Fisheries Commission Makes No Headway Toward Reducing Hauls of Pacific Bigeye

posted in: January 2016 | 0

The Western and Central Pacific Fisheries Commission closed its annual meeting last month, having failed again to significantly strengthen its measure aimed at ending overfishing of tropical tunas, especially bigeye.

But it wasn’t for lack of trying.

Ahead of the commission’s annual meeting, held in Bali, its executive director, Feleti Teo, privately discussed ways forward with individual representatives from various member states. At the Bali meeting, commission chair Rhea Moss-Christian convened meetings of a working group on tropical tuna as early as possible (compared to the previous year, when then-chair Charles Karnella waited until the middle of the week to hold them).

The group’s discussions of a proposal by several island states to amend the measure degenerated after China’s representative called the longline component “a joke.” Moss-Christian then broadened the discussion in hopes of finding areas where there might be some agreement. When that tack started leading toward more discord than agreement, she and her staff drafted their own host of small but significant tweaks to the measure and she limited discussion on them to the heads of delegation plus one adviser each. But even the closed-door discussions — which some NGOs argued violated the commission’s own policies — failed to achieve consensus on any amendment to the tropical tuna measure.

The current measure, Conservation and Management Measure (CMM) 2014-01, expires at the end of 2017. When the commission reconvenes this coming December to discuss amending the measure and perhaps lay the groundwork for a new one, some participants have speculated that the matter might be brought to a vote, rather than offered for consensus. Up to now, measures have been adopted by consensus.

Although she did not mention a vote in her closing remarks, Moss-Christian stressed that the commission needs to “consider alternative ways to progress consistent issues we have found ourselves unable to progress. Management of the stocks, this is our key mandate. We need to try to find better ways to make progress.”

Leaving things to consensus might never result in an adequate reduction in fishing effort, given some of the comments made by a number of member states during the course of the meeting. Moss-Christian noted during one particularly prickly working group session, “I don’t even think we have agreement something needs to be done.”

Cautiously Optimistic

Purse seiners and longliners have been overfishing bigeye tuna in the Western and Central Pacific for more than a decade. By 2014, the stock had shrunk to 16 percent of its original, un-fished state — a level that leads many to believe the stock is not just subject to overfishing, but is in fact overfished, a much more serious condition.

Scientists with the Secretariat for the Pacific Community (SPC), which advises the commission, have determined that bigeye in the WCPFC convention area will rebound only under the most optimistic and stringent implementation of CMM 2014-01.

The SPC’s most recent modeling shows that the longline and purse seine fleets are generally on track with the fishing effort reductions called for in the measure. Longline catches overall are well below caps set by the measure, and purse seine effort, perhaps driven by economic hardships, dropped last year so that it’s only about one percent greater than what the SPC estimated it would be at this time.

The SPC’s Graham Pilling told the commission, “We appear to be on track. The question is, are we on the correct track?”

Under the current CMM, certain member states have exemptions and options that allow them to continue setting on fish aggregating devices (FADs) in the high seas after their use is otherwise banned, to increase FAD set limits, or to catch unlimited amounts of bigeye by longline vessels. Should they exercise those options, it isn’t at all clear that the fisheries will stay on a track towards ending overfishing, he continued.

“Exemptions generally lead to worse states,” he said.

What’s more, the SPC needs better data to accurately assess the measure and make projections. The agency’s John Hampton said he’d most like more operational-level catch and effort data from longliners. For years, a number of distant water fleets — those for China, Japan, Taiwan, Korea, and Indonesia — provided only aggregated catch data, but in 2014, they committed to at least trying to provide operational level data.

Although some of those fleets followed through with data for 2014, Hampton said that information alone won’t make a contribution to any analyses for many years.

“That [data] needs to be extended to historical data. We have historical data for purse seiners. It’s important for the work that we do,” he said.

Cross-checking catch data with documentation on what’s offloaded from vessels would also assist the SPC in nailing down what species are being caught, he said. It’s often difficult for observers to tell the difference between juvenile yellowfin and bigeye, a situation some have suggested has led to an underestimation of bigeye catches by purse seiners.

Data concerns aside, if the status quo continues for both the purse seine and longline fleets, catches of bigeye will exceed the maximum sustainable yield (MSY) by 21 percent, with a nearly one-in-three chance that the stock will remain below 20 percent of its un-fished biomass, Graham said. It’s currently at 16 percent.

If the CMM measures scheduled for 2017 are fully implemented, including a ban on FAD setting on the high seas, bigeye catches would drop to seven percent below MSY after ten years, he concluded.

Easier Said Than Done

Will fishing effort, indeed, drop to that level by 2017and stay there for the next decade? A number of commission members seemed doubtful. One noted that while the number of FAD sets declined in 2015, catches remained high and some member states were not adhering to the FAD closures called for in CMM 2014-01. Another pointed out that at least two of the member states with bigeye quotas for their longline fleets – including the United States – stay within their limits by engaging in charter arrangements with small island developing states or participating territories, which have no quotas.

All proposals by member states to improve the effectiveness of CMM 2014-01 have failed in large part because, as a member of the Philippines delegation stated, the commission lacked a common definition of the problem. Japan’s proposal to reduce the capacity of purse seine fleets was never really discussed. And a package of longline and purse seine measures proposed by Tokelau and a coalition known as the Parties to the Nauru Agreement (PNA), which includes the Federated States of Micronesia, Kiribati, Marshall Islands, Nauru, Palau, Papua New Guinea, Solomon Islands and Tuvalu, faced stiff opposition from member states wanting to preserve their current longline fishing levels.

Wez Norris of the Pacific Island Forum Fisheries Agency (FFA), which includes a number of PNA member countries and Tokelau, chided those in opposition for not agreeing to what he saw as a minor reduction in fishing effort. Compared to the commitments regarding tropical tunas the commission made in 2008, 2012, and 2013, “this is the easiest discussion we’ve had. We only need a small reduction in purse seine and longline catch,” he said.

He continued that the stalemate on CMM 2014-01 “really highlights that we need to start thinking about post-2017.”

In the meantime, given the consistent lack of headway on the tropical tuna measure, some FFA countries have taken to jacking up their access fees to foreign vessels as a way of limiting fishing effort while also maintaining a significant revenue stream for the countries. The result so far has apparently been somewhat effective. On the meeting’s closing day, a representative from Korea confirmed that her country’s fleet, at least, was suffering financial losses.

“They can’t afford fees in the coastal states. It’s very blunt, but it’s a reality I want to register,” she said.

Some of those island states announced at the meeting that they plan this year to start charging higher fees to purse seiners setting on FADs in their waters so as to direct fishing on free schools of tuna instead, which reduces the likelihood that juvenile bigeye are caught.

With regard to longlining, although the PNA/Tokelau proposal did not target the charter arrangements that allow member states to continue fishing after they reach their bigeye quotas, representatives from the U.S. participating territories — American Samoa, Guam, and the Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands — all testified that those arrangements must continue.

“These arrangements are essential sources of funds that the U.S. Territories otherwise would not have available to pursue our fishery development aspirations,” they wrote in a December 2 letter to WCPFC chair Moss-Christian.

A New Scheme

CMM 2014-01 expires soon and although modeling suggests the measure’s fishing limits — if applied over the next decade — have the potential to end overfishing of bigeye, the United States, for one, is having difficulty staying within those limits.  Last year, the Hawai`i longline fleet hit its 3,502 metric ton quota in August and had to enter into quota transfer agreements with Guam and the Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands to catch up to 2,000 metric tons more of bigeye. The U.S. purse seine fleet also reached its high seas set limit before the year was half over, which had the potential to severely impact American Samoa’s tuna canneries.

So at last month’s meeting, U.S. representative Russell Smith asked that the SPC investigate spatial management options for longliners. A spatial management scheme, where the more heavily fished areas would be targeted for greater catch reductions, would likely raise the quotas on the Hawai`i longline fleet, which fishes in a lightly used zone.

“It would be very useful if we could get some input from SPC on how we might go about using that tool, focusing on where mortality is occurring and taking steps to reduce mortality in those areas,” Smith said.

He added that the United States was concerned about how the current purse seine management scheme is negatively affecting American Samoa’s tuna industry.

When considering future measures, he said, the commission must carefully consider proposals to eliminate fishing on the high seas in favor of fishing in zones of certain coastal states. Small island developing states (SIDS) have been pushing the commission to adopt high seas closures, thus forcing foreign fleets to pay them to fish in their waters. But should the commission adopt such proposals, “this will have and continue to have a significant burden on American Samoa,” Smith said.

He noted that the U.S. participating territories have a history of fishing and “it’s only fair they should be able to continue. They should not be eliminated by the actions of this commission. There needs to be a balance of ensuring SIDS have a right to develop their fisheries … and the interests of other coastal states in the fishery.”

Although the pleas from Smith and the U.S. participating territories weren’t particularly well-received by some SIDS representatives, the EU’s Angela Martini agreed with Smith that the commission needs to explore different management scenarios.

In the end, the commission agreed to direct the SPC to study spatial management options.

— Teresa Dawson

For Further Reading

  • “Editorial: Tuna Are In Trouble, With No Help In Sight,” and “Bigeye Tuna Population Faces Jeopardy as International Organization Fails to Act,” January 2011;
  • “Federal Law Gives Hawai`i Longliners Free Rein to Ignore International Quota,” January 2012;
  • “Editorial: The High Cost of Cheap Tuna,” and “Pacific Tuna Commission Cannot Agree on Meaningful Steps to Protect Bigeye,” May 2012;
  • “Editorial: As Commission Dithers, Tunas Decline,” and “For Another Year, Pacific Bigeye Tuna Go Without Strong International Protection,” January 2014;
  • “Hawai`i Longliners’ Bigeye Tuna Limit Jumps 80 Percent Under Proposed Rule,” April 2014;
  • “‘Money Games’ Thwart Overhaul of Bigeye Tuna Protection Measure,” January 2015;
  • “Wespac Seeks to Further Expand Bigeye Tuna Quotas for U.S. Fleets,” July 2015;
  • “Hawai`i Longliners’ Bigeye Quota Extended for Second Time This Year,” December 2015.

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