Legal Weapon: The potential breakthrough to bring down Illegal tuna fishers in Pacific waters

by Fatu Tauafiafi | 15 December 2016 | News

Look beyond the fish and the vessels, and go higher to get to the source of IUU fishing- FFA's Persons of Interest registar. Photo credit: AFMA.

Ultimately, the ‘Persons of Interest’ path would lead to the end of the IUU fishing chain and nab those truly benefitting- the vessel  owners, the individual/entity hiring drivers, controllers, operators and ships’ masters – the true source and sustenance of IUU activities. Pacific Guardian’s newshub founding editor Fatu Tauafiafi was in Denarau with the Pacificmedia@WCPFC13 team.

Look beyond the fish and the vessels, and go higher to get to the source of IUU fishing- FFA’s Persons of Interest registar. (Photocredit: AFMA)

A major breakthrough that could significantly cripple illegal fishing operations and activities in Pacific waters was revealed at the 13th Tuna Commission meeting in Fiji last week.

The new approach is to focus on ‘Persons of Interest’ the “drivers, controllers, and operators of rogue vessels,” Dr Manu Tupou-Roosen, Legal Counsel for the Forum Fisheries Agency (FFA) told Pacific Guardians on the side of the Tuna Commission meeting.

One of the effects of this approach is people on the list with a history of Illegal Unreported and Unregulated (IUU) involvement could see the fishing licenses and vessel registrations of those they work for – declined or revoked.

“We have been so vessel-focused in how we combat IUU fishers,” said Dr Tupou-Roosen. “We look at vessels of interest when we compile IUU lists. The information we collect and monitor is all about the vessel and its compliance history, yet it is not the vessel that does the illegal fishing.

“It’s people who are the source of IUU fishing.”

Ultimately, following this path would lead to the end of the chain where the beneficial owners who hire the drivers, controllers, operators and ships’ masters are found.

They are the source stealing around 306,440 tonnes of the Pacific’s tuna resource every year. In the ‘Towards the Quantification of Illegal, Unreported and Unregulated (IUU) Fishing in the Pacific Islands Region’ report released in March this year, the dollar value of this criminal haul is estimated at US$616.11million annually.

The number is actually around US$152.67million after analyses of economic indicators carried out by the study, “Based on the most recent estimates of profitability in the [Western Central Pacific Ocean] WCPO purse seine and longline sectors, we estimate the [economic rent lost as a result of Illegal Unreported and Unregulated (IUU) activity] is around US$152.67million.”

Transshipment is typical of IUU fishing. Seen here off the coast of Indonesia, smaller fishing vessels transfer their illegally caught fish onto larger refrigerated transport ships (reefers). The fishing vessels are restocked with fuel and supplies at the same time, enabling them to remain at sea for many months. [Source: © Alex Hafford/AFP ImageForum/Getty Images]
Fisheries consultant Francisco Blaha told Pacific Guardians in March this year that “even if that loss of rent [US$152.67million] owed the Pacific through IUU was halved, that alone can supplement by a factor of three or four the costly activities of Pacific fisheries authorities. Those extra resources would improve their capacity which would reduce the impacts of IUU and correspondingly increase their revenues,” he said.
It is why the new ‘Persons of Interest’ approach is exciting developments for FFA member countries and reason many have put their support behind FFA’s work in strengthening the legal instrument giving it teeth – the Niue Treaty Subsidiary Agreement (NTSA).

The new approach according to Dr Tupou-Roosen came out of their in-country work to establish national legislations to implement the NTSA to combat IUU.

“As we roll out our work to assist countries implement the NTSA, what we found is that our small countries are not collecting this information [operators of rogue vessels]. So even those that are parties to the NTSA haven’t set up systems, or turn their minds completely to collecting this type of information.

“It made us look internally at the FFA Secretariat and how we’d undertake this task. At the Secretariat, we have been so vessel-focused in how we combat IUU fishing. Even at the Tuna Commission level we have been vessel focused. We look at vessels of interest when we compile IUU lists. Here at the Commission it’s all about the vessel and its compliance history.

“At FFA what we have is the regional surveillance centre – it’s a great tool for mapping out vessels, seeing where they are, in one space. It plots onto that space using FFA’s Vessel Monitoring System (VMS) so it can see where all the vessels are. It also houses information about those vessels. It profiles its history, who [country] its been flagged to, who the current flag [country] is, it talks about information relating to the vessel. But it does not talk about the masters on the vessel or have information to tell us about compliance history of those masters – so there’s a missing link there.

“So this work with the NTSA is an opportunity to broaden our approach to combating IUU fishing, to target the source of IUU fishing, the drivers, the controllers, the operators of those rogue vessels.”

The information collected will be used in two ways according to Dr Tupou-Roosen.

“At the national level, when an application comes in for a license, you check the names of the applicants against a list that you could have at national level or combined into a regional list that we hold at FFA, to check the compliance history of the person that you’re allowing to fish in your waters.

The other step is at regional level.

“We have the responsibility of registering vessels that are licensed to fish in our members waters. So across the board of our countries you cannot license a vessel unless you are in good standing on that regional register which is called the FFA Vessel register.

“As a pre-requisite to licensing, already at the regional level our FFA Secretariat needs to be able to use that type of information, and have clear procedures on when it can use it. At the same time, resident in FFA’s Director General, is the authority not to register a vessel because the applicants are on a list of rogue operators. So, that idea is still in progress, but we’re taking small steps to seeing how we can start filtering it into the work that we do with the current structures we have.”

One of the areas that was filtered and progressed through at the Tuna Commission last week relates to the annual publishing of companies and their vessels on its IUU list.


“We saw the opportunity that we can ask for the master’s name and nationality to be put alongside in this adopted final list. The information is already available as the Commission collects those data.”

To further tighten the net around ‘Persons of Interests’, Dr Tupou-Roosen is well advanced in developing a system that would register a ‘unique identifier’ for individuals, similar to how each vessel has a UVI (Unique vessel identifier).

“A UVI stays with every vessel so it doesn’t matter if the flag changes or the owner changes, the UVI tells us it’s the same vessel. We want to see the same for a person.”

At this Tuna Commission meeting FFA members were given the heads-up that FFA is looking into a strategy for profiling persons involved in IUU fishing including finding a unique identifier for them “because we know names of persons can change,” she confirmed.

“This is a work in progress but we’ve introduced the idea to the Commission that it’s coming. And those who are registered or licensed in our waters or in our region will need, in the future, this type of information if they are applying.”

Dr Tupou-Roosen said they are very excited about the ‘Persons of Interest’ approach as “we think it’s really the way forward to getting to the heart of IUU fishing.

“We’re targeting the perpetrators, the people behind it. And we are working to really tighten the net over IUU fishing and their operators.”

The work is intense and complext. It started with the Cook Islands in Febraury this year and is to be extended out to other NTSA parties Samoa, and the Federated States of Micronesia, the latest to ratify bringing the NTSA membership to eight.

“The full FFA membership have endorsed it in principle but those who haven’t become a member yet can buy into the idea alongside NTSA parties as they start to put the structures up. Once we’ve got it for one member, it’s easier to roll it out.

“I think that once countries see it implemented successfully by one or two countries sharing and especially use the information then it will get traction.”



The IUU threat is not new to Pacific leaders. They have long recognized its financial toxicity to their fishery. It was as far back as 2007 when the Vavau Declaration on Fisheries included, “a decision they [Pacific leaders] made ‘we must strengthen our Monitoring Control and Surveillance (MCS) mechanisms,” stated Dr Tupou-Roosen.

“It wasn’t until 2010 at the Pacific Leaders Forum in Port Vila that they did. Through a multilateral instrument, the Niue Treaty Subsidiary Agreement (NTSA), a legal agreement that would allow them to protect the fisheries and ensure the sustainability of the resource for the benefit of Pacific peoples.”


In a nutshell, ‘information’ was identified as the kryptonite to IUU, and the NTSA was built with the intent of allowing members to do two things with the ‘information’:

Share resources: Allows parties to cooperate in conducting joint surveillance and enforcement activities; and
Exchange information: Allow the sharing of fisheries data and intelligence. And flexibility to use the acquired information for broader law enforcement.
“Because in MCS, information is key. It’s the only way things can work,” said Dr Tupou-Roosen. “If they share the information, they can plan together and conduct joint operations together.”

On the broader potentials, the NTSA can facilitate the exchange of information between enforcement agencies. “If you [during fisheries operations] find drugs on a fishing vessel, who exactly do you provide that to? The NTSA provides for that,” she explained.

“The other unique aspect of the agreement is that they [other enforcement agencies] can share back. Anything that they find during the course of their work, they can also share back if its something that’s relevant for fisheries purposes. So the agreement, the way it’s set up, can facilitate all of this.”

That is why, she added “we are investing heavily in this system because when all countries are on board and use the system, it will reduce further the losses our members are experiencing through IUU fishing.”

The type of information to be shared and how it is shared revolve around a central information database called the Niue Treaty Information System (NTIS). Information is populated by members whose only substantive obligation under the NTSA is agreement to a minimum data requirement that must be shared.

So far, seven of FFA’s 17 members have ratified the NTSA allowing it to enter into force on 30 July 2014. [FSM ratified in July this year bringing the number to eight]

Dr Tupou-Roosen illustrated a scenario why there is an obligation for a minimum data requirement, using three of the seven members to the NTSA in her illustration.

“Let’s say Nauru would like other parties, Tuvalu and Vanuatu to come and help in its waters. One of the minimum data that Nauru must provide is the license list. Otherwise they would just go around willy-nilly targeting any vessel when they should for example, be targeting only ‘unlicensed vessels’.”

She added, “This obligation is to ensure that all information critical for any operation are mandatory to share. Another example is the VMS (Vessel Monitoring System) data in your zone. You must share it with someone who’s coming to help you because they will know exactly where vessels of interest are. Otherwise they will be working off a ‘dark zone’.”

The central issue of ‘information security/confidentiality’ is dealt with at two levels.

The NTIS is managed by FFA where the administrator is FFA’s Director General. His responsibilities and central protocols are written in the Agreement stating “that we [FFA] must maintain it to the standards that have been adopted by the FFA governing council” in terms of “managing it, storing it, circulating it and accessing it,” Dr Tupou-Roosen confirmed.

While at the members’ level, a thorough in-country review of their domestic law to ensure that necessary components to comply with requirements under the NTSA such as data security measures, exist in their domestic legislative framework.

“We look at their national security policy to ensure they have these certain elements,” she assured.

On top of the legal safeguards, FFA is also close to finalising the ‘Standard and Operating Procedures’ for carrying out joint operations “which is like the detail that supports the legal framework,” she said.

“Say there are three officers from three different countries involved in a joint operation, what are the steps? What does the boarding officer do? Who do they inform? Who can access that boarding inspection report?

“The standard operating procedures will clarify those areas.”

She also expanded on the theme that the NTIS can be used as a ‘One Stop Shop’ for MCS operations.

“If you want to cooperate in enforcement and surveillance, say Vanuatu and Tuvalu, who are current Parties to the NTSA, they can go to the NTIS and go shopping so to speak,” she explained.

“It’s like a shopping list of where they can get certain things for a certain activity. They decide who they enter into that activity with, how long, what area within their jurisdiction it will happen.

“It goes back to the flexibility built into the NTSA where each member can customize to their needs. It gives members a choice and options if they want to be involved on a case by case basis depending on their needs and interests at that specific time.”


Through the NTSA, Pacific nations have a big weapon in their MCS arsenal with the firepower to reduce, deter and potentially stop IUU fishing.

But the weapon cannot arm and pull the trigger by itself.

“I don’t think anything can happen without information,” Dr Tupou-Roosen told Pacific Guardians. “It needs all of our countries to ratify this agreement so they can actively share information.

“The Niue Treaty Information System could house all the information and allow parties to cooperate in those other MCS areas. The platform on which you can hang other MCS tools like Port State inspections, e-monitoring and e-reporting.”

The addition of the ‘Persons of Interest’ component has served to make the NTSA even more powerful.

As the legal expert in this area, Dr Tupou-Roosen believes information and the political will to share that information are critical to the NTSA “reducing further the losses our members are experiencing through IUU fishing”.–ENDS