Several years ago, the Western and Central Pacific Fisheries Commission adopted a measure ostensibly aimed at banning shark finning, a practice that has helped drive several shark species worldwide toward extinction. But at last month’s annual commission meeting, as the European Union (EU) proposed ways to more effectively implement the ban, China surprised the EU when it announced it believes shark finning — where fishers cut off a shark’s fins and toss the rest of the animal, which is often still alive, overboard — is perfectly acceptable under the measure.
Conservation and Management Measure (CMM) 2010-07, a revision of a measure adopted in 2009, calls on commission member states to require their fishers to “fully utilize” — that is, keep all parts except the head, guts, and skins — any retained shark carcasses to the point of first landing or transshipment. The measure also requires members to “take measures necessary to prohibit their fishing vessels from retaining on board, transshipping, landing, or trading any fins harvested in contravention of this [CMM].”
Rather than including language requiring that sharks be landed with their fins attached — which would be the most effective way to end shark finning — the CMM merely requires vessels to carry fins totaling less than five percent of the weight of sharks on board up to the first point of landing.
Member states that don’t require fins and carcasses to be offloaded together at first landing must ensure compliance with the five percent ratio through certification, observer monitoring, or other appropriate measures, the CMM states. “[Commission members] may alternatively require that their vessels land sharks with fins attached to the carcass or that fins not be landed without the corresponding carcass,” it adds.
Such loose language, which allows detached fins to be stored and transshipped separately from carcasses, confounds efforts to enforce the five percent ratio, according to testimony from Greenpeace, which urged the commission to strengthen the measure by requiring sharks to be retained with their fins naturally attached “in accordance with best practices established by the United Nations.”
“This loophole compromises other CMMs including those for oceanic whitetip and silky sharks,” the organization stated. (WCPFC measures prohibit the landing of both of those species.) Allowing the transshipment of sharks and fins separately, Greenpeace continued, “compounds the difficulty in enforcing the relevant shark measures. This further reiterates the call by Greenpeace to ban all transshipment at sea (of all species including sharks) to close this loophole and support strong fisheries management, good data reporting and science and enforcement of the rules.”
Greenpeace pointed to its bust last September of the Shuen De Ching 888, a Taiwanese longliner that was caught illegally fishing and shark finning on the high seas.
Observer reports confirm that shark finning is still occurring in both the longline and purse seine fisheries in the Western Pacific. And the commission’s Scientific Committee (SC) reported last year that it was unable to evaluate the validity of the five percent ratio “due to insufficient information for all but one of the major fleets implementing these ratios.” As a result, the commission’s Technical and Compliance Committee (TCC) was unable to assess whether the fleets were adhering to CMM 2010-07.
Before the commission’s meeting in December, the TCC recommended that the commission “consider means to strengthen the CMM 2010-07 with respect to ensuring compliance with the obligation in paragraph 6,” which requires fishers to fully utilize any retained catches of sharks.
The EU’s Angela Martini, who initially proposed that the measure be amended to require sharks be landed with their fins naturally attached, recommended that the SC and TCC investigate ways to improve the measure. She also urged member states that use the five percent ratio to provide detailed information to those committees on how they implement that condition. Finally, she urged the commission, following the committees’ recommendations, to revise CMM 2010-07 “to ensure its effective enforcement in view of the implementation of the finning ban.”
Ray Clarke of the U.S. National Marine Fisheries Service suggested it would be redundant to ask the SC and TCC to evaluate the measure when they’ve already said they can’t. He added that he would have preferred a stronger recommendation – specifically, a requirement that carcasses and fins be made available if they are caught in the high seas.
Japan’s Takashi Koya added that Japan could not accept the recommendation that the commission revise the measure. When he suggested that the commission merely commit to reviewing it, representatives from China and Indonesia added their support.
China’s Liu Xiaobing also took issue with the EU’s referral to a “finning ban.”
“‘Finning ban’ is too much for us. … There is nothing wrong [with finning]. It’s consistent with management measures,” he said.
To this, Martini replied, “What do you mean there is no finning ban in the convention area? There is a finning ban. … I’m pretty surprised by these comments.” Although she agreed to soften the language of her recommendation to remove references to a finning ban, the commission still failed to adopt the EU’s overall proposal.
Martini was clearly disappointed.
“The TCC asked for guidance. Now we have no guidance. … We haven’t addressed a very serious issue,” she said.
At last month’s WCPFC meeting, not only did members debate whether or not the commission ever intended to ban shark finning, they also seemed unable to agree on whether a measure adopted almost a decade ago was, indeed, aimed at banning transshipment — which occurs when a fishing vessel offloads its catch to another vessel — on the high seas.
NGOs, including Greenpeace and the World Wide Fund for Nature, and the small island countries that make up the Pacific Forum Fishers Agency (FFA) have long argued that the commission should adopt a ban on at-sea transshipment, which by all accounts facilitates Illegal, Unregulated, and Unreported (IUU) fishing, especially on the high seas.
“Transshipment and the use of motherships to resupply fishing vessels at sea also facilitates forced labor and human rights abuse at sea, by allowing fishing vessels to stay at sea for months and even years, making escape impossible for fishing crews. It also exacerbates the extremely low level of observer coverage on longline vessels by making observer trips difficult to implement and allowing longline vessels to avoid port inspection from landing catches in port or transshipping in authorized transshipment ports where inspection is possible,” Greenpeace stated in testimony to the commission.
In 2009, the commission established regulations on transshipment in CMM 2009-06. The measure banned transshipment on the high seas, except where a commission member state has determined — in accordance with commission-established guidelines — that it is impracticable for its vessels to operate without being able to transship on the high seas. The measure directed the commission’s executive director to draft guidelines to determine those “impracticable” circumstances. Those guidelines would then be vetted by the WCPFC’s Technical and Compliance Committee and adopted by the commission.
Because those guidelines have never been adopted, some have argued, vessels transshipping on the high seas have failed to properly report their activities.
In the absence of guidelines, the Marshall Islands’ Glen Joseph proposed a complete ban on high seas transshipment for longline vessels. (The CMM already bans transshipment for purse seine vessels.)
The European Union echoed the Marshall Islands’ recommendation, noting that high seas transshipment is “supposed to be an exception, but it is actually the rule.”
A representative from Nauru noted that the 2009 measure was a compromise following the FFA’s repeated efforts to adopt a complete ban on high seas transshipment. The measure’s exception to the transshipment ban has been not been used in good faith by some flag states, he said.
“It is possible for high seas longline vessels to not transship,” he said, noting that the EU conducts all of its transshipments in port.
Although Japan’s Takashi Koya acknowledged that high seas transshipping is used in IUU fishing, he pointed out that 2009-06 recognizes that transshipment at sea “is a common global practice.”
“Japan cannot go along with just a simple request of total high seas transshipment ban,” he said. Representatives from Korea and China echoed his feelings.
Joseph pointed out that the measure, as it’s currently written, already bans high seas transshipments. The exception to that ban would only come into play when impracticability standards are met.
According to WCPFC’s legal advisor, in the absence of commission-adopted guidelines, the measure requires a vessel wanting to transship on the high seas to prove 1) significant economic hardship would be incurred without transshipment, and 2) it would have to make significant and substantial changes to its historical mode of operation. The member states managing those vessels would also have to submit a plan detailing what steps they are taking to encourage transshipment in port in the future.
That, apparently, isn’t being done. Even so, Martini said, some 3,000 to 4,000 longline vessels have reported that they are transshipping at sea.
“This measure … is being used to allow transshipment [at sea] as the rule and that is very worrying,” she said, adding that it is, indeed, a hardship to transship at port, but the EU does it because the measure sets a very high threshold for at-sea transshipment.
China countered that it also tries its best to encourage its fleet to offload at port, but, “practically speaking, we have difficulties.”
Many small island developing states (SIDS) ban the harvest or transportation of sharks, but China fishes for blue shark on the high seas. “That is something our fleet hesitates to go to the port [with],” he said. He added that another reason his country’s boats can’t offload in SIDS ports is because China freezes most of its catch and SIDS ports lack the capability to handle that.
WCPFC chair Rhea Moss-Christian ended the discussion with a call for the commission to review at its next meeting the impracticability guidelines that have been drafted.
— Teresa Dawson