Pacific’s NTSA- a weapon against illegal fishing

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Regional surveillance at the FFA RSFC in Honiara-- the NTSA and its Information System tools will help boost efforts to stamp out IUU fishing in Pacific EEZs.

Pacific Forum countries lose an estimated US$153million each year to Illegal, Unregulated and Unreported (IUU) fishing operators.

In a region where 60 per cent of the global tuna catch is harvested, valued at US$6billion, it is no surprise that tuna is the single most important economic resource to Pacific nations.

For some of them, tuna brings in more than 40 per cent of their national income. For others like Tokelau, it brings in 99 per cent, a source that for the past two years has been the sole contributor to its Trust Fund, a core element to realize aspirations to a self-determined nation and people.

The blatant illegal and criminal offenses together with the lack of international redress are key reasons why Pacific leaders are sick of the IUU effect. It not only robs them of revenue for current needs, it steals development opportunities from future generations. At the same time, domestic fishing operations are squeezed out of their own fishery as they succumb to the skewed competition from the heavily subsidized foreign fishing operators; while adding to the injustice are Foreign Flag states turning blind eyes to their management obligations so that Pacific nations have to redirect their revenues to manage the fishery on everyone else’s behalf.

At their most recent meeting in September 2016, Pacific leaders once again put out a strong call to international, regional and national agencies for “action to ending IUU fishing and associated activities” that would address the exploitation and injustice.

But at the end of the day, reality for the Pacific is it needs to find solutions because no one else will. And last week at a meeting in Honiara, Solomon Islands, that search looks like it has finally found an answer.

The Forum Fisheries Agency (FFA) has been developing the Niue Treaty Subsidiary Agreement (NTSA) as the region’s weapon specifically designed and calibrated to fight IUU.

At Honiara, the NTSA entered another exciting phase and emerged from the FFA’s conference centre with a vote of confidence from Pacific members more familiar with the Niue Treaty’s operational heart, the Niue Treaty Information System (NTIS.

“Data is key to our Monitoring, Control and Surveillance (MCS) work. The collection of that data is also key. But data by itself is useless if we don’t do something with it. We must use it, analyze it, and share it” if the Pacific is to stop IUU, FFA’s Legal Counsel and legal brains behind the NTSA, Dr Manu Tupou-Roosen told Pacific Guardians in an exclusive interview.

FFA’s Dr Manu Tupou-Roosen with IT Manager Kenneth Katafono putting the NTIS through its paces with Papua New Guinea delegates. Photo Pacific Guardians

“So as part of this work for implementing the NTSA, the intent is collection of data, and sharing it with parties so that something can be done with it.

“It will enable a country to take further action should it be required because its one of its vessels or one of its nationals that’s involved. And also that the administrator [FFA Director General] undertakes trend analyses of certain violations or certain operators that commit certain offences and making that widely known to our Parties.”

The globally unique NTSA’s strength lies in setting up its own information system, the NTIS, to gather up interagency information, pool it together and make it accessible by Party. And its ability to allow that information to be used not only for fisheries purposes but also for broader law enforcement purposes.

It points to the final test run at a training, targeted for end of this month, giving the system the ‘green light’. All going to plan, that makes May 2017, the ‘go live’ date for the system and another milestone to celebrate the occasion of the UN’s inaugural World Tuna Day on 3 May.

“I have been advised by our operations and IT team that after the meeting next month where we do the training on populating directly into the live system the information that’s required; after that, by May, it will be live for all of the Parties,” said Dr Manu.

She also expanded on the key details and outputs from last week’s meeting.

“We went into the meeting thinking that one of the key outputs to achieve is a great familiarization by several of the new faces in the room on the NTSA and especially the NTIS.

“And also the ability that the information is used not only for fisheries purposes but also for broader law enforcement purposes. That’s the objective we sought to achieve and feel we did achieve.”

She felt members understanding of how the system works was enhanced, as well as gaining greater appreciation of the benefits for their country and region as a bloc.

One of the key messages she said delegates will take home “are the ‘opportunities’ available under the NTSA. And how simple, efficient and effective it will be when they become a full party to the NTSA.

“And the message to countries already Party to the agreement, is the important that they fully commit to take it on. And implement.”

‘OPPORTUNITIES’ UNDER THE NTSA?

The NTIS is intended to be a secure searchable system accessible only by Parties to the NTSA. It houses critical information and also authority to allow any of the Parties to plan and conduct cooperative activity.

Although cooperative activities are already happening outside of the NTSA framework, there are gaps.

“What you find at the moment is that various members exchange data with some or all of the other members. But it is not done consistently and there are some gaps in the current frameworks.

“So what the NTSA seeks to do is to standardize that. Make it very clear and recognize that there are certain basic data that must be shared by anyone that’s participating in a cooperative activity.”

The NTSA provides a transparent, clear way in which everything is recorded so that every Party to an activity go into the activity knowing exactly what the rules of engagements are.

Said Dr Manu, “All of this is recorded in the system. And the system is set up so that they can look at previous activities and lessons learnt and on top of that, they can share that information with other Parties who are not part of that specific activity.

“Moving forward, I expect Parties will go from strength to strength in terms of implementing and learning lessons and continue to implement this important instrument. That’s one of the opportunities.”

Another key opportunity she outlined is the NTSA’s ability to share fisheries ‘data and intelligence’.

“There’s specific minimum data to be shared by the Parties – which is the one substantive obligation upon becoming a Party.

“Specific minimum mandatory data which makes sense to everybody because it contains key information needed if you are going to assist another Party. Or if you are going to request assistance from another Party.”

There are eight “Fisheries data and intelligence to be shared” under Article 19(1) and Annex A of the NTSA.

Two of them are fishing vessel license lists (current and historic).

“If the Solomon Islands wishes for another Party to assist in its waters it makes sense the Solomon Islands must provide its license lists.

Another crucial data is the Vessel Monitoring System (VMS) data.

“Our EEZs are vast and so the ability to know where the vessels are from satellite tracking and being able to better target the compliance effort so when the assisting party comes to help you it makes complete sense they get access to this VMS data,” she explained.

The opportunity offered by the NTSA is this basic mandatory fisheries data and intelligence, license list, VMS data, violations and prosecutions, cases of public record, Persons of Interest (POI), Vessels of Interest (VOI), all sorts of reports; are available to allow each party to plan and conduct activities. And they are made available on an ongoing basis.

“The mandatory data is not intended to be provided by a Party with caveats,” she stated. “That it be provided by one Party to allow another Party to plan activities with each other.”

The other significant opportunity under the NTSA “is not just sharing this fisheries data and information intelligence amongst the Parties but also being able to share it for broader law enforcement purposes,” she explained.

“This is another unique feature of the NTSA: that we are able to share with those broader law enforcement agencies any information that we think is critical to them like human trafficking through our own inspection of fishing vessels; Illicit trade, any of those transnational crimes.

“So there is a real ability through the NTSA to assist the region in broader law enforcement effort. And it is not just one way, that we share with them, but also the other way, in how they share back with us any information they find in their line of work that would be relevant for fisheries purposes.”

The NTSA framework is a unique IUU weapon that can combat illegal fishing activities at inshore and offshore fisheries.

“The NTSA framework can be used in any scenario that we’ll be seeking to capture IUU offenders.”

Which means it can also be calibrated to fight the new threat posed by illegal Vietnamese fishing vessels, also known as ‘Blue Boats’. And extended to potential future threats.

“To put a halt to IUU fishing as determined by our leaders in the most recent communiqué. And in the specific situation of the Vietnamese ‘Blue Boats’, what the NTSA is seeking to do is making sure that we can share information.

“So those countries that have experiences with Blue Boats can share this through the system. Everything is recorded and if another party like the Solomon Islands, and this is the first time they have detected Blue Boats, the system will have those shared experiences to learn from. And others who will come across those experiences can also learn from those lessons because it is all documented in the one platform.

“Today we are talking about ‘data and information sharing’. But there’s also ways in which we can share how to investigate those particular vessels [Blue Boats]. Or identify the persons involved in those specific vessels.

“This is exactly what the NTSA is geared towards. That there also will be cooperation in how we investigate, how we enforce, how we do our follow-up action, all of that can help in any situation that involves IUU fishing.

“In the future there will be other types of vessels, but this history and the learning that we gain from sharing these Blue Boat experiences is something that we want those coming after us to benefit from.”

However, the system will only be as strong as its weakest link and that is the focus of Dr Manu and her team. To promote the case for members to sign up to the NTSA so the region is united and singing from the same hymn book.

So far nine Forum Fisheries members have ratified the Agreement. Australia has indicated it will ratify in July at the start of its new fiscal year. New Zealand likewise have made noises about ratifying at the end of the year. If such commitment by Australia and New Zealand comes to bear, FFA officials are quietly confident it will catalyze the remaining Pacific nations to ratify and become Party to the NTSA.

“At the national level, provided they coordinate successfully, they will able, in the first instance to populate the system because it requires even at that stage an inter-agency effort.

“For example, fisheries won’t know the baseline cost for operating a patrol boat but that’s one of the criteria to be filled out as part of the information to come into the system. It’s maritime that has that information, so unless maritime provides that then they have an incomplete notification. That is why it really requires that collaborative effort at national level.

“Equally important at the regional level, the Secretariat must also fulfill its commitments because all elements must be working and fully understood by our members,” said Dr Manu.

“That is why we are looking forward to the training next month to do more scenario runs with our Parties. Because the more we work with the system as a Secretariat in close consultation with our Parties, the more we can refine the system to make it user friendly and as effective as it is intended to be.”–Published first in: Pacific Guardians