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World Tuna Day: What does it mean for the Pacific?

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.

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