDS. It is therefore most important for Pacific ACP countries to identify ways to increase their capacities, the assistance mechanisms and associated timeframe – including training and financial support – required to monitor, and appropriately control fishing activities taking place in their exclusive economic zone (EEZ) and those taking place under their flag, as well as efficiently fight against illegal unreported and unregulated (IUU) fishing. The assistance fund, set up in the framework of the New York Agreement on the Conservation and Management of Straddling Stocks and Highly Migratory species, could be of help here. This fund was set up to support developing countries’ efforts to implement tuna regional fisheries management organisations’ (RFMOs’) measures.