May 09, 2021 Last Updated 7:04 AM, May 7, 2021

Recent years have seen a power shift, with Pacific Islands Nations gaining greater control and revenue returns from their Tuna fisheries. This has been the result of cooperation and hard work. This article will show that the Pacific Tuna fisheries are arguably the best and most sustainably managed in the world. Therefore, World Tuna Day is a day that the Pacific Nations can be especially proud of.

World Tuna Day is observed on 2nd May every year; it was officially established by the United Nations General Assembly (UNGA) by adopting resolution 71/124, in December 2016. It aims to draw attention to the importance of conservation management and sustainable fishing.

Tuna are an essential species, and deserve such recognition. Many nations depend upon tuna as a food source. Over 96 countries have tuna fisheries, which are under ever increasing pressure.

I have been working with tuna for over 30 years, mainly in the Pacific Islands in the Western and Central Pacific region. This region is the source of over 30% of the world tuna catches.

The sustainability and economic performance of the tuna resource for the Pacific Islands is a positive story. This is noteworthy, because not many positive stories come from fisheries, despite them being a key area of food production.

For many years now, the Pacific Island nations have demonstrated leadership in coastal states' rights and responsibilities. The Pacific region has the strongest unions among coastal countries (countries responsible for the waters where the tuna is fished) that exist anywhere in the world. Exemplary institutions like the Pacific Islands Fisheries Forum Agency ("The FFA") do not exist anywhere else.

The Forum Fisheries Agency or FFA

The FFA has been working for over 40 years and supporting its 17 members in critical areas. These areas include:

1) Compliance and surveillance; anyone with a laptop and access to through the shared Vessels Monitoring System (VMS) can quickly find out information such as: where each of the over 2,500 vessels fishing in the Eastern Pacific is, what they are doing, their licences, their compliance history, the last port of entry, their electronic reporting, and so on. The System also coordinates the 4 biggest sea and aerial surveillance operations in the world every year with the support of American, French and Australian assets to make sure all, vessels in the area are authorised. The system appears to be working as no illegal vessels have been found in the past 5 years. There is solid register of vessels, FFA Regional Register of Fishing Vessels in good standing, (for those that are in compliance with the Harmonized Minimum Terms and Conditions for Access by Fishing Vessels - HMTCs).

2) Policy and management; The Pacific has been very supportive in terms of reference points, effort controls, fish aggregating device management and so on. The recent incorporation of standardized port State measures through the WCPFC Conservation and Management Measure and FFA port State measures regional framework is further example of this vision, and one I've been working substantially on.The 17 countries share Harmonized Minimum Terms and Conditions for Access by Fishing Vessels (HMTCs) for these wishing to fish in their waters, these conditions go from the size of the identification markings on the vessels, via the fishing gear specification, the by catch conditions and so on.

The HMTCs regulate who, how, when and where vessels can fish. And remarkably, this includes fishers' labour rights as they include a minimum set of requirements based on ILO's Working in Fishing Convention (C188) as part of the requirements for the vessels to be allowed to fish in coastal State waters. This is momentous because from 1 January 2020, if a vessel does not uphold those labour rights and conditions as part of their licensing, then their right to fish can be removed and the vessels would not be in good standing. This is the first time in the world that there is a direct link between labour standards and the right to fish being substantiated by a coalition of coastal States!

To add the these harmonised conditions a subgroup of FFA members, the PNA countries, have created their own supplementary conditions for purse seiners and recently longliners that include among others the Vessel Day Scheme; an effort management measure where vessels pay for every day they gear is in the water, even if nothing is being caught, 100% observers coverage on Purse Seiners, a state of the art information management system, prohibition to tranship outside ports, and so on… these are some of the most exigent fisheries access conditions in the world.

3) Fisheries development; The average value of the annual catch in FFA waters between 2016 and 2018 was US$2.9 billion, 51% of the average value of WPCO annual catch of US$5.7 billion. The purse seine fishery contributed on average (2016-2018) just above 80% (US$2.4 billion) of the total average (2016- 2018) catch value in the FFA EEZ. The average (2016-2018) value of the skipjack catch was 60% of the total value of the harvest; yellowfin, bigeye and albacore contributed 29%, 8% and 4% respectively.

Foreign fleets which once dominated the harvest sector in FFA EEZs, have seen their share of the value of the catch decline significantly in recent years. In 2010 the share of the value of the catch taken in FFA member's water by their national fleets (that is, vessels flagged by or chartered to them) was 29% while in 2018 this share had increased to 48%.

The value of access fees paid by foreign vessels to FFA members continues to increase over recent years, rising from around US$114 million in 2009 to US$554 million in 2018. These license and access fee revenue make an important contribution to FFA member's government finances, representing 25% or more of government revenue (excluding grants) for six FFA members and as high as 85%.

Revenue from the purse seine fleet increased rapidly up to 2015 increasing by an average 27% per annum between 2011 and 2015. Growth then slowed increasing by just 2% in 2016 and 4% in 2017 before rising 12% in 2018. This growth has been driven by the increase in the value of days under the PNA (Parties to the Nauru Agreement) purse seine effort-based Vessel Day Scheme (VDS).

Prior to 2011, the value of the day was generally less than US$2000 but this increased rapidly following the introduction of a benchmark price that set an agreed minimum price.

This benchmark price was set at US$5000 in 2011, increased to US$6000 in 2014 and again increased to $8000 in 2015 where it currently stands. VDS days in 2018 sold in a range between US$9,000 and US$14,000/day.

Total employment related to tuna fisheries in FFA member countries for 2018 is estimated at around 22,350, an increase of 3% of the previous year. Since 2010, there has been consistent growth in employment numbers. The onshore processing sector makes the largest contribution to employment with about 65% of total employment related to tuna fisheries coming from this sector. Total employment in the onshore processing sector in 2018 was estimated at 14,497, an increase of 7% from the previous year. The harvest, observers and the public sector contribute around 25%, 4% and 7% of total employment respectively. The majority of those employed in the processing sector are employed in PNG, which accounts for about 60% of all processing works. Around 16% of processing employment is in the Solomon Islands, 15% in Fiji and 3% in the Marshall Islands. Among processing workers an estimated 10,800, or 75%, are women while an estimated 3,600 are male. Significant growth in employment was also observed in the public sector with numbers increasing to around 1,568, more than 60% higher than 5 years ago.

And all this has been achieved while maintaining the stock at sustainable levels as evaluated by the arguably the best tuna and stock assessments scientists in the world, such as those based in the Oceanic Fisheries Programme of the Pacific Community headquarters in New Caledonia. This has been confirmed by peer review process. All four main WCPO tuna stocks (albacore, bigeye, skipjack and yellowfin) are deemed to be "biologically healthy" in that they are not overfished nor is overfishing occurring.

Fish Stocks

And this is not to say that is all perfect… the region seen a changed perception of the stock provided by the 2019 assessment, discussions on the appropriate TRP (target reference point) value for skipjack tuna continue. The albacore stock is projected to decline further below its target reference point of 56% of unfished biomass if recent high catch levels continue into the future.

Significant concerns remain with regard to low catch rates in longline fisheries targeting albacore and the economic returns these fisheries generate.

Therefore as 17 country blocks with sufficient muscle to operate at international level we push for stronger conservation and management measures at the Western and Central Pacific Fisheries Commission, the management body that brings together the coastal states and the Distant Water Fishing Nations (DWFN).

Substantial challenges remain for example the impact of climate change, increasing fishing effort and transhipment and labour issues in the HS - where the flag states have sole responsibility, and the impact of "fishing effort creep" through new technologies like Fish Aggregation Devices. Such devices have automatised echo sounders which able to transmit via satellite not only the positions but also the volumes and species composition of fish below.

Yet we have some of the best people in the world dealing with these issues.

For example the FFA countries were in 2016 the 1st region to identify under and misreporting as the main elements of IUU (Illegal, Unreported and Unregulated (IUU) fishing) fishing in our region. Those practices cost coastal countries an estimated US$160 million. The 2021 update of this work is presently being done and is showing promising results.

Tuna is fundamental for the Pacific region. Pacific nations manage their tuna fisheries sustainably because they are capable and understand better than anyone else, the implications of a failure.

This is an issue of overarching importance since competing interests are impacting tuna sustainability. There is a fundamental (and perhaps unbridgeable) difference; as clearly expressed to me, by my Nauruan friend and colleague Monte Depaune:

"For non-Pacific Islands and Distant Water Fishing Nations (DWFN) the issue of tuna sustainability is one of long-term financial benefit. However, for coastal States PICs it is also an identity and food security issue, one that DWFNs have less trouble with, as they can leave… but PICs (Pacific Island Coastal States) cannot."

Pacific leaders have always understood that unity and collaboration are the best response to the divide and conquer strategies they sometimes face. Whilst there is little they can do in terms of managing the High Seas, they are themselves Large Oceanic Nations instead of Small Island States, and in their waters they have the last word.

In the fisheries world the power is shifting is moving from the ones with the boats to the ones with the fish, even if the former richer and more influential. Without the strong cooperation and cultural linkages among Pacific Islands coastal States it is doubtful there would be a healthy tuna fishery such as the one they now have. I'm incredibly proud to be a small part of the massive team that has achieved that.

Francisco Blaha has been living in the Pacific for over half his life. He has been involved in the fisheries sector since he was teenager, starting as a deckhand he worked his way through the field of fisheries to his present position as a specialist adviser for a dozen international organisations and governments in more than 50 countries.

Death by slow strangulation

Growing up in his settlement in Nadi, western Fiji, Sundar Lal recalls an abundance of fish, crabs and prawns in the nearby creeks, rivers and foreshore areas.

"We never returned empty-handed," he recalls.

Lal, 80, lives in a small farming and fishing community, called Tunalia, on Fiji's main island, Viti Levu, in the Southern Pacific.

As part of Tunalia's fabric, fish is both an important source of protein and extra income.

Tunalia is representative of similar communities across the Fijian archipelago, where fishing holds deep cultural, economic and dietary significance.

According to the Pacific marine scientist, Professor Joeli Veitayaki, Fijians have relied on the sea as a food source for centuries.

Veitayaki says that because of their unique features, Fiji's tropical waters are teeming with a wide variety of fish.

This marine life is supported by an abundance of seagrass, and the world's third longest barrier reef system, the Great Sea Reef, extending 200km from the western coastline of Viti Levu, all the way to the north-eastern tip of Fiji's second largest island, Vanua Levu.

The United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization estimates that there are around 30,000 subsistence fishers in Fiji, including 50% of all rural households. Significantly, women make up more than 80% of subsistence fishing in Fiji.

Fiji's annual fish consumption, at 44 kilograms per-capita, is higher than the world average, according to the Asian Development Bank.

Killing the 'golden goose'

Tunalia's Lal, and his family, are just one beneficiary of Fiji's rich fishery. But Lal is concerned about a trend he has noticed in the last few decades. "We're not catching fish like we used to. We are having to go further out than before," he says.

It is fairly well-known that inshore fisheries, largely unmonitored and unregulated in Fiji have been under sustained fishing pressure for decades.

The reasons range from rising populations—resulting in increased fish consumption—to increased poverty, with more people turning to fishing to survive.

The stress on fishing is greatest whenever there is any economic hardship caused by political upheavals and/or natural disasters.

For instance, in parts of the country, entire sugar cane farming communities displaced as a result of expiring native land leases turned to fishing. 

More recently, the media reported a noticeable increase in fishing due to the COVID-19 pandemic, as the 115,000 newly-unemployed citizens turned to the sea to make ends meet.

Several scientific studies and reports indicate that unsustainable fishing methods, habitat destruction and pollution continue to take a heavy toll on fish stocks.

A four-year assessment (2014-2018) on the spawning potential of 129 inshore species found key stocks across Fiji in crisis.

The study by the Wildlife Conservation Society (Fiji), Ministry of Fisheries, World Wildlife Fund and the University of the South Pacific (USP), reported:

  • More than half the species (17) assessed were below the internationally-benchmarked size limit.
  • Staple species such as grouper and parrotfish were being caught before they were old enough to spawn, and;
  • Over 57% of potential future reef fish yield would be lost unless better management practices were implemented.

"Our results suggest an urgent need to reform the management of Fiji's reef fish stocks so that fish are not caught before reproducing; that they have had a chance to replace themselves and keep populations stable," the report concluded.

Diminishing returns, deceptive appearances

As part of efforts to assess the situation, this Earth Journalism Network-USP Journalism investigation involved a three-day trip around Viti Levu to meet fishers, fish vendors and coastal communities.

Everywhere the story was the same: increasing costs and dwindling catches, with fishers having to travel further out for a reasonable haul.

 "We used to find big fish near the shore and the reef, but not anymore," says Suren Chand, a fisherman from Ba.

Recently, Fiji's Fisheries Minister, Semi Koroilavesau, cited studies indicating that in the 1980s, fishers fished for a maximum of two hours to feed an entire village.

By 2000, longer hours were needed, even to meet individual household needs.

During the Viti Levu round trip, little seemed wrong on the surface.

Numerous fish vendors with abundant stock were encountered every few kilometers along Fiji's 500km main highway, selling a variety of species from makeshift stalls, as well as families hawking from front yards.

Despite the high prices, most vendors reported brisk sales of up to $FJ300 (US$146) on a good day.

In the town centers, there was abundant stock at the vibrant municipal fish markets and inside the freezers of the various supermarkets and smaller corner shops.

But looks can be deceiving, with study after study detailing the consequences of decades of sustained pressure on inshore fisheries.

According to a 2009 University of British Columbia report, 70 of Fiji's approximately 400 qoliqoli areas (traditional fishing grounds) were over-exploited.

"In Fiji, certain fisheries are in a very bad state due to continued overfishing, pollution and bad fishing practices," says Dr Sangeeta Mangubhai, Director of the Wildlife Conservation Society (Fiji). Mangubhai identifies the capture of undersized fish as a major contributor to the problem.

During this investigation, it was noticed that the sale of undersized fish, crabs and seashells was prevalent at most of the selling points on the main island.

Several fish vendors interviewed for this story confirmed that the authorities did not check on size limits, let alone enforce them.

“Small fish is sold openly at the markets,” said Anish Naidu, who sells his catch at the Lautoka city market. “Nobody checks it,” he added.                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                          

On most days, numerous people can be found catching fish no more than a few centimetres in size along the Suva and Nasese seawalls.

Dr Anjeela Jokhan, the former Dean at the University of the South Pacific's Faculty of Science, Technology and Environment, says inshore fisheries are less policed because it is viewed as 'subsistence', meaning small money.

"But in terms of the direct value on livelihoods, inshore fisheries is huge," she says. One recent report puts the total value of inshore fisheries at US$52m (FJ$108.45m) annually.

Strategic approach

The WCS Fiji Director, Mangubhai, says a holistic approach is needed to manage reef and coastal fisheries to ensure that stocks remain healthy for future generations.

 "Fishing is not bad," she says.  "There are stocks you can fish at a certain level without depleting or crashing that fishery.

"But if you fish at sites where they reproduce; if you use too small a net and take out a lot of very small fish; if you don't follow size limits, that's a problem."

Mangubhai believes that there is an urgent need to update legislation on size limits and  implement and police restrictions on dynamiting and gillnetting.

She points out that Fiji's Fisheries Act of 1942 was enacted when the country was a colony, with little scientific data available on size limits and vulnerable species.

"For some fish, the size limits are not adequate," says Mangubhai. "Then there's some fish that don't even have a size limit that really do need one."

There are some signs of hope. Since 2016, the Fijian Government has been working on a National Fisheries Policy for sustained growth in inshore fisheries as part of five-year and 20-year National Development Plans.

Government also places an annual four-month (June-September) ban on the highly-prized Grouper (Kawakawa) and Coral Trout (Donu) species during the breeding season.

But environmental organisations that had lobbied for the ban would have been disappointed to see it lifted this year due to the economic hardships caused by COVID-19.

Besides grouper and coral trout, there are no restrictions on some other heavily-harvested, yet ecologically-important species.

This includes Parrotfish, which this investigation found was sold freely in all sizes and colours, both at the local markets and on the roadsides.

The Nature Conservancy, a US-based environmental organisation, states that Bumphead Parrotfish stocks are 'heavily depleted' in Fiji.

Certain species of Parrotfish eat dead coral, and can also produce up to 320kg of sand every year, making them crucial for the reef ecosystem.

Recently, Jonathan Smith, a local diver and boat captain, posted pictures on Facebook of an apparently endangered variety of Parrotfish sold openly at the Labasa market in northern Fiji. "These fish are very easy to shoot at night, which is why the species is declining," he said.

Public awareness campaigns

The USP's Jokhan, who was overseeing a EU5.7 million (US$6.97m) European Union-funded regional project on sustainable fisheries, has called for a major national awareness campaign to effect a "cultural shift".

"I'm a strong believer in working with communities—creating awareness and solutions that they can implement and take ownership of," she says.

"We cannot create solutions and give it to fishing communities. We need to help them create solutions so that they realise why they need it—to save fisheries for the future generations."

'Plenty of fish in the sea'

Andrew Paris, another marine researcher at the USP, agrees that there is a need for a change in thinking in Fiji, where many people seem to think that the ocean will never run out of fish, with no catch-and-release culture of undersized fish.

"There's an endless supply of fish—I have heard that saying in the villages," Paris said.

"But people in these villages are noticing changes (diminishing fish supplies ).”

Paris is among experts considering traditional means of conservation, with strong community involvement.

"I know that in the iTaukei (indigenous Fijian) settings, certain totemic species were tabu (taboo) to catch or eat," says Paris.

 "Ten or 20 years ago people were adhering to those traditional protocols but nowadays anything goes due to a capitalist-driven society where people are always in need of money."

Sitting under the shade of a big mango tree in Tunalia, Sundar Lal's face is creased with concern.

Fishing has fed his family and supplemented his income. He recalls the good old days in wonderment, while worrying about present trends, and future implications.

His fears are not misplaced: While Fiji still reaps a decent harvest from its bountiful seas, how much longer this good fortune will last is the key question.

USP Journalism training consultant Sheldon Chanel is a freelance journalist who writes for various publications, including The Guardian and Al Jazeera.

The Coordinator of the USP Journalism Programme, Dr Shailendra Singh, has written widely on Pacific issues, both as a journalist and as a media academic. 

This USP Journalism-Earth Network Investigation was produced with support from Internews' Earth Journalism Network

This story first appeared in the January issue of Islands Business magazine.

Death by slow strangulation

  • May 10, 2021
  • Published in January

Growing up in his settlement in Nadi, western Fiji, Sundar Lal recalls an abundance of fish, crabs and prawns in the nearby creeks, rivers and foreshore areas.

"We never returned empty-handed," he recalls.

Lal, 80, lives in a small farming and fishing community, called Tunalia, on Fiji's main island, Viti Levu, in the Southern Pacific.

As part of Tunalia's fabric, fish is both an important source of protein and extra income.

Tunalia is representative of similar communities across the Fijian archipelago, where fishing holds deep cultural, economic and dietary significance.

According to the Pacific marine scientist, Professor Joeli Veitayaki, Fijians have relied on the sea as a food source for centuries.

Veitayaki says that because of their unique features, Fiji's tropical waters are teeming with a wide variety of fish.

This marine life is supported by an abundance of seagrass, and the world's third longest barrier reef system, the Great Sea Reef, extending 200km from the western coastline of Viti Levu, all the way to the north-eastern tip of Fiji's second largest island, Vanua Levu.

The United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization estimates that there are around 30,000 subsistence fishers in Fiji, including 50% of all rural households. Significantly, women make up more than 80% of subsistence fishing in Fiji.

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Fisheries Fray

  • May 10, 2021
  • Published in June

The Papua New Guinea Fishing Industry Association (PNGFIA) wants to widen the scope of its fishery products and fishing vessels covered by its recent Marine Stewardship Council (MSC)-certified status.

And the organisation remains highly critical of Pacifical, the commercial entity 50/50 owned by PNA members and Netherlands-based Sustunable bv, marketing the Parties to the Nauru Agreement (PNA's) tuna products in the global market.

PNGFIA announced the success of its MSC certification application in May. This makes it the latest party in the Pacific region eligible to carry the coveted international sustainable fishing label on its fishery products, and the first with the premium blue label certification.  

"We are still not happy with PNA Pacifical because this structure has 50% foreign interest and they are riding on us PNA for personal gain. None of the PNA understand fully how Pacifical works. It is controlled by persons with vested interest using PNA as a conduit," PNGFIA Sylvester Pokajam President told Islands Business.  

For the whole story, get your copy of Islands Business.

The Papua New Guinea Fishing Industry Association (PNGFIA) has rejected the recent suspension by the Western and Central Pacific Fishing Commission (WCPFC) of observer coverage services on board purse seine fishing vessels.

WCPFC, based in Pohnpei, Federated States of Micronesia, is a tuna conservation body whose membership include most countries with fishing interests in the Pacific waters as well as Pacific Island countries who are also members of the Forum Fisheries Agency (FFA) and its sub-group, the Parties to Nauru Agreement (PNA).

Last week, the WCPFC announced an extension of COVID-19 measures that had relaxed some controls on tuna fishing in the Pacific region, and called for stakeholder support in implementing them.

The measures, in force until another review on July 31, included:

• the suspension of purse seine observer coverage;
• The green light for at-sea transshipment of purse seine vessels due to port closure.

However the PNGFIA has pushed back, saying it considers them potentially damaging to its recent Marine Stewardship Council (MSC) certification status.

"Papua New Guinea noted the action taken by WCPFC to suspend or waive 100 percent observer coverage on all purse seine vessels fishing and transshipping in PNA waters as a result of coronavirus pandemic," said PNGFIA president Sylvester Pokajam in a statement yesterday.

"All PNGFIA MSC trips will apply compulsory PNG observer placement on board all LBFV (locally-based foreign fishing vessels) and PNG-flagged vessels for its MSC authorised trips fishing within its Archipelagic and EEZ waters. PNG has no intention of compromising its MSC certification standards and will therefore not come up with any alternative traceability assurance system than those systems explicitly articulated in its Public Certification Report."

Pokajam also took a swipe at the PNA - of which PNG is a member - and its commercial arm Pacifical, with which the PNGFIA had had a falling out, eventually leading PNGFIA to pursue MSC certification on its own.

"We apply our sovereignty and sovereign rights to manage the tuna fishing within our domestic laws, regulations and policies to ensure our tuna fishery remain sustainable and financially viable in the long term," he said.

"We don't support the manner in which the PNA MSC/Pacifical has gone ahead to use the COVID-19 pandemic as an excuse to not place observer on purse seiners for their MSC trips. In our opinion, the MSC office should suspend the PNA MSC trips for the duration of the observer waiver til 31 July, 2020," Pokajam added.

He said the PNG government had kept PNG ports open for fishing vessels as well as crucial shipping service.

PNGFIA was awarded MSC certification early last month and this covered 64 purse seine vessels targeting skipjack and yellowfin in both PNG’s EEZ and archipelagic waters.

Of that total, 32 vessels are PNG-flagged and 32 vessels are Philippines-flagged, licensed as locally based foreign fishing vessels. 

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