By NETANI RIKA, Pasay City, the Philippines
DESPITE its promise to address the issue of illegal fishing in the Pacific, Vietnam has found itself out in the cold at the Western and Central Pacific Fisheries Commission for the second year in a row.
Desperate to be included among the membership of the world’s largest fishery, the Vietnamese have been thwarted by their inability to control the ubiquitous blue boats which plunder regional reefs of beche-de-mer and clams.
Last year at Denarau, Fiji, Vietnam promised to exert greater control over illegal fisheries by its fleet.
But on day one of the 14th WCPFC here, news broke of the interdiction of two more blue boats, this time by French authorities in New Caledonian waters after an extended surveillance exercise.
“We find this unacceptable,’’ said Manuel Ducrocq, Head of Delegation for New Caledonia.
“These blue boats are reef rapists. They take sharks from within the shark sanctuary without consideration for biological conditions and the importance of species to the eco-system.”
The most recent blue boat interdiction revealed that Vietnamese fishermen had taken shark skins and fins along with beche-de-mer and giant clams.
A total of 10 tonnes of beche-de-mer in 58 drums were seized by the French Navy from two blue boats. The captains of the vessels have been convicted and fined by the local magistrate in Noumea.
But the cost of the illegal activities goes much further than what the poachers take.
Ducrocq said that by law French authorities were obliged to accommodate and feed the arrested crews and later pay for their repatriation to Vietnam.
“For 12 crew members we are obliged by French law to see that they are accompanied by 15 police officers,” Ducrocq said.
“So not only do we have the cost of surveillance, the interdiction and then their accommodation but in addition we must pay 15 return airline tickets for our police to ensure these people arrive in Vietnam.
“That is a huge cost which is borne by the government and cannot be recovered.”
French authorities estimate that the most recent infraction by the Vietnamese will cost them around USD1.5 million.
While blue boat activities have no direct link to tuna fisheries and the 14th WCPFC, the inaction or inability of Vietnam concerning its fleet has implications on its status as a Co-operating Non-Member of the commission.
“If they cannot control small boats which poach smaller fish, then what about management of (the larger fishing) fleet?” Ducrocq asked.
“We’ve had discussions with Vietnam at a political level and it’s obvious that it’s hard for them to manage their coastal fisheries.”
The task is so hard that these small boats which can spend up to 30 days at sea are able to slip past their national patrols and enter the waters of Indonesia, Papua New Guinea, Australia, Palau, the Federated States of Micronesia and New Caledonia.
In the most recent case two boats were spotted by French maritime patrol aircraft based at Tontouta International Airport in New Caledonia and tracked for two days before navy units were sent to intercept them.
“New Caledonia cannot accept that others come and take resources from our territorial waters,” Ducrocq said.
“It’s a violation of the rights of the native population.
“The (blue boat) activities come at a huge cost to communities which are highly dependent on the ocean resources. Their food security is directly threatened and there are livelihood issues at stake here for the native community.”
Ducrocq said the intention of the WCPFC was to allow Small Island Developing States – most of them much more vulnerable than New Caledonia - to manage their resources.
“For the native population the sea is their refrigerator,” Ducrocq said. “They take what they need and leave the rest for later and in this way they maintain the ecological balance.
“But poachers threaten the maintenance of that balance and now we find they are even targeting uninhabited island resources.”
In its effort to achieve cooperation through consensus, the collective WCPFC membership is often reluctant to take punitive measures against members and partners.
However, Vietnam’s consistent failure to address Illegal, Unreported and Unregulated fishing outside of the tuna fisheries has forced New Caledonia to look at taking unprecedented action.
“If Vietnam’s response (to the blue boats issue) is not sufficient, we may have to withhold membership (from the WCPFC),” Ducrocq said.
“We are waiting to see whether they are serious or not. We must think positively and Vietnam has a unique opportunity here to make a change.”
Given that its last response was to deny any responsibility for illegal activities conducted by private sector fishing fleets, it’s difficult to see Vietnam taking harsh measures against the blue boats.
History shows that Vietnam will most .likely claim inability to monitor and police illegal operators.
And that will mean it continues to be seen by the region as a villain whose only place at the next WCPFC will be out in the cold.
By NETANI RIKA, Pasay City, the Philippines
WHEN the Pacific met its international partners at the 12th Western and Central Pacific Fisheries Commission in Bali, Indonesia in 2015 it was grappling with illegal operations at sea.
Figures at the time claimed that Illegal, Unregulated and Unreported fisheries activities cost around USD600 million annually in the Pacific.
And 95 per cent of that activity – according to the international environment advocate, Greenpeace – is conducted by licensed vessels.
Robust guidelines put in place by the Forum Fisheries Agency have attempted to increase monitoring and surveillance of the purse seine fleet which operates in the region.
With around 90 per cent of the fleet monitored by on-board observers, the purse seiners are estimated to account for 70 per cent of illegal activities.
That’s according to figures released by the Pew Charitable Trust.
A Pew study reports harvested or trans-shipped tuna in the region at about UDS616.11 million a year - 12 per cent of the UDS5 billion paid to fishermen for their tuna catches in the region in 2014.
Despite recent efforts and observer coverage, the estimated volume of IUU product was found to be highest in the purse seine fishery, which accounted for 70 per cent of the illegal catch.
Much of that activity was driven by the use of illegal fish aggregating devices.
The Pew Charitable Trust’s Amanda Nickson said it was clear from the figures that transhipment at sea is unacceptable.
“Our position remains very clearly that transshipment at sea should be banned until there are sufficient controls in place to ensure that we don’t have it operating as a loophole for IUU activities,” Nickson said at the 14th WCPFC Meeting in the Philippines.
“At this point I don’t see that we’re seeing a great deal of political will to address the issue as we would like but we certainly hope to see improved discussion.”
James Gibbon of the Pew Charitable Trusts said the WCPFC initially envisioned transshipment as a rare event.
“Unfortunately because WCPFC has not formalised the guidelines like they were supposed to, they basically rubber-stamped any request for long liners to trans-ship,” Gibbon said.
“So at this point, 52 per cent of long liners operating in the WCPFC have the authorisation to trans-ship. And that is not what the WCPFC envisioned when they put these regulations in place.”
One of the other issues confronting the industry is that independent observer reports are often not submitted to the WCPF Secretariat.
In 2016 there were approximately 900 at sea trans-shipments but only one observer report made it to the secretariat.
“So there is very little monitoring of what is going on,” Gibbon said
“There’s a lot of transshipment that initially was thought was not going to occur but as a result of commission inaction has actually allowed this to occur.”
Gibbon believes cooperation from all the relevant authorities is key to the success of any monitoring programme.
“The observer programmes (must make) sure that their reports are submitted both to the national, sub-regional and secretariat,” he said.
“And it’s going to take those authorities working together to cross check between the catch reports of the fishing vessels, the transshipment reports of what actually is transferred and then also the landing reports and making sure that all that information make sense.”
That speaks to a broader ongoing issue of needing a strong compliance regime within the commission.
Amanda Nickson: “We’ve seen these trial compliance regimes roll through but we believe they could be more transparent and we believe there needs to be a more formalised and permanent compliance monitoring system in place. “
So, for how long will those discussions continue without concrete measures being put in place to end the illegal activities?
Forum Fisheries Agencies Director-General, James Movick, raised the issue of the need for more observers with the relevant equipment to report illegal activities in real time.
He was asked whether two years after talks in Indonesia the discussion on observers was merely talk without action and completely unachievable.
“No, I think we can achieve it. We’re experimenting,” Movick said.
“We have trials underway and the commission itself is seeking to develop standards for e-monitoring and e-reporting and work quite well in other fisheries around the world.”
Movick said current work concentrated on how to adapt e-reporting standards for operating conditions in the Pacific.
“We should see a higher degree of monitoring capability for these boats,” Movick said.
“I don’t think it’s an impossible task but as the scientist do, there will be margins of errors built into the scientific analyses. By and large we will have sufficient, verifiable data the scientists will be happy that they’ve got something statistically sound.”
Movick and Ludwig Kumoru – CEO of the Parties to the Nauru Agreement – believe the e-monitoring option is possible in five years.
“With the way PNA is implementing the Vessel Day Scheme for the longline – within five -years is achievable,” Kumoru said.
“But first of all we need to get it done within our zones, then and only then can we look to extend it to the high seas.”
The Parties to the Nauru Agreement are the Federated States of Micronesia, Kiribati, Marshall Islands, Nauru, Palau, Papua New Guinea, Solomon Islands and Tuvalu.
PNA member countries allow tuna fisheries vessel owners to buy days of fishing at sea for a specific monetary value,
This scheme places a limit on the number of vessels operating in the waters of the PNA in an attempt to ensure resource sustainability.
Monitoring at sea, however, is only one part of the equation.
Strong observation measures in ports where fishing boats land their catch are equally important.
Amanda Nickson said strong port-state measures coupled with a credible observer base were two ways to stop IUU fishing.
Two years after Bali the gaps in the system remain
“We don’t yet have comprehensive port-state controls, we don’t yet have significant enough level of observer coverage on long liners and we don’t have a sufficient system in place to ensure the safety of those that were asking to help us ensure the system is legal and verifiable,” Nickson said.
“So there are a lot of gaps yet to plug.”
PACIFIC tuna is under threat from the world’s largest fishing nations including China, Japan and South Korea.
And the inaction of the Western and Central Pacific Fishing Commission to control overfishing in the high seas and low catches within regional fisheries zones.
That’s the view of Fiji’s Fisheries Minister, Commander Semi Koroilavesau.
“(This) inaction of the commission is negatively contributing to over-capacity in the high seas resulting in low catches in the zone,” he told the 14th Tuna Commission Meeting at Pasay City in the Philippines.
“We do not want to see this continue as our fishery may collapse under the pressure that is being forcefully exerted upon us by Distant water Fishing Nations.
Koroilavesau – a former navy officer responsible for patrolling Fiji’s Exclusive Economic Zone – said previous commission meetings lingered on the need to control fishing in the high seas.
“Frankly speaking, this has not been successfully addressed,” Koroilavesau said.
“We do not need to dwell too much on this since it is well known that the continuous failure of members to adopt relevant measures on sustainable harvesting of key tuna species due to the decision making process of the commission.”
For several years the Pacific has tried to control fishing in the region through sustainable fisheries measures which have been treated with scepticism and sometimes outright contempt by China and Japan.
The Tuna Commission – fully aware of the powers of these huge economies – has adopted an approach which calls for compromise by members before implementation of procedures.
Because of this, it is seen as a toothless tiger by members and non-members alike.
Forum Fisheries Agency Director-General, James Movick, said however there was a need for the region to confront distant water fishing nations.
“(They must) reconcile their narrow fishing interests with their broader role as key strategic and development partners of this region," Movick said.
“The time has come to step up the conversations around the economics of tuna and what countries, thinking regionally, are prepared to take — and give — so that we, as a region, can protect our fisheries resource, while achieving our economic aspirations."
Experts have consistently warned the Pacific of a risk of over fishing but individual countries have not been able to agree on effective management measures of the southern albacore fishery.
"Our lack of unity and resolve has allowed distant water fishing nations to expand their own fisheries and to favour their own fleets," Movick said.
Koroilavesau’s call at the beginning of the 14th Tuna Commission appeared to be an attempt to galvanise support for a united stand against the big fishing nations.
But those same nations control the purse strings which fund much of the development in the region from roads and wharves to hospitals, schools and clean water.
“My delegation believes in the system and processes currently in place to allow us to efficiently discuss matters,” Koroilavesau said in his opening remarks.
“This might mean making hard decisions, foregoing certain benefits but hard decisions need to be made now.”
Over the next four days how serious Pacific islands countries are about the protection of their fisheries and whether they can stand up against the might of the distant water fishing nations.
THE French Navy has intercepted two Vietnamese blue boats fishing illegally in New Caledonian waters.
This is the second interdiction of Vietnamese boats by the Fench authorities in the Pacific this year.
In a joint operation with the Australian Defence Forces the boats carrying shark fins and skins were seized and their crews detained on Thursday.
Describing the blue boats as unacceptable, New Caledonia’s representative to the 14th Western and Central Pacific Fisheries Commission, Manuel Ducrocq, called for serious measures against Vietnam.
“Despite the assurances of Vietnam last year, the illegal operations of these blue boats continues,” Ducrocq said at the Tuna Commission meeting in Pasay City in the Philippines.
“I am here to warn you that the blue boats are back and we find this unacceptable.”
In July three Vietnamese blue boat captains were fines $USD1.4million for illegal operations in Solomon Islands waters. They were jailed for four years after failing to pay the fines.
Blue boats typically scour reefs for highly valuable beche-de-mer, trochus, giant clam, shark fin, turtle and abalone for the Vietnamese market.
Typically built of wood they are very low in the water and extremely difficult to detect by maritime patrols and satellites.
Previously blue boats have been caught in the Federates States of Micronesia, Palau and Australia.
Ducrocq said that while blue boats did not directly affect tuna, they were the biggest example of Illegal, Unreported and Unregulated fishing in the Pacific region.
Illegal fishing is worth an estimated $USD235million annually and makes up for 20 per cent of fisheries activity around the world, according to the Pew Charitable Trust.
Bubba Cook of the Worldwide Fund for Nature (WWF) said blue boat activities were emblematic about the problem of Illegal, Unreported and Unregulated fishing.
“If those vessels are getting in what about other vessels that are getting in and what about the lack of reporting,” Cook said.
“We know from the Forum Fisheries Agency analysis that was done on IUU a couple of years ago that the biggest proportion of illegal, unregulated and unreported fishing in the region is not the illegal vessels like the Blue Boats but the unreported portion, or misreported portions, so people not filing out log books or failing to record things or looking the other way on things has even a bigger impact than the Blue Boats.“
Cook said blue boats highlighted a problem with illegal activities which must be addressed by the region.
The Solomon Islands’ Chief Justice, Sir Alan Palmer , said in his judgment of illegal Vietnamese fishing captains that IUU was a new phenomenon to the region and caused much concern, in terms of the theft of valuable sea resources and wealth.
“This is relatively new way of intruding into the territorial seas and coastal waters by relatively small foreign vessels to fish for inshore species, with a focus on high value product in the Asian market,” Palmer said.
Palmer said blue boat captains took calculated risks to enter into the exclusive economic zone of Solomon Islands waters on the view that the Pacific was a soft target.
“I can assure you and everyone else thinking of coming into our waters that if caught you will be appropriately dealt with under our laws,” Palmer warned.
Less than 12 month later New Caledonia has warned the Pacific that the region is still a target despite the Solomon Islands ruling and the seizure and destruction of blue boats by Palau and Indonesia in 2015.
KIRIBATI already faces the huge burden of rising sea levels which threatens its very existence.
With little land resources on which to grow food, the tiny Pacific atoll republic has bought land in Fiji on which to plant food for and perhaps relocate its 100,000 people.
But its immediate threat is the struggle to maintain and effectively use its Exclusive Economic Zone which covers 3.5 million square kilometres of the Pacific between Tuvalu to the south and Hawaii to the North.
In order to access its own fisheries, Kiribati’s small fishing fleet often has to cross high seas pockets (international waters outside national EEZs) which are open to abuse by the long line fleets of large Distant water Fishing Nations.
Kiribati’s Fisheries Minister, Tetabo Nakara, said his country’s non-contiguous EEZs were the only viable source of economic survival and stability.
“Access fees from tuna fishing contributes more than 80 per cent toward the total government’s annual expenditure that supports, amongst others, crucial funding for our education system, medical care, other basic needs that the Government is obligated to deliver as services to its inhabitants, as well as salaries of Government civil servants,” Nakara said.
“We in Kiribati have no land-based natural resources available as a means of stable and secure livelihood for our people as our lands are made of poor coralline soils thus prompting Kiribati to look elsewhere for a sustainable source of revenue.”
The search for sustainable revenue has meant the setting up of a tuna processing plant on one of its tiny atolls, Tarawa, amidst pessimistic technical advice from experts.
Much of that advice was based on social surveys of urbanisation issues prevalent in Small Islands Developing States.
Among the reasons offered for not establishing a tuna processing plant were high electricity costs, limited land space for development, limited water supply and the isolation from major cosmopolitan markets.
With unemployment at upwards of a staggering 30 per cent, the new Kiribati Fisheries Limited plant is a major boost for the nation.
Apart from employing 300 people, the plant ensures greater retention of tuna revenue for the republic.
“We have invested over $USD10 million in our state of art fish processing factory in Tarawa,” said Xu Jun Du, Managing Director of Kiribati Fish Limited.
"We are able to process MSC certified tuna products such as yellowfin tuna steaks and loins for the export markets in EU and the USA (and) we will create more local jobs and maximize value of the tuna resource from Kiribati.”
The Kiribati Fish project will allow the country to benefit from its own natural resources in a more sustainable and equitable manner. Tuna in the Pacific is estimated to be worth $USD7billion annually and the Pacific receives a modest 10 per cent of this.
“This processing plant provides employment opportunities, through tuna loin processing, tuna fishing, tuna marketing, not just for those in the urban areas of Kiribati but also for those living in rural areas,” Fisheries Minister Nakara said.
But the operation does not come without challenges.
“Like all processing plants, our small tuna processing plant cannot operate without having in place a consistent and reliable supply of raw materials,” Nakara said.
“With a few domestic fishing vessels, Kiribati is struggling to meet the raw materials needed to viably operate this tuna-loin processing plant.”
Today at the 14th Western and Central Pacific Fisheries Commission in Pasay City, the Philippines, Kiribati will be looking for a sympathetic reception from the region and the international community.
“There are many challenges that my people and Government face, one of which is the disproportionate burden stemming from the way our island groups are geographically situated,” Nakara said.
“In order to fish from one part of our waters, our domestic fishing vessels need to navigate through the high seas pockets to reach our other EEZs.
“In light of this, we in Kiribati, categorically respect the high seas pockets as part of our planned fishing areas, thus stressing here how important it is for our vessels to fish in the adjacent high seas.”
Not all fishing nations – especially China, Japan and South Korea – respect the limitations Pacific countries wish to place on fishing in the high seas.
Those limitations on the amount of fish to be caught are designed primarily to ensure sustainability of a resource Pacific countries believe should be owned by the region.
That Kiribati is hurting would be an understatement.
Its oceans provide more than 50 per cent of the Pacific tuna catch, it has a tiny fleet of boats compared to the Distant water Fishing Nations yet it has been caught in bans designed to ensure sustainable fish stocks.
That includes a ban on the use of Fish Aggregating Devices (FADs) - man-made objects used to attract ocean going pelagic fish.
In July 2015 there was a ban on catching on FADs leading to an extended Tuna Commission endorsed ban on the devices.
Nakara said tuna was of paramount importance for the viability of our sustainable development for our future generation and these bans were detrimental to his country.
“Imagine then what the likely ramifications will be if our domestic fishing vessels are further restricted from fishing on FADS for 12 months in addition to the three months that we have been able to tolerate over the years, or if they are deprived of fishing tuna in the adjacent high seas,” he said.
Kiribati unanimously closed off 11 per cent of its combined EEZ area, known as the Phoenix Island Protected Area in 2006.This was extended in 2008 to become (at the time) the largest Marine Protected Area in the world, with an ocean surface area of over 408,000 square kilometres.
Obviously Nakara believes Kiribati is punching way above its weight in terms of conservation of tuna and the FAD ban is unfair to smaller nations.
However Kiribati is unlikely to receive sympathy from the larger fishing nations and win a reprieve allowing it to fish off FADs.
If the attitude or larger nations towards climate change and the need to reduce carbon emissions to save countries like Kiribati is any indication, this tiny Pacific republic is likely to struggle on alone for some time yet.