Hope for Tonga’s struggling tuna industry as Pacific makes albacore one its top priorities.

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By Viola Ulakai, Pacific Media@WCPFC13

Albacore tuna will be one of the top priorities for Pacific nations as they prepare to meet global fishing powers at the Western and Central Pacific Fisheries commission in Nadi next week.
That will be good news for Tonga’s struggling tuna fleet which has shrunk from 27 boats to just 5 over the past 15 years as increasing numbers of foreign vessels enter the fishery.
With albacore stocks declining and new Chinese boats receiving fuel subsidies from their government that Pacific nations cannot afford, the Pacific Tuna Industry Association told journalists in Nadi the industry in some countries like Tonga has collapsed.
Wez Norris Deputy Director General of the Forum Fisheries Agency told journalists putting albacore on a sustainable footing is one of the priorities for Pacific nations.
While albacore stocks are declining, the problem is not about a risk of extinction but about profitability.
Mr Norris says albacore stocks are biologically sustainable but because of their life history characteristics really high stocks are needed to support an economically viable longline fishery.
He says because albacore has been depleted below those really high levels, the catch rates have declined very dramatically.

That makes it very difficult to run an economically viable business particularly for those countries that have domestic fleets.
Mr Norris says domestic fleets generally have higher cost structures than their distant water competitors, and they don’t have access to some of the subsidies that their distant water competitors receive.

In the past few years’ catches have been down but Mr Norris says this year has been better

Actuality//Norris//6:30 I think Tonga’s catches actually increased this year in the albacore fishery though so that is a good sign. Unfortunately, from our perspective, it has increased because of the changes in externalities rather than because we have got the management right yet. So fuel prices are lower and product prices are higher than they were say last year and the year before. So that is great that it has introduced some economic viability but it doesn’t change the fact that we need to reform the fishery to build the stock back up to those levels that support the catch rates. 28:27
There is also concern about subsidies as some, like fuel subsidies, are illegal under the WTO rules.
Pacific nations are working at the WTO to challenge the use of fuel subsidies but Mr Norris said in his personal view subsidies are only a problem if the Pacific Islands haven’t got management of the fishery right.
If the management rules are in place with appropriate limits on catch and effort and if those limits are controlled by Pacific nations, then he believes subsidies are not a problem.
In that case he says subsidies are actually an advantage because they make vessels more economically viable and Pacific countries can charge them more to fish.
But at the moment Tonga and other countries do not control catch limits.
The limits that are in place are not appropriate and they are not held by the Pacific Island countries as they are held by the flag states and so that is what provides the unfair competitive advantage to those vessels compared to domestic fleets. Whereas in the albacore fishery if it is the country that owns the limits then it is the national government who decides who gets to use that limit which domestic fleets would be given with the first chance.
Mr. Norris says domestic boats would get preference as they create other benefits such as employing nationals as crew, buying local fuel and landing their catch at local processing plants.……ends