May 15, 2021 Last Updated 6:06 PM, May 14, 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.

The Reserve Bank of Fiji says recent locally transmitted cases and containment measures will prolong already subdued economic activity in the country.

The RBF's April statement reports that visitor arrivals were down of course, as was electricity (-13.4%) and mahogany. There was a big boost in pine log production, woodchips and sawn timber as a result of increased demand. Gold production also increased 17.5% due to higher quality ore being minded.

There were declines in net VAT collections (down 27.8%), consumer credit (down 24.1%), new vehicle sales (-17.8%) and registrations, reflecting weak consumption activity. However there was strong growth in second-hand vehicle registrations (up 122%), “driven in part by the budgetary changes around vehicle imports.”

The job market is very subdued; job adverisements declined by 75.8% for the year to March. Compulsory Fiji National Provident Fund membership dropped 64% for the same period.

Private sector credit fell 3.7% in March for the ninth consecutive month.

“In terms of the Bank’s twin objectives, inflation remains low and foreign reserves are ample” the statement says. It says inflation slipped to -1.2% due to lower prices for local food, alcohol and yaqona.

The Asian Development Bank expects Pacific Island economies to return to positive growth this year, although at different rates, and with a great deal riding on successful vaccine roll-outs.

Pacific economies contracted by an estimated 5.8% last year due to the effect of the coronavirus pandemic on tourism and trade flows, and construction activity. The region's economies are forecast to recovery to 1.4% this year, and 3.8% in 2022, although this is “contingent on improvements in tourism numbers, commencement of delayed construction projects, and resumption of labor mobility and cross-border trade,” according to the ADB.

ADB Director General for the Pacific, Leah Gutierrez says the start of vaccine rollout in many Pacific Island nations bodes well for a level of economic recovery. “However, risks to the recovery remain, particularly in tourism-oriented economies that are feeling the heaviest impacts of the pandemic crisis,” Gutierrez says.

Specific forecasts for Pacific Island nations as per the ADB’s latest outlook report are as follows:             

Cook Islands: GDP is expected to fall by more than a quarter (26%) in 2021, before recovering to growth of 6% in 2022.

Federated States of Micronesia: GDP contraction of 1.8% in 2021, 2% growth in 2022.

Fiji: 2% growth in 2021, 7.3% growth in 2022 following an “unprecedented 19% contraction last year”. The ADB says it make take some years for the economy to return to its pre-pandemic levels.

Kiribati: Small contraction of 0.2% this year, 2.3% growth next year.

Marshall Islands: Negative growth of 1.4% in 2021, 2.5% growth in 2022.

Nauru: GDP growth of 1.5%, 1% in 2022 with the impending closure of the Regional Processing Centre.

Palau: Decline of 7.8%  this year, growth of 10.4% next year.

Papua New Guinea: Moderate 2.5% growth in 2021, 3% in 2022, although the recent surge in cases threatens prospects for economic recovery.

Samoa: GDP down 9.2% in 2021, recovering to 3.1% in 2022 once full vaccine coverage is achieved.

Solomon Islands: 1% growth this year, 4.5% in 2022 as fishing and construction rebound.

Tonga: a 5.3% contraction exacerbated by Tropical Cyclone Harold in 2021, 1.8% growth in 2022.

Tuvalu: 2.5% growth in 2021, 2% next year.

Vanuatu: 2% growth in 2021 and 4% in 2022, but this is dependent on a successful vaccination rollout and establishment of travel bubbles.

Fiji's PS Konrote resigns

The most senior civil servant in Fiji’s Ministry of Economy, Makereta Konrote, has resigned from the post.

Konrote’s resignation comes at a critical time, as Fiji’s Minister of Economy remains in Singapore for medical treatment, and economic activity continues to take a battering from COVID-19 related border closures and Tropical Cyclones Yasa and Ana.

Minister Aiyaz Sayed-Khaiyum has been conducting budget consultation sessions over the Internet from Singapore, with the budget due to be delivered mid-year.

The February economic updated released by the Reserve Bank of Fiji this week stated declines in visitor arrivals (-98.5%), electricity (-13.7%) and mahogany (-98.7%), although there were production increases for cement, gold, pine, woodchips and sawn timber.

The Reserve Bank says Value Added Tax (VAT) collections plummeted by 25.2% and new lending by commercial banks for consumption purposes fell by 39.3%. Commercial banks’ new lending for investment declined by 47.2% in January.

The Bank says labour demand remains week, with job vacancies falling by 82.6% in January.

Government recorded a net deficit of $545.8 million (or 5.5% of GDP) in the first six months of the 2020-21 financial year. At the end of January 2021, government debt stood at 73.2% of GDP. 19% of this was external debt.

A government statement today quoted Konrote, who has been at the Ministry for 18 years and PS for five, as saying: "It has been a great privilege to work on behalf of my country. I want young people, particularly young women, who are considering entering the Civil Service to know that it can be a deeply fulfilling career of service to your fellow Fijians."

"I'm confident that I'm leaving the Ministry in the good hands of dedicated Fijians who are firmly focussed on our recovery from the COVID-19 pandemic."

Shiri Gounder, the Head of Fiscal Policy and former Head of Treasury will act as the Permanent Secretary for Economy from 16 March 2020.

The Reserve Bank of Fiji Governor says Fiji could see a marginal economic recovery if borders open towards the end of the year. Ariff Ali says economic recovery will depend on fiscal support provided by the government in the 2021-22 national budget. “On a positive note, the RBF’s December Business Expectations Survey shows that overall business confidence has improved slightly from six months ago, possibly reflecting the successful containment of the virus locally, businesses adjusting to the new norm and concrete steps towards immunisation across the globe,” Ali says. He anticipates inflation will rise due to shortages as the result of Tropical Cyclone Ana and associated flooding. The full statement is available here.

Two companies listed on the South Pacific Stock Exchange (SPX) have suspended trading. Fiji Television (FTV) has suspended trading as it must recall and re-issue its financial statements for the financial year ending June 30, 2020.  In a statement today, it says “subsequent to the release of its Financial Statements…the FTV Board had undertaken certain internal investigations. The investigations identified some account adjustments which relates to prior years.”  The accounts adjustments are now being reviewed by an external auditor. Meanwhile Fijian Holdings (FHL), the parent company of Fiji Television has also suspended trading and expect its half yearly financial results to be delayed.

The IFC, a member of the World Bank Group, is to support Fiji’s government to design an early childhood care services policy. A 2019 IFC report found that each year, employers are losing an average of 12.7 work days per employee due to parents juggling responsibilities at work and home, costing businesses an average of FJ$550,000 (US$273,000) each year in lost productivity, or about FJ$1,000 (US$497) per employee. The cooperation agreement will also see the introduction of a licensing and inspection system for childcare providers.

The Financial Intelligence Unit has warned Fijians against unregulated cryptocurrency trading and pyramid selling schemes. FIU Director Razim Buksh said instances of unregulated cryptocurrency trading and illegal pyramid selling schemes have been referred to them. They are being aggressively promoted on social media.

Fiji Crop and Livestock Council trustees have been elected for the next five-year term of office. They are: John Deo, Fiji Coconut Farmers Association; Josua Raitilava, Fiji Ginger Farmers Association; Filimoni Kilawekana, Fiji Dalo Farmers Association, and Simon Cole, Fiji Pig Farmers Association.

Thunderstruck Resources has appointed Rob Christl as Vice President Business Development and Investor Relations. Thunderstruck anticipates drilling to commence in June at its Liwa gold and silver project in Fiji.

The Fiji Banks and Finance Sector Employees Union has confirmed Aunendra Singh as its national secretary, and Faizal Hussain as president. Singh says COVID-19 had led to reduced hours, pay cuts and reduced recruitment in the sector, and as a union they need to find collective solutions to protect workers.

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