Pacific fishing nations strengthen rules to protect their tuna and economies

Categories @WCPFC15, Features, NewsPosted on
A catch of tuna is hauled in. Credit: Pacific Community (SPC)

The WCFPC has toughened its stance on tuna fishing. It has extended fishing limits, expanded the official observer program, and made tougher rules against bycatch, including the compulsory use of non-entangling FADs.

Tougher rules to protect tuna stocks as well as boost struggling Pacific Island economies were the focus of Western and Central Pacific Fisheries Commission (WCPFC) decisions at its recent annual policy-setting meeting.

The most important measures agreed to at the WCPFC15 meeting in Honolulu in December 2018 are:

  • setting a target reference point (TRP) for South Pacific albacore tuna, to balance the preservation of fish populations and economic needs 
  • extending to 2021 current limits on the catch of bigeye, yellowfin, and skipjack tuna, despite some pressure to ease restrictions
  • strengthening protection of Pacific bluefin tuna by tightening the rules for catches 
  • increasing the length of time fish-aggregating devices (FADs) are prohibited from use, and extending the area of ocean over which the ban applies
  • constraining FAD design and construction to prevent animals becoming entangled and to reduce plastic rubbish in the ocean
  • expanding the acceptable measures to reduce seabird bycatch, while also expanding the area in which the measures must be used
  • expanding the number of observers, human and electronic, and implementing online compliance reporting.

All current rules, known as conservation and management measures (CMMs), are summarised on SustainPacFish. They are listed on policy and rule pages for fish stocks, compliance, catch and harvestobservers and bycatch. WCFPC also lists all CMMs in full.

All FADS to prevent entanglement from 2020

It will be compulsory from the beginning of 2020 for FADs to be designed and built to prevent sharks, turtles, juvenile tuna and other animals from accidentally being caught during fishing operations. They currently die in their tens of thousands each year. 

The rule applies to FADs to be deployed in or that will drift into the western and central Pacific Ocean. During discussion at WCPFC15, the European Union reported that it already used non-entangling FADs in other oceans, and that they had no impact on the amount of tuna caught. The WCPFC agreed that, to prevent animals becoming tangled up in FADs, fishing fleets should avoid using mesh if possible. However, if mesh is to be used:

  • the netting must be less than 7 cm when stretched, whether used on the raft or in the hanging “tail”
  • if the raft is covered, the mesh is to be wrapped securely so that animals cannot become enmeshed
  • any mesh used in a tail is to be tightly bundled and secured into “sausages” that are weighted so that the tail hangs straight down in the water column and remains taut.

It recommended a solid canvas sheet as a better option for the tail.

Biodegradable FADs recommended

The WCPFC flagged the introduction of biodegradable FADs, to reduce the amount of plastic rubbish in the ocean and that washes up on reefs and coastlines. The Scientific Committee (SC) and the Technical and Compliance Committee (TCC) are to present suitable designs by 2020. 

Parts of a FAD that has broken up have washed up on a beach in New Caledonia. Credit: A. Durbano, Association Hô-üt’, New Caledonia.
Parts of a FAD that has broken apart and washed up on a beach in New Caledonia. Credit: A. Durbano, Association Hô-üt’, New Caledonia.

FAD closure extended

The Commission also increased by two months a year the period in which FADs are banned from use in some areas. They were previously prohibited from 1 July to 30 September by purse seiners operating on the high seas and in exclusive economic zones (EEZs) between 20°N and 20°S. The ban is now extended for an extra two months on the high seas. 

The CEO of the Parties to the Nauru Agreement, Mr Ludwig Kumoru, said: “FAD closures are an important conservation action that reduces catch of juvenile bigeye and yellowfin tuna.”

Protection zone extended to reduce seabird bycatch

Longline fishing vessels must use several approved measures to reduce the number of seabirds accidentally caught while fishing. 

The measures were already in place for the Pacific Ocean south of 30°S. From 1 January 2020, that area will be extended, with vessels fishing between 25°S and 30°S to also use approved measures, although the EEZs of Cook Islands, Fiji, French Polynesia, New Caledonia, and Tonga are exempt. The measures allowed are detailed in CMM 2018-03 and summarised in policies and rules on Sustainpacfish.

Seabird bycatch mitigation measures

North of 23oN:

  • large longline vessels of 24m or longer to use at least 2 mitigation measures, including at least one from Column A
  • small longline vessels of less than 24m to use at least one measure from Column A.

Between 25oS and 23oN:

  • longline vessels are encouraged to use at least one of these measures, and preferably more.
Column AColumn B
Side setting with a bird curtain
and weighted branch lines
Tori line
Night setting with minimum deck
lighting
Blue-dyed bait
Tori lineDeep-setting line shooter
Weighted branch linesManagement of offal discharge
Hook-shielding devices

The commission also amended the rules to conserve and manage turtles, but failed to agree on new measures for sharks.

Interim target set for catch of South Pacific albacore tuna 

Pacific small island developing states cautiously hailed the adoption of limits to the catch of south Pacific albacore tuna. The limit, called a target reference point (TRP), tells fishing nations how many fish can be taken, based on the combined weight of all breeding-age individuals (called “spawning biomass”) of that species. 

While recent assessments have reported that albacore was not overfished, some Pacific Island nations said that catch rates were down, leaving island livelihoods in a “perilous” state

The WCPFC agreed on a limit of 56 per cent of spawning biomass. Although FFA argued for a limit of 60 per cent to support local economies, member states agreed the decision was workable. 

In light of negotiations for the TRP, which have been going on for years, FFA director general Dr Manu Tupou-Roosen said of the decision: “This is a milestone for the management of the south Pacific albacore fishery.”

Catch rules clarified for Pacific bluefin tuna, and limits maintained for tropical tuna

The WCPFC clarified the catch rules for bluefin tuna so that, when a country exceeds its effort and catch limits in one year, the amount extra it has taken is deducted from the catch it is allowed the following year.

The Northern Committee of the WCPFC had argued for a catch-documentation scheme (CDS) to be applied to Pacific bluefin tuna to help bring populations of this depleted species back to sustainable levels. This will be developed as part of the conservation and management measure (CMM) on bluefin tuna. The goal of the CDS is to create a paper trail (physical or electronic) in fisheries to make it much more difficult to sell illegal, unreported or unregulated fish, since they wouldn’t have required documentation. 

Despite some pressure to relax catch limits for the main commercial tropical tuna species—bigeye, yellowfin and skipjack—the WCPFC extended current limits for another two years. These three species are worth more than US$4.4 billion a year

Reducing illegal, unreported and unregulated fishing

Several decisions are intended to improve surveillance and compliance. By making reporting more transparent and thorough, the WCPFC expects to reduce illegal, unreported and unregulated (IUU) fishing, which, worldwide, makes up almost a quarter of the value of the seafood industry.

PNA members and the FFA want illegal fishing to be eliminated by 2023. FFA director general Dr Manu Tupou-Roosen said that the strategy to monitor and control fishing in the western and central Pacific was “to develop and deploy game-changing applications”.

Last year, the president of the Marshall Islands, Dr Hilda Heine, said: “A five-year target to eliminate IUU fishing by 2023 is bold, but the stakes are too high not to be audacious in the goals we set. If we are serious about combating IUU, we need a tougher mindset.” 

Strengthen the observer network and compliance

WCPFC members agreed on several measures to strengthen compliance.

More than 60 per cent of the tuna caught in the western and central Pacific comes from the eight nations that make up the Parties to the Nauru Agreement (PNA). The CEO of the PNA, Mr Ludwig Kumoru, said: “Our requirement of 100 per cent fisheries observer coverage on purse seiners and other measures is a big deterrent to illegal fishing.” 

Another measure is to expand the requirements for unique identification numbers for ships, and authorisation to fish expanded to include all fishing vessels with inboard motors and 12 metres or longer.

All purse-seine fleets are to carry an official observer, who will collect data on catches, and composition of catch (species, size and age of fish, and bycatch), transhipment, and FAD closures. Small island developing states (SIDS) are now required to cooperate by sharing information collected by the observers.

The Commission also expanded the compliance monitoring scheme (CMS), with some reporting information to be made publicly available online, and searchable. Flagging of alleged violations has also been formalised, with deadlines given for countries to address violation notices.

Calls to make work safe for fishing crews and observers

The expanded role of observers came as the Parties to the Nauru Agreement (PNA) demanded better conditions for observers on ships, following ongoing disappearances of observers at sea.

WCPFC members adopted resolutions to improve working conditions and safety for fishing crews.

At the meeting, the Commission agreed to: