How Pacific Island nations built one of the world’s largest sustainable tuna fisheries

by Peter Griffin | 5 June 2024 | News

Source: PNA

From putting controls on the use of fish-aggregating devices to introducing the Vessel Day Scheme, several innovations have underpinned efforts to build a large and sustainable tuna fishery in the Western and Central Pacific. 

When it comes down to it, the alliance known as the Parties to the Nauru Agreement, set up in 1982 to manage important Pacific tuna stocks, was always going to be a make-or-break endeavour.

The eight countries that make up the PNA – Federated States of Micronesia, Kiribati, Marshall Islands, Nauru, Palau, Papua New Guinea, Solomon Islands, Tuvalu, plus Tokelau which is also part of the alliance, have a very high dependence on fishing for both sustenance and income for their people.

For some countries, fisheries represent 70 – 80% of national revenue.

With this level of dependence, the decline of key tuna fisheries that has happened in other parts of the world was therefore not an option for the PNA nations.

Source: PNA

The PNA Office, which is responsible for the administration of the Parties to the Nauru Agreement, points out that the really big difference between the Western and Central Pacific Ocean and other ocean regions is that most of the catch is in the waters of coastal states. In nearly all the other oceans, the tuna is in the high seas.

The exclusive economic zones, and the law of the sea, entrusted stewardship of those resources uniquely to a group of coastal states and in particular small island coastal states who are absolutely dependent on them.

A decades-old agreement to work together on conservation efforts while reaping economic benefits from tuna fisheries, was no surefire recipe for success. PNA nations collectively derive around US$500 million annually in revenue from tuna fisheries in their region.

While numerous states highly dependent on natural resources have failed to manage those resources effectively, this group of coastal states didn’t.

Read part 1 in this series Harvest strategies, electronic monitoring crucial to healthy Pacific tuna stocks

Cooperative governance

The key to creating the world’s largest sustainable tuna purse seine fishery, responsible for around 50% of the global supply of skipjack tuna, the most commonly canned form of tuna, was a will to “do the hard yards” to build a genuinely sustainable fishery, as the PNA Office puts it.

It started with a cooperative governance model. By working together, the PNA member countries implemented unified policies and management strategies that would be challenging to enforce on an individual basis. This regional approach has enabled them to exert greater control over their maritime resources and negotiate better terms with foreign fishing fleets.

PNA Secretariat Office in Delap-Uliga-Djarrit, Majuro Atoll, Marshall Islands    Source: PNA

The Vessel Day Scheme

Key to the success of the PNA was the implementation of the Vessel Day Scheme (VDS) across the marine territories of the PNA nations.

This scheme allocates a specific number of fishing days to each member country, which they can then sell or trade. The VDS is designed to limit fishing efforts and ensure that tuna stocks are harvested at sustainable levels. 

It also allows member countries to maximise economic benefits from their fisheries resources by creating a controlled supply of fishing opportunities, which can increase the value of access to their waters. It’s an effective alternative to quota management systems that have served the PNA well.

Conservation measures

The PNA has also implemented several conservation measures that are considered world-first achievements. These include high seas closures to fishing, controls on Fish Aggregating Devices (FADs), banning the discard of juvenile tuna and protection for whale sharks. 

These measures are aimed at reducing bycatch and protecting vulnerable species within the PNA waters. Additionally, the PNA mandates 100% observer coverage on purse seine vessels to ensure compliance with its regulations and to monitor fishery activities effectively.

Certification and ecolabeling

By the 2010s, the PNA nations were seeking more recognition for the work they were putting into sustainability efforts. 

The emerging consumer interest in sustainability provided an opportunity for PNA to secure this recognition, and benefit from it.

“When you are paying not much more than US$1 a tin for a wild product that is caught sustainably, that’s a pretty cheap form of protein. People were looking to add value to it and the sustainability story was part of that,” is how the PNA Office describes it.

“That intersects with the Pacific Island countries’ commitment to doing the right thing by their tuna fisheries.”

The first certification of the PNA’s skipjack tuna fishery was secured in 2011. This certification is based on the health of the tuna stocks, minimising the impact of fishing practices on the ecosystem, and the effective management of the fishery. MSC certification helps to assure consumers that the tuna products they purchase are sourced from fisheries that are well-managed and sustainable.

The PNA Office says a lot of work was required to meet the MSC’s rigorous certification requirements, which ultimately allows tuna caught in the regional waters controlled by the PNA countries to be sold as brands that carry the MSC’s iconic blue tick.

These certification reports are typically 350 pages long for each fishery. 

“There’s extensive stakeholder consultation. It’s an exhaustive process, which is understandable. It took several years to work through those processes.”

Source: PNA

Marketing MSC-Certified Catch

MSC-certified catch from PNA waters was initially marketed through Pacifical, a single global tuna marketing joint venture established to promote MSC-certified, sustainably caught, free school skipjack and yellowfin tuna.

Over time, the certification of catch in PNA waters has diversified and there are a number of ventures engaged in catching and marketing MSC-certified tuna from PNA waters. Several of these use a blockchain-based traceability system that gathers data from the moment of catch, until delivery to the consumer. A code on the can help consumers track the origins of their tuna.

Remarkably, there wasn’t any pushback from local fishing companies who had to undertake significant compliance measures to allow for certification. In the early days of ecolabeling, MSC-certified tuna commanded a price premium in markets such as Europe, and the United States. 

The backlash instead came from other international tuna fisheries that were less able or willing to make the same commitment to sustainability. A key requirement underpinning MSC certification has been ensuring PNA nations can prove the provenance of the tuna they are selling.

“The PNA fishery covers nine different fishing zones in the Western and Central Pacific. The catch is transshipped in one country and ends up most of the time in another country for processing. So PNA had to set up a chain of custody to substantiate those claims, to make sure that it’s not just a paper declaration,” says the PNA Office.

Around 50% of the tuna fishery in the region is currently certified to meet the MSC standard.

Economic spinoffs

The economic benefits derived from the VDS and other management strategies have been significant. The PNA has dramatically increased the revenue from its fisheries, which in turn has supported the economic development of the member countries. These funds are critical for PNA nations, many of which have limited economic bases outside of fisheries.  At the same time, 

The key tuna stocks in the region remain healthy, thanks to the careful management of the fisheries. But climate change poses challenges for the long-term sustainability of tuna fisheries across the Pacific.

Preparing for climate impacts

The scientific advice is that there will be a significant reduction in tuna stocks in PNA waters, especially in the west, and a shift in stocks to the east where there is more area of high seas.  This will likely require adaptation of some elements of how PNA manage their tuna, but the VDS is already designed to respond to the impacts of climate variability from the El Nino cycle. 

Some ocean warming may increase the productivity of skipjack and other species, so some stocks may even get better before they get worse. A particular concern is that changes in ocean conditions may lead to failures in spawning over large areas which could have catastrophic effects on PNA fisheries.

PNA members are developing harvest strategies, evidence-based plans to determine how much tuna can be sustainably fished. Harvest strategies are seen as a priority for the Marine Stewardship Council when it comes to ongoing certification of WCPO tuna fisheries. There are cautionary tales from around the world where certification has been revoked, such as the suspension of certificates for Atlanto-Scandian herring and blue whiting in 2020, and mackerel fisheries in the Northeast Atlantic in 2019.

“If we were to use the targets they use in other regions, then you could justify higher levels of fishing in PNA waters,” says the PNA Office. 

“But PNA doesn’t do that. The best thing to tackle climate change is to have lots of fish in the water, so you have some room to adjust to the changes that are coming. This fishery has more tuna in the water than anywhere else in the world.”

source: PNA