Tuna Commission meeting wraps with little to show: Half the world’s tuna at stake as talks yield slow progress

by Bernadette Carreon | 12 December 2016 | News

Working through a busy agenda- time-consuming for Pacific tuna Commission. (Photocredit: FFAmedia)

By Bernadette H. Carreon |Pacificmedia@WCPFC13

DENARAU, FIJI – Next time you sink your teeth into a succulent piece of sushi or a juicy tuna sandwich spare a thought for the future of the fish.
Pacific bluefin, a highly-prized sashimi tuna caught in the northern Pacific Ocean, has been so overfished that just 2.6 percent of its original stocks remain.
The Western and Central Pacific Fisheries Commission (WCPFC), an organization that seeks to address problems in the management of high seas fisheries, met in Fiji last week with a mandate to set fishing rules in the world’s largest fishery. WCPFC members include powerful fishing nations such as the United States, Japan, China, and tuna-rich Pacific Island countries.
Nearly 2.85 million metric tons of tuna worth $5 billion USD were taken from the Western and Central Pacific Ocean in 2014, according to the Pew Charitable Trust.
No strategy
As the meetings came to a close on Friday, no strategy had been set for the threatened bluefin tuna.
Many believe the commission’s inability to decide on a plan to rebuild the bluefin stock is due to a power imbalance over the decision-making process, with the nations primarily fishing bluefin having outsized influence and an unwillingness to make sacrifices.
While seeing modest progress on management issues, Ludwig Kumoru, CEO for Parties of the Nauru Agreement (PNA), said bluntly, “Distant water fishing nations are using the WCPFC as a vehicle to promote and protect their interests in the fishery. We see this in several big nations’ attempts to get extra fishing days, prevent expansion of our domestic fleets, and get access to trade information on the Vessel Day Scheme.”
Pew Charitable Trust, the Worldwide Fund for Nature (WWF), and other environment groups have taken the drastic step of calling for a moratorium on fishing for bluefin.
“We have gotten ourselves to such a dire state that the only thing we can do is completely shutdown the fishery,” said Bubba Cook, WWF’s program manager for Central and Western Pacific tuna.
The canned tuna industry is in much better shape, but the news is not all good.
Pacific countries have been pioneering their own label, known as Pacifical, to denote tuna that is sustainably-caught and delivers benefits to small island states, but management of bigeye tuna – one of four commercially important species for Pacific states – is being questioned.
Again, it is the WCPFC that must decide on ocean-wide conservation measures, but the fishing powers among its members are reluctant to take action.
In 2014, it became clear that bigeye tuna numbers were falling and are now so depleted that they have dropped below the critical marker of 20 percent of original stocks.
With this track record, Rhea Moss-Christian, the new WCPFC chair and an up-and-coming young Marshall Islander, decided to take a new approach to break the impasse between fishing nations and resource-owners.
She believes small but systematic steps will win the day.
“You all know what is at stake here; you all know what needs to be done; you all know how challenging the next few days will be,” she told around 500 delegates from more than 40 nations at the opening of last week’s meeting.
Moss-Christian is mobilizing a push that has come from the Pacific Island nations for harvest strategies that set pre-agreed to rules for the fishery, which trigger conservation action if limits fish on fish numbers are breached. By establishing rules in advance it is hoped that the management failures seen thus far will slowly become a thing of the past.
But conservationists and Pacific nations realize many tuna stocks can’t wait the years it will take to establish those complex strategies.
Good news
One piece of good news to come forth at the conclusion of the meeting was confirmation that the multi-billion dollar skipjack tuna industry is being effectively managed and on its target reference point for stock sustainability.
Kumoru said progress has been made on work to develop harvest control strategies, as well as management measures that are expected to lead to improved long-term management of the tuna fishery.
Another major outcome of the meeting was adoption the 11th hour adoption of a measure to improve the safety of fisheries observers.
Initially, the WCPFC was unable to get consensus to adopt a fisheries observer safety measure Friday afternoon. Not long before the meeting wrapped up Friday, consensus on the observer measure was reached, cancelling the need for a vote.
“Observer safety is a huge concern for PNA nations, so we are happy this measure has gone through to protect the men and women who are at the front line of our fishery,” Kumoru said.
Parties to the Nauru Agreement
In parallel to the work of the commission, some Pacific island nations are working together and using the power of access over their substantial 200-mile exclusive economic zones to set their own rules.
The eight nations of the PNA, plus Tokelau, have pioneered this approach. Purse seine fishing vessels that fish in their waters have to adhere to a strict set of fishing rules in the high seas as well as in Pacific EEZs if they want to receive a fishing license.
This approach has resulted in action to slow the decline of bigeye, including seasonal bans on the use of fish-aggregating devices, the closure of some ocean areas for conservation, and prohibitions against targeting other vulnerable species such as whale sharks.
Recently, the sub-tropical southern Pacific nations set up a similar group known as the Tokelau arrangement, which aims to use a similar mechanism to protect albacore tuna.
Worth the effort?
While headway was made for some of the tropical tunas, this year’s Commission failed to reach an agreement on even the first step towards a harvest strategy for albacore.
Despite the 13-year-old Commission’s slow progress, it has begun to set rules and bring order and legality to a previously unmanaged fishery.
However, many are asking if the commission has been worth the effort.
WWF’s Cook believes it is better to have the fishing nations at the table.
The better question, he said, is what would fisheries management in the Pacific be like without the Commission?
“I think the Pacific would be a lot worse off,” he said. “Then it would be the wild west on the high seas.”- also published in The Sunday Post