Transhipment challenges in the WCPO

by Iliesa Tora | 12 August 2021 | News

Tuna are transferred from a fishing vessel. Photo: Paul Raikeve.

Not many Pacific Island women work on fishing vessels, but a young Fijian woman has found a way to support the work of fishers such as her brother and cousins so they can continue to make a living from Pacific tuna.

Esther Wozniak, who comes from a family of albacore tuna fishers, works with Pew Charitable Trusts’s international fisheries project on improving the regulation of transhipment so that tuna fisheries are able to be sustained. There is a lot of work to be done, she said.

Ms Wozniak wrote in SPC’s Fisheries Newsletter last year that, in 2018, 66% of tuna landings in the world, worth US$26.2 billion, came from the Pacific.

Although transhipment had become an important component of the seafood supply chain for many tuna fisheries, it was also widely recognised as one of the main ways that illegally caught fish found its way onto the market.

That’s because transhipment happened out at sea “out of sight of authorities”, she said.

In an interview, Ms Wozniak shared the work she does and discussed the transhipment-related challenges Pacific tuna fisheries face.

She said the latest Western and Central Pacific Fisheries Commission (WCPFC) annual report on transhipment, which highlighted 2019 activities, indicated that the number of reported transhipments in the high seas had increased by 124% between 2011 (656 transfers) and 2019 (1,472 transfers).

IT: Can you define what transhipment in the high seas involves?

EW: Transhipment is a vital but largely hidden part of the global commercial fishing industry. It involves hundreds of refrigerated ships roaming the ocean, taking in catches from thousands of fishing vessels and transporting it for processing. Because most transhipments take place far out at sea – out of the sight of authorities – unscrupulous operators can hide or falsify data on where, how and when they fished, and on the amount and type of fish they caught or transhipped. A lack of effective monitoring and controls also fosters conditions that lead to other transnational crimes, such as trafficking in humans, weapons and drugs.

IT: How big a problem is that in the Western and Central Pacific region?

EW: A 2016 study to quantify the amount of illegal, unreported and unregulated (IUU) fishing in the Pacific Islands region concluded that illegal transhipment is a significant element of IUU activity, accounting for around 26% of overall estimated ex-vessel value of the tuna catches.

IT: IUU fishing is a continuing issue the Pacific fisheries deal with. What does Pew do to help in this area?

EW: Pew is focused on building a global system to combat IUU fishing by working with governments, fisheries management bodies, enforcement authorities, and the seafood industry to adopt and implement international agreements and regulations, and form multi-state coalitions that will safeguard their waters.

IT: Electronic monitoring sounds like a new technology to assist in eradicate these problems. How far has that been implemented and how is that being done?

EW: As fisheries managers, scientists, and other stakeholders increasingly recognise the need to gain a more comprehensive look at fishing activity, electronic monitoring, or EM, offers a cost-effective solution to scale up monitoring coverage using GPS, cameras and gear sensors. Many Pacific Island countries such as Fiji, the Federated States of Micronesia and Vanuatu have begun EM trials. Key to EM development are standards to ensure that the information collected is accurate and can be consistently analysed and shared among regulators and scientists. WCPFC has been developing EM standards since 2018, and this year members have an opportunity to finally adopt standards for the implementation of EM.

Electronic monitoring camera on fishing vessel. Photo Esther Wozniak.

Electronic monitoring camera on board a fishing vessel. Photo: Esther Wozniak.

IT: What are some of the challenges Pew faces in the work that you do in these areas?

EW: I think one of the biggest challenges to the WCFPC work is that like most tuna regional fisheries management organisations (RFMOs), decisions are consensus-based, so that all member countries must agree. This can really slow down progress, especially when all the meetings are currently virtual.

Specific to the work we do on EM, I think there is a lot of hesitancy to adopt new technologies, and fears around costs, but is a cost-effective way to gain more information on fisheries and help the fishing industry meet the growing market demand for sustainability and transparency.

There is some hesitancy from countries who are worried that EM will take employment away from their human observers on vessels. However, we are only advocating for EM for vessels that currently have low observer coverage, such as longline vessels, where only 5% observer coverage is mandated. This is where EM truly has an opportunity to increase monitoring coverage to the recommended 20% – by complementing human observers and ensuring that fisheries managers have access to more data to make informed decisions.

Observers have been described as the fisheries managers’ “eyes at sea” because they submit independent information on catch, bycatch and other vessel operations. However, this does not extend to transhipments on the high seas in the Western and Central Pacific Ocean (WCPO), where observer reports usually do not reach the WCPFC secretariat. This leaves the Commission and its science provider, the Secretariat of the Pacific Community (SPC), without access to independent records of transhipment activity.

Other tuna RFMOs recognise the importance of independent oversight of transhipments, and in most cases secretariats have access to transhipment observer reports.

IT: Who are the partners that you work with in the region?

EW: Pew partners with many other environment NGOs in the field, including the Nature Conservancy, World Wildlife Fund (WWF) and the Australian National Centre for Ocean Resources and Security (ANCORS) at the University of Wollongong.

Pew also works to support efforts of regional fisheries organisations such as the Pacific Islands Forum Fisheries Agency (FFA), Parties to the Nauru Agreement (PNA) and the Pacific Community (SPC).

Group of 18 women and men, including some from Pacific Islands, standing before a shark poster

Esther was part of a team that worked with Pacific Islanders on Pew’s sharks and rays project before she joined the NGO’s international fisheries program

IT: How important is the work that is being done?

EW: In 2019, an estimated 2,961,059 metric tons of tuna was caught in WCPFC waters. That is 55% of the global tuna catch, worth about US$5.8 billion. To ensure that these fisheries are sustainable, WCPFC needs reliable data on catch, bycatch, fishing effort and compliance with regulations. EM will enable WCPFC to build on existing observer programs, expand monitoring coverage, and support sustainable management.

Bigeye tuna accounted for 34% (27,316 metric tons) of the total quantities transhipped in 2019. Bigeye tuna caught by longline vessels are often used for fresh or frozen sashimi and therefore command higher prices per metric ton.

In 2018, bigeye tuna had a global end value – the total amount paid by the final consumer – of US$4.3billion. Recognising the relatively high value of tuna transhipped and the increasing trend of high seas transhipments of severely depleted stocks occurring in its convention area, WCPFC should improve its current transhipment measure to allow authorities to better track and audit data on transhipped catch.

IT: How much money does the Pacific tuna fisheries lose annually because of these problems?

EW: It is estimated that in the WCPO alone, at least US$142 million worth of tuna and tuna-like species are moved in illegal transhipments each year.

IT: What else can be done to help prevent the issues?

EW: As long as there are no requirement for transhipment observer reporting to the WCPFC secretariat, the Commission has no ability to fully monitor and verify transhipment activities. This leaves the door open for IUU fishing and other illicit activities. But transhipment oversight can be significantly improved by adopting available forms at this year’s WCPFC meeting.

In addition, WCPFC needs to prioritise the development and adoption of the necessary EM standards to increase oversight of unmonitored fisheries.


Header image: Tuna are transferred from a fishing vessel. Photo: Paul Raikeve.