South Pacific Albacore Tuna crisis: collective action of the Pacific Islands is the way forward

By James Movick, Director General of the Pacific Islands Forum Fisheries Agency

April 2014

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James Movick, Director General of the Pacific Islands Forum Fisheries Agency
There has been a lot of press coverage in the past few months about the crisis in the southern albacore tuna longline fishery. Long liners laid off left, right and centre; world albacore prices are low; and many of the small, locally based fishing businesses that have been so carefully cultivated over the last two decades are going to the wall.

Too often the standard reaction in the region is to blame foreigners and external factors for all of our woes. The recent reactions to the current downturn in the southern albacore long line crisis are no exception. Certainly, subsidies of one foreign fleet in particular does not help our current dire situation and neither does the increase in catch of albacore in other oceans and on the South Pacific high seas. However, to resolve a problem we must start with an objective analysis of the facts and the fact here is that the cures for the current ills of this particular fishery lie largely within our own hands.
Why do I say this? Because we, Pacific Island Countries, control the waters where the majority of South Pacific albacore is caught. According to the available catch statistics, two thirds of the catch of this tuna (66%) comes from the Exclusive Economic Zones of South Pacific Island nations and territories. And the rest of the catch is taken on the high seas adjacent to our EEZs, where the International Law of the Sea and the WCPFC Convention require particular attention to be paid to potential impacts on small island countries.
We need to exercise this control, and we need to exercise it collectively, if we are to have any effect on a fishery that spans a quarter of the southern hemisphere. We know it can be done. The Pacific island countries that are parties to the Nauru Agreement have already effectively controlled the skipjack purse-seine fishery where 60% of the fishery is in their EEZs. There is plenty of world press about global purse-seine tuna fishery overcapacity, and the problems likely to be caused by new vessels under construction, and I’ll talk about these next month, but they are difficulties that can be controlled by the agreements already in place between the PNA countries in association with Tokelau. PNA has the fishery well in hand.
By comparison, southern long lining is a wild frontier. There is, as yet, no definite regional agreement on how the fishery should be managed and catches limited.
Frankly, we aren’t even sure we have an accurate idea of what is happening in the fishery, especially in the high seas areas. In terms of ensuring that sufficient scientific data is reliably collected and the operations of boats are in accordance with fishing regulations, we are unable to verify this because fewer than 2% of long line vessels trips have independent Pacific island observers on board the boats, particularly on the high seas. Sound scientific assessment requires a minimum of 20% coverage on long liners. Purse-seiners fishing in other parts of the region have 100% observer coverage.
South Pacific governments have proven their capability to band together effectively to change international fishing pressure on the albacore stocks in their waters. The 1989 Wellington Convention that banned the use of long driftnets effectively cut out most fishing on small albacore and secured the overall biological sustainability of the south Pacific albacore stock. But now Pacific island governments need to follow up and limit longline fishing on the adult component of the stock, and limit it to economically sustainable levels.
The fisheries scientists tell us that south Pacific albacore stocks are still sound; they are not being fished at Maximum Sustainable Yield (MSY) and are therefore not in danger of over-exploitation. That is correct. The problem though is that albacore long line fishing focuses on only a small portion of the overall albacore stock, the larger albacore. Long liners target this particular size class. With increasing numbers of boats permitted in this fishery, the average catch (or catch per unit of effort) is dropping to a point where the boats are no longer able to engage in financially viable fishing operations. The exception is those boats that are subsidised or are brand new and super-efficient, which excludes virtually all Pacific Island owned and based long line boats. We need to look at limiting total catch even further and transferring access rights over as much of that catch as possible for Pacific Island boats and generally for locally based fleets that supply the bulk of their catch to Pacific processing operations.
Right now, many Pacific Island governments are trying to have their cake and eat it too. They want to encourage locally based fishing through the private sector but at the same time generate revenue from licencing foreign long liners. Although it is possible to do both, the balance has to be carefully managed. This is no longer a developing fishery. It is a mature fishery, and the opportunities that it offers must be managed within limits that make it possible for unsubsidised locally based operators to make a living – if that is the national policy – and to expand into the opportunities currently used by foreign boats. Even if there is no domestic long line fleet, Pacific Island governments are encouraged to ensure that fish from vessels fishing in their zones are processed locally or at least somewhere within the Pacific Island region. Right now, we are offering too many albacore fishing opportunities overall, and offering too many of these opportunities to long liners whose profits and economic spin-offs end up outside the region. In short: We need to reduce the number of fishing vessels engaged in this fishery, then we need to ensure that those that are permitted to fish also process their catch in the Pacific islands region.
The way forward is in sight. The principles of Rights Based Management (and the example provided by the PNA) indicate the path that can and should be taken by the South Pacific nations that share the albacore resource:
Individual national governments would decide whether they want to maintain an enabling environment for locally beneficial albacore fishing, or to rent out their waters. Both are legitimate strategies, and some islands don’t have the infrastructure for locally-based commercial fisheries. But both approaches have to be carefully managed within the bio-economic limits of the albacore tuna resource.
Each PIC would need to set a limit to the catches that they will allow in their EEZ. This may be based on historical catch or could include a reasonable limit that takes account of their realistic aspirations.
Collectively, South Pacific governments would agree on the overall regional limit to be set on albacore catch or longline fishing effort in their combined fisheries waters. Although albacore can be locally overfished in the short term, over the long term this is a regional stock, and for limits to work they have to apply over the majority of the range of the fishery. As PNA has demonstrated, the process of limiting fishing opportunities adds value to the fishery – often dramatically – and also provides a mechanism to make sure those opportunities end up in the right hands;
Once we have agreed and enforce this collective limit management regime for the EEZs that are under our control (remember that currently 66% of the catch is taken in national waters that we control) then the WCPFC would need to agree on compatible limits to be enacted on the high seas of the South Pacific. Traditionally, tuna RFMOs, driven by distant-water fishing interests, tend to take decisive action only when stocks approach or exceed their biological limits. Thanks largely to the 1989 ban on long driftnets, South Pacific albacore is the only major albacore stock in the world which is still considered biologically healthy, and thus WCPFC distant-water interests have always resisted consensus action to effectively limit longline fishing on this stock in this region.
However, the WCPFC convention has enshrined the principle of compatibility – that management measures on the high seas and in EEZs should not undermine each other. By establishing a collective albacore management limitation arrangement based on our rights as coastal states and taking account of our small developing states status, we can effectively expect the WCPFC to adopt a compatible measure that recognises our national rights and collective management regime, and adopts compatible measures in the adjacent high seas. However, I would not expect Pacific Island nations to have to wait for the WCPFC to agree on an effective management measure for this southern albacore. We can and should act for ourselves first, being mindful of our rights, development interests and our global responsibilities.
FFA stands ready to assist its member countries in achieving all of these. However, the most fundamental step at this stage is to agree on the regional limit under a PIC coastal state collective arrangement. Another meeting of the FFC Subcommittee on South Pacific Tuna and Billfish Fisheries will be held in May in Apia, and will provide an opportunity. Agreement was nearly achieved last October, but there were some governments not quite ready to take the plunge. This year the agreement will need to go ahead. If one or two of the countries on the margins of the range of the southern albacore stock are not yet in a position to commit we can design a measure to allow them to enter when they are ready. However, we cannot delay any longer.

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