Pacific Tuna Commission Cannot Agree on Meaningful Steps to Protect Bigeye

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The Western and Central Pacific Fisheries Commission absolutely had to achieve one thing at its eighth annual meeting. That was to adopt a new conservation measure to address the serious overfishing of bigeye tuna occurring in waters under the commission’s jurisdiction.

It failed.

The best it could do, given the fractious nature of its many members and their often contradictory interests, was to approve a one-year extension of the conservation measure it had adopted in 2008 to limit catches of bigeye and yellowfin. Intended to pare back bigeye fishing mortality to sustainable levels, the commission’s Conservation and Management Measure (CMM) 2008-01 was supposed to achieve a 30 percent reduction in overall bigeye catches, with respect to average catches from 2001-2004, by the time the measure expired, at the end of 2011.

That, too, didn’t happen.

According to a report from the scientists advising the commission, the limits CMM 2008-01 placed on purse seiners “have not adequately constrained total purse-seine effort,” with effort in 2010 actually increasing by almost a third and total catches increasing 1.3 percent. “It would certainly appear at face value that the conservation and management measure [2008-01] has not been particularly effective in restricting total purse seine effort,” John Hampton, head of the commission’s Scientific Committee, told the assembled commissioners, national delegates, and observers at the commission’s annual meeting, held in late April in Guam.

In the longline sector, which includes some 120 Honolulu-based vessels, provisional data suggest the bigeye catch for 2010 was roughly 23 percent lower than the baseline years of 2001-2004. “However,” the scientists’ report continues, “this estimate is based on incomplete data and is despite an increase in fleet size.”

What’s more, they go on to say, “reductions in catch may not necessarily correspond to reductions in fishing mortality.” In other words, the numbers of bigeye are so low that catches will decline, not because of reduced effort, but simply because there are fewer fish. As Hampton noted, with characteristic understatement, this fact “is a somewhat negative point in terms of the assessment of the effectiveness of this measure.”

Hawai`i’s Special Case

A special exemption was carved out for the Hawai`i longline fleet. It had only to reduce its catch from a 2004 baseline by 10 percent in the first year the conservation measure took effect (2009) and hold it at that level the remaining two years. In practice, that meant holding its annual catches to no more than 3,763 tons, based on a catch of 4,181 tons of bigeye caught in 2004.

It didn’t.

While the fleet kept within that limit in 2009 and 2010, in 2011, it continued to fish even after the limit was reached.

As readers of Environment Hawai`i may recall from our report in January, the Hawai`i longliners were expected to hit the 3,763-ton limit on November 27. Thanks to a well-timed act of Congress, they were allowed to continue fishing for bigeye the rest of the year, with all catch taken after the effective date of the act (November 18) attributed to American Samoa, no matter where it was caught. According to the National Marine Fisheries Service Pacific Islands Fisheries Science Center, total bigeye catch of the Hawai`i longline fleet came to 4,232 metric tons, with 608 metric tons caught on or after the date that the fishery would have closed absent congressional intervention. Far from a decrease over the 2004 baseline, the 2011 catch, in other words, represented an actual increase of 15 percent.

But the commission paid scant attention to the Hawai`i longliners, whose catch has recently accounted for 6 percent or less of the total longline catch of bigeye in the convention area, and an even smaller percentage of total bigeye catch by all gear types. For 2010, the total longline bigeye catch in the WCPFC area came to 64,953 metric tons. The total 2010 catch of bigeye from purse seiners, longliners, and other gear types came to more than 130,000 metric tons.

The Big Picture

The area under WCPFC’s jurisdiction accounts for about 60 percent of all the tuna caught and consumed worldwide. When you add up total catches of all the varieties of tuna taken in the convention area – albacore, bigeye, skipjack, and yellowfin – by all the various types of fishing methods – purse seine, longline, pole-and-line, troll, and artisanal gears – the result approaches 2.5 million tons.

About 70 percent of the total catch is lower-value skipjack tuna. This is the target of most of the purse seine vessels, which supply canneries in Southeast Asia, Papua New Guinea, and American Samoa. Although the annual haul of skipjack in the Pacific has more than tripled since 1990, fisheries scientists maintain that the stocks of skipjack – small, fast-growing, and prolific – are still robust.

What caused the rise in skipjack catches to increase so substantially was the widespread introduction of man-made fish aggregating devices, or FADs, by purse seine fleets in the late 1990s. FADs take advantage of the tendency of tuna to congregate under floating objects, such as logs or even whale sharks. These aggregations include not just skipjack, but also juvenile yellowfin and bigeye as well as other non-target species, all of which are included in the haul as the nets are winched aboard the purse seiners.

As a corollary to the increased use of FADs, the catch of juvenile bigeye by the purse seine fleets also increased – to the point that in some recent years, the total weight of the purse seine haul of bigeye has been equal to or even greater than that of the longliners. But there is a significant difference in the size of the catches by the two types of gear. Most of the bigeye caught by purse seiners range in length between eight and 23 inches. That contrasts with an average length of 51 inches in the bigeye taken by the longliners. In other words, many times more bigeye are taken by purse seiners than by longliners, even though, by weight, the takes of the two gear types are not that far apart.

This helps explain why, in discussing how to conserve and rebuild the bigeye stocks in the convention area, so much attention is paid to purse seiners, even though they do not directly target bigeye. CMM 2008-01, for example, calls for a three-month ban on purse-seine sets on FADs and limits on fishing effort, in addition to the restrictions on longline catches.

Despite the constraints, purse-seine effort has increased in recent years. As Hampton noted, from 2001 to 2004, the average number of vessel days in the WCPFC area (days when a purse seiner is actively fishing) was 39,559; by 2011, it was 57,500, an increase of 31 percent.

At the commission meeting, both the European Union and the United States supported changing the three-month ban on FAD sets to a three-month closure, noting that this would eliminate enforcement problems.

“It’s a question of having a much more effective possibility of enforcement of these measures,” said Roberto Cesari, head of the EU delegation. “We have been seeing problems in the FAD closure, and 100 percent observer coverage is not 100 percent, actually.”

Countries with tuna canneries objected, arguing this would cause an intolerable disruption of their supplies. Although proponents of the total closure suggested that it could be done in a rolling fashion, so that cannery deliveries would be uninterrupted, the proposal never gained much traction.

High Seas Pockets

One element of CMM 2008-01 that was not renewed was the closure of two high-seas pockets – “doughnut holes” of international waters surrounded on all sides by exclusive economic zones of Pacific island states – in the western part of the convention area. Some conservation groups – notably Greenpeace – maintain that such closures constitute marine reserves and call for their expansion to other areas of the high seas.

However, Hampton, of the commission’s Scientific Committee, was skeptical about the effectiveness of the pocket closures as a conservation measure for bigeye, since it appears that much of the fishing effort that would have occurred in the pockets has simply shifted to neighboring territorial seas. “What we’ve seen,” he told the commission, “is probably the effort has gone into the EEZs. It’s difficult to make an argument that the high seas closure has had a conservation benefit.”

The commission opened up the more westerly of the two pockets to fishing by 36 Philippine purse seiners, in hopes that it would relieve pressure on spawning stocks in the Philippine territorial seas. Although technically the pockets are open to purse seiners from other countries, it is unlikely many will be fishing there. Under conditions imposed by the coalition of island states that control most of the skipjack grounds in the South Pacific – a group known as the Parties to the Nauru Agreement – purse seiners that want to fish in their territorial seas may not fish in the high seas pocket areas as well.

* * *

Limited, Delayed Protection

For Whitetip Sharks, Whales

One issue on which the commission did agree was a proposal to increase protection of oceanic whitetip sharks. Keith Bigelow of the NMFS Pacific Islands Fisheries Science Center in Honolulu presented a report showing a 90 percent decline in the relative abundance of this species in Hawai`i longline catches from 1995 to 2010.

Since 2006, the International Union for the Conservation of Nature has listed the species as vulnerable. “Its large fins are highly prized in international trade although the carcass is often discarded,” the IUCN notes. Not surprisingly, most of the Asian countries, where shark fins are still a delicacy, did not go along with the initial U.S. proposal.

The head of the Chinese delegation objected to managing sharks on a species-by-species basis and also challenged the language to ban the sale of whitetip sharks from vessel decks, noting that it was very difficult to keep fishermen from doing this.

The chief Japanese delegate also indicated that his country was disinclined to go along with the proposal as well. “I talked with many parties, including NGO [non-governmental organization] observers,” said Masanori Miyahara. “I tried to persuade headquarters the last three days, and finally came up with a solution that was fortunately accepted by all parties.”

That solution involved eliminating the ban on “selling or offering to sell from on board a fishing vessel … any oceanic whitetip shark, in whole or in part.” However, the final version still prohibits the landing of oceanic whitetip sharks.

And while the measure is to be “amended if appropriate at the 2012 Commission meeting,” it does not enter into force until January 1, 2013.

A similar start date was included in the measures intended to protect whales and whale sharks from purse seine operations. The head of the Australia delegation noted that the proposals were based on recommendations from the commission’s Scientific Committee and had been initially brought forward two years ago. “This is an issue of ongoing concern,” she said, “and is drawing increasing attention and criticism by the international community.”

The proposals, which were introduced by Australia, “do two things,” she continued. “They ban the deliberate setting on whale sharks and cetaceans, and, because we know from discussions with industry and observer reports, it’s not always detectable when a whale shark or cetacean is present, both proposals do a second thing: they require steps be taken to allow the safe release of encircled animals.”

The United States supported the proposals, with the head of delegation, Russell Smith, observing, “We have had for over 25 years now bans on the intentional setting on cetaceans … It is a violation of U.S. law to set on either a live or dead whale… The issue of whale sharks has emerged more recently, and it is also a very important element in terms of ecosystem management in the Western Pacific. We are very much in support.” Other commission members from South Pacific states, where whale shark tourism is a growing industry, endorsed the Australian measures.

Japan did not. Miyahara said his delegation supported the “spirit” of the proposal; “as far as Japanese crews are concerned, nobody wants to hurt a cetacean or whale shark.”

“Our difficulty is enforceability,” he continued. “From the perspective of enforcement, it is impossible to identify which is intentional or which is not an intentional operation.” His delegation had proposed an alternative measure calling for guidelines to minimize injury to encircled whales and whale sharks, “and we are very serious to work with other parties to solve this issue, but unfortunately the Australian proposal doesn’t work from our perspective.” China seconded Japan’s concerns.

Sylvester Pokajam, the outspoken chair of the PNA coalition and head of the Papua New Guinea delegation, reminded the commission that “the PNA group have already implemented a prohibition on intentional setting on whale sharks as a condition of fishing in our EEZs, which is the vast majority of the fishery… Refusing to protect these animals in the small remaining part of the region would be inconsistent with convention provisions [requiring compatibility between fishing regulations within and outside EEZs] and would transfer a disproportionate conservation burden on us.”

By the fifth and last day of the commission’s meeting, Australia had managed to address the concerns over intentionality raised by Japan and had revised the measure addressing cetaceans so that, as with the oceanic whitetip shark measure, its effective date was January 1, 2013. With those revisions, the measure was adopted.

But the Japanese stood their ground on the whale shark measure, even though Australia had revised it along the same lines as the proposal for avoiding whales. Miyahara thanked Australia for its efforts, but, he added, “Unfortunately, we are not in a position to say yes to this document at this meeting… We will be ready to discuss and hopefully agree on this proposal in December [at the next WCPFC meeting], but at this moment, I cannot.”

* * *

American Samoa-Hawai`i Deal

Not a Charter, NMFS Says

One of the most important tasks facing WCPFC is to capture data on the amount of fish taken. Given the various arrangements that many of the member states have with foreign-flagged fleets, this is not as simple as one might think.

Does the catch of a foreign vessel fishing under a charter arrangement with, say, Papua New Guinea report its catch through its flag state? Or does Papua New Guinea report the catch, since the vessel is part of its program to develop its own fisheries program? Either way, it’s vital to the commission’s business that the catch be reported accurately and in timely fashion.

To address this issue, in 2009, the commission adopted a measure requiring the chartering nation or territory to provide the commission with information on each vessel with which it has a charter arrangement. The notice, which is also to be sent to the flag state, is to be made within 15 days of the arrangement going into effect – and never less than 72 hours in advance of the start of actual fishing by the charter vessel.

The charter notification measure was to have expired on December 31, 2011, but was extended at the commission’s March meeting for one year.

But how does it apply? Specifically, does it apply to the charter arrangement that the Hawai`i Longline Association entered into with the government of American Samoa last November?

According to an email from Mike Tosatto, the head of the NMFS Pacific Island Regional Office, “there is a lack of clarity and agreement on what constitutes a charter and who is responsible for what in a charter situation.”

“For the time being,” Tosatto said, “only the ‘charters’ that are easily definable are being notified to the commission. There are many situations that are not so clear, including some U.S. activities in the region…. We do not believe any of the U.S. situations constitute a ‘charter’ under the notification CMM.”

The language in the congressional act allowing the American Samoa-HLA agreement refers specifically to the WCPFC and its provisions allowing “participating territories” (which would include American Samoa) to “use, assign, allocate, and manage catch limits” of highly migratory species. It also requires the Secretary of Commerce, in annual reports to WCPFC, to attribute catches by vessels fishing under such an arrangement to the participating territory.

“I don’t think we’ve ever said this is a charter,” Tosatto said in a phone interview. “We’re clearly saying this is an arrangement between American Samoa and the Hawai`i Longline Association … that allows American Samoa to assign a level of their quota and which then requires us to report catch under that arrangement to the WCPFC. That does not equal a charter, as we currently understand what a charter is in the WCPFC.”

Nothing in the WCPFC convention defines a charter. However, the conservation and management measure addressing charter notification does – at least indirectly – and in a very broad way. The provisions of the measure, it states, apply to members and participating territories “that charter, lease, or enter into other mechanisms” with vessels flagged to another state for the purpose “of conducting fishing operations in the convention area as an integral part of the domestic fleet” of the chartering entity. Similar language appears in the congressional act: “Vessels under such arrangements [as the one with American Samoa] are integral to the domestic fisheries of the U.S. participating territories.”

The HLA-American Samoa arrangement, Tosatto told Environment Hawai`i, “is more of an internal U.S. accounting exercise, not a charter between two countries as it’s understood…. In our assessment, it falls outside of our requirement to notify the commission of charters.”

Still, Tosatto says, the United States was preparing to submit to WCPFC a report on the U.S. bigeye catch for 2011 that attributes to American Samoa that fraction of the longliners’ haul caught after the new law kicked in.

That quantity will make up the “third piece,” Tosatto said, of the American Samoa reported bigeye catch. First is the amount of bigeye hauled in by American Samoa fishers and landed in the territory. Second is the amount of bigeye caught outside the territorial waters of the United States by Hawai`i-based vessels holding American Samoa permits as well as Hawai`i permits. Their catch has traditionally been assigned to American Samoa. And the third piece is the tonnage landed in Honolulu by Hawai`i longliners after November 18.

“You’ll see a statistical bump in the American Samoa catch for 2011,” Tosatto said. In past years, the average American Samoa catch landed in the territory was 173 metric tons. The dual-permitted catch for 2011 (none of which was landed in American Samoa) came to 464 tons. With the addition of the 652 tons caught by Hawai`i longliners from November 18 to the end of the year, the American Samoa reported catch is more than doubled from previous years.

Apples and Oranges

The United States is also exploring what some might call a nuanced position with respect to overfishing of bigeye in the Pacific. Most of the Hawai`i longliners operate in region 2 of the convention area – generally the northeastern quadrant – with a small fraction of the catch coming from region 4.

“We’re looking at the Hawai`i longline fishery,” Tosatto said, “and trying to gain traction on the idea that our adult bigeye fishery is not having the same impact on the stock like the purse seine fishery, which is taking bigeye juveniles.”

“It’s an apples-and-oranges issue,” he continued. “A freezer longliner fishery, taking smaller fish from a problem area – it might be appropriate that they take a larger hit,” in terms of their allowed catch limits.

“In the long run, it’s all about what impact our fishery is having, and whether it is demonstrably a lesser impact.”

— Patricia Tummons

Volume 22, Number 11 May 2012

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