Solomon Island, Fijian and Papua New Guinean fisheries observers are now home after being repatriated from American Samoa this week.
Some of them had been away from home since December last year.
The nine Pacific Islands Forum Fisheries Agency (FFA) Observers disembarked from United States fishing boats in Pago Pago over the past several weeks. They are now being quarantined in their home countries.
The FFA says the repatriation exercise was financed by the American Tunaboat Association (ATA) member vessel owners.
A tenth PNG observer disembarked in Honolulu and transited through California and Brisbane, before arriving in Port Moresby this week.
In March, the FFA temporarily suspended the requirement for 100% observer coverage on all Purse Seine Vessels in the WCPO. The temporary suspension also calls for vessel operators to repatriate observers that were on their vessels.
Director-General Dr Manu Tupou-Roosen said "FFA is sincerely grateful to the ATA Executive Director and its members for the hard work with the relevant national observer programmes and the FFA Secretariat to ensure the safe return of our observers."
"The extraordinary situation we're all faced with calls for closer cooperation, and this is a great example of this," she added.
ATA Executive Director, William Gibbons-Fly said while repatriating the observers had been a considerable challenge, they received very strong support from American Samoan government and officials.
Other observers have already returned home, including a Marshall Islands observer who was finally dropped off in Majuro after going all the way to Mexico and back – a journey lasting several weeks.
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.