High seas tuna transhipment: what it is and why it should be reformed

by Pita Ligaiula | 6 September 2021 | News

A longliner prepares to tranship its catch of tuna to a carrier vessel in the high seas outside the control of Pacific Island states

Frozen carrier and longliner preparing to tranship catches in the high seas outside the control of coastal states (anonymous source)

Suva, 31 AUGUST 2021 (PACNEWS) – Tuna is extremely valuable to Pacific Island countries. In recent years, the annual catch of tuna in the Western and Central Pacific Ocean has been approximately 2.6 million metric tonnes per year, worth almost US$5 billion. This catch represents over 50% of all the tuna landings in the world.

Surprisingly, the amount of tuna captured caught in the Pacific Island region is over ten times the amount of fish from all the other types of fishing in the region combined.

Although tuna is captured by a variety of fishing techniques, the vast majority is taken by industrial-scale operations using either purse seine or longline gear.

Tuna transhipment 

Transhipment is a legitimate practice in the tuna fishing industry. In a typical transhipment operation, a refrigerated carrier vessel collects catch from multiple fishing boats and carries it back to port. This practice enables fishing vessels to continue fishing, which reduces fuel costs for fishing vessels and gets the catch to port quicker.

There are two main types of tuna transhipment in this region. In one type of operation, the transhipment occurs in or near a port, normally under the authorisation, control and inspection of the country where the port is located. In most Pacific Island countries, the staff of the fisheries department monitor the volumes and species composition of the catch being transferred.

The other form of transhipment in the region (which is far more problematic) is transhipment at sea, particularly in the high seas – which are ocean areas beyond the exclusive economic zone of any country. In those areas, the authorisation and controls over the transhipment are the responsibility of the country of registration of the concerned carrier vessel and fishing vessel. This type of transhipment is particularly common for longline vessels.

Problems with tuna transhipment 

It is generally known that the volumes and composition of the catch being transferred in high seas transhipments is not as rigorously monitored as that for in-port transhipment.

High seas transhipment is widely recognised as one of the main ways that illegally caught fish finds its way to market. Poorly monitored high seas transhipments offer opportunities to hide both illegal catches and prohibited fishing activities.

The Food and Agriculture Organisation of the United Nations has stated that in the absence of effective monitoring and control, transhipping poses a serious risk to fisheries by allowing the catching and landing of fish to go unregulated and unreported. Within the Western and Central Pacific Ocean (WCPO), it has been estimated by a recent study that US$142 million per year of tuna and tuna-like products are involved in illegal, at-sea transshipment.

The Western and Central Pacific Fisheries Commission

Tuna fishing in the WCPO is regulated by both the countries in the region and the Western and Central Pacific Fisheries Commission (WCPFC). The Commission has a total of 42 member countries (including all independent Pacific Island countries), participating territories, and cooperating non-members.  The WCPFC seeks to ensure, through effective management, the long-term conservation and sustainable use of highly migratory fish stocks (i.e. tuna and billfish) in the WCPO.

The Commission develops conservation and management measures that are binding on vessels that fish in the region. These are enforced in various ways, including by on-board observers, electronic vessel monitoring systems, at-sea boarding and inspection, and aerial surveillance.

The WCPFC has a role in regulating transhipment. Recognising that transhipment on the high seas could cause problems, the international agreement that established the WCPFC states: “In order to support efforts to ensure accurate reporting of catches, the members of the Commission shall encourage their fishing vessels, to the extent practicable, to conduct transhipment in port.”

Recognising this point, the Commission made a rule in 2009 stipulating that there shall be no transhipment on the high seas except where a member country has determined that it is impractical for a vessel – but the Commission did not define “impractical”, thereby creating a loophole.

The current situation in the WCPO

Contrary to the Commission’s intentions and rules, the number of high seas transhipments in the WCPO is actually increasing. Reports to the Commission indicate that such transhipments have increased from 544 operations in 2014 to 1,472 in 2019.

It appears that high seas transhipments are becoming the norm, rather than the exception. This situation is not conducive to the long-term conservation and sustainable use of tuna resources in the region – a stated aim of the Commission.

The way ahead

Recognising that poorly monitored high seas transhipments are a major factor in illegal tuna fishing in the region, there is a strong case for reforming such operations. There appear to be two possibilities for this:

  • ban transhipment on the high seas and require any transhipment to take place in a port where it can be easily monitored
  • greatly improve the monitoring of high seas transhipment.

The first possibility would certainly result in improved accountability and transparency of the tuna catches – but it would place additional costs on fishing vessels, such as extra distances to travel and port charges.  This possibility would likely be opposed by the transhipping vessels and their countries of registration.

The second possibility would be to have the observers on board the carrier vessels produce detailed reports and have those reports sent in a timely manner directly to the Commission for analysis. This possibility is likely to be less of a burden on vessel operators – and hopefully would meet less opposition than simply banning high seas transhipment and forcing a major change in way vessels operate.

What can the governments of Pacific Island countries do to promote the reform of high seas tuna transhipment?

Through their voice in the Western and Central Pacific Fisheries Commission, they should point out that poorly monitored high seas transhipment could threaten the benefits they receive from their tuna resources – and insist on closing this loophole that gives opportunities for illegal fishing.