How the Pacific fisheries sector managed to navigate COVID-19

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School of tuna in the water. Photo: Greenpeace.

In a year like no other, the work to harvest and sustainably manage the world’s largest tuna fishery in the Western Central Pacific Ocean (WCPO) has not been spared the ravages of severe acute respiratory syndrome coronavirus 2 (SARS-CoV-2) – the virus that causes COVID-19.

On 30 January 2020, when the WHO declared COVID-19 to be a public health emergency of international concern, itopened a door to face an unknown enemy with a penchant to sow seeds of uncertainties. WHO declared a pandemicon 11 March.

Nearly one year later, the only certainty in a world awash with fear is that COVID-19 is still on the rise, with only a few countries remaining COVID-19-free – but at such cost. The global tally of the dead nears the 2 million mark, and the number of infections has passed the 70 million mark. The most powerful nation in the world has breached the unenviable milestone of more than 3,000 deaths a day. Even with the vaccine rollout that started in Britain last week, there is no confidence a cure has arrived, as two British health workers suffered severe allergic reactions to the Pfizer vaccine soon after.

Long reach of COVID-19 felt immediately in the WCPO

For the Pacific, the reality of COVID-19 was felt immediately after WHO’s 11 March declaration. Tourism collapsed: one of the region’s mainstay revenue streams was dammed behind closed borders and stranded aeroplanes.

And as Pacific island countries and territories (PICTs) followed health advice to close borders and enter lockdowns, nervous Pacific leaders looked to Honiara, the home of the Pacific Islands Forum Fisheries Agency (FFA), with prayers that their agency was working on a plan – on a response – so the same fate would not befall the fisheries sector.

Leaders knew that if COVID-19 also destroyed the fisheries, it would result in an existential crisis for most of the PICTs.

The challenge for FFA was to come up with ways to continue working through border closures, restrictive testing and quarantine conditions, which made it much harder for fishing vessels to continue to fish and unload their catch. The lockdown also made it very difficult for coastal states to monitor and survey fishing activities, and left businesses grappling with new challenges in transporting products to markets – and then some.

Redesigned tools and a redrawn map to weather the emergency

So at this year’s Western and Central Pacific Fisheries Commission virtual meeting (WCPFC17), where the 24 PICTs join the other 17 nations making up the Tuna Commission, there is relief and belief that the WCPO fishery will weather this one-in-a-hundred-year global emergency.

There is relief that FFA and its partners, with the support and guidance of PICTs fisheries agencies, have managed to redraw a map now pocked with COVID-19 reefs, and to navigate a safe passage through them.

And there is a belief that the work to recalibrate current tools has enabled Pacific members, and the WCPFC as a whole, to better sail the COVID-19 waters. At the same time, they have quickly learned to use the lessons and experience so far to better prepare for more troubled waters that experts forecast are ahead.

A brief view of the redrawn map and redesigned tools was provided to regional journalists end of last week at a virtual media conference with the Chair of the Forum Fisheries Committee (FFC), Mr Eugene Pangelinan; the Director-General of FFA, Dr Manumatavai Tupou-Roosen; and the Deputy Director-General of FFA, Mr Matt Hooper.

Following are some highlights of what the FFA leaders had to say.

The map redrawn using a virtual work platform

FFA began to focus on using a virtual platform to transact work and business in March. April was a transitioning period. By May, Tuna Commission work processes had been successfully transferred and were being transacted on virtual platforms.

Mr Pangelinan outlined the difficulties, some of which continue. He said: “Internet connectivity in the Pacific is not the best in the world … Some of the most developed countries themselves are having challenges with internet connectivity. And so it just goes to prove our point that trying to conduct meetings through the virtual platform, while I think is it has produced some very good results … has hindered our progress on developing [WCPFC conservation and management] measures. Given the limited time we have to have these discussions and agree on the ways forward, it is certainly a challenge with so many different interests.”

Dr Tupou-Roosen said: “COVID definitely impacted our work program. But whilst it delayed it at first, there has been a lot of savings in the FFA budget, and that’s just normal, [as] a lot of our budget used to go to travel and that’s obviously not happening now.”

The FFA-led team explored new ways to continue supporting the priority activities of each Pacific member and also their individual and collective obligations to the WCPFC. 

“So, thinking of those innovative ways where we can continue to support our members … whether it is at the national level by utilising in-country experts to assist, say, for example, FFA or even the Tuna Commission, to continue to run the work at national level. Those are the types of opportunities that we’re seeing at this time,” Dr Tupou-Roosen said.

Mr Hooper said: “Transacting complex issues through virtual platforms is a challenge, and particularly for members with unstable internet connections or even unstable power, which has been the case for FSM [Federated States of Micronesia] in particular. 

“It has been difficult participating in all of these online meetings, and even in some of our discussions with developed-country members of the Commission. As recently as last week, I don’t think we had a single one where there weren’t some problems with people joining or dropping out. So it is really not the forum for transacting complex negotiations, which have the potential to have such a significant impact on the members involved.” 

Mr Hugh Walton, FFA’s Chief Technical Officer and OFPM2 Coordinator, summed up the discussion. He said: “One of the really big take-home messages here is the solidarity across FFA members and PNA in moving forward and progressing in these very difficult times. The way we’ve been able to build a home-team consensus despite the difficulty of the [new] electronic platforms, and getting used to the new platform. 

“So, hats off to the FFA secretariat and members for playing with a straight bat for progressing their priorities and getting us to where we are.” 

E-monitoring of longlining redesigned to be COVID-safe

One of the first tools to be redesigned was the process for monitoring the longline fishery. The observer program was suspended, and the commitment to the rollout of electronic reporting and the development of electronic monitoring has been prioritised to take up the slack. 

For electronic monitoring, FFA is doing this this by developing a costed-out work plan of how to deliver key elements. 

Electronic monitoring is in the process of being adopted for the longline fishery, with a further focus being on strengthening the safety component of the observer program. FFA has also been working out how to make the most of observers’ skills while they are stranded on land, to keep jobs going.

Dr Tupou-Roosen said: “It is important to recognise that, [although] the observer program has been suspended, [FFA] members have built an integrated monitoring, control and surveillance framework over the last 41 years. The observer program does not operate in isolation. There is a suite of tools, authorised officers that can be pooled, and our patrol boats can be pooled. 

“Even for countries that do not have patrol boats, they could still have surveillance on the water in certain areas within their zones. The tools we have can be realigned to make available further resources to all members so that they can plan out and implement more surveillance and enforcement activities during this time.”

Mr Hooper said: “We are taking steps to provide opportunities for observers to get back on vessels as quickly as possible, but also to engage them in land-based work, be it training or upskilling or looking at different ways that we can utilise their analytical skills until they can get back to sea. 

“It is about making sure that we don’t lose that cadre of highly qualified observers. One of the initiatives being looked at is observer safety at sea refresher courses.”

FFA was able to permit some monitoring and observation work to continue at fishing ports, such as this one at Apia, Samoa, by adopting COVID-safe protocols. Image shows workers on dock, some wearing personal protective equipment (PPE), next to fishing vessel moored alongside
FFA was able to permit some monitoring and observation work to continue at fishing ports, such as this one at Apia, Samoa, by adopting COVID-safe protocols

FFA explores new markets and better working conditions

COVID-19 has brought unexpected economic challenges to getting products to market. This has prompted FFA to explore trading potential in a Pacific members’ bubble, including opportunities in Australia and New Zealand.

As if on cue, the Pacific Agreement on Closer Economic Relations Plus (PACER Plus) came into force over the weekend, on 13 December. It is a free trade agreement that covers goods, services and investment.

“PACER Plus will be instrumental in supporting Pacific economies to rebuild from the devastating impacts of COVID-19,” New Zealand’s minister for Trade and Export Growth, Mr Phil Twyford, said.  

“The agreement provides opportunities for goods and services produced in the region to be sold within the Pacific and globally, thereby using trade as an engine of economic growth and sustainable development.”

Australia’s federal Trade Minister, Simon Birmingham, added in a statement, “This trade deal ensures greater market access and lower tariffs across a range of products that will benefit communities, farmers, fishers, businesses and investors in our region.”

Australia, the Cook Islands, Kiribati, Niue, Samoa, Solomon Islands, Tonga and New Zealand are parties to the agreement. Nauru, Tuvalu and Vanuatu are signatories and will become parties to it 60 days after ratifying it.

Another opportunity that FFA is pursuing is full support of Indonesia’s proposal that WCPFC adopt a conservation and management measure (i.e. a binding rule) on labour standards for crew on fishing vessels operating in the region.

Mr Pangelinan said: “I do think that there could potentially be a measure next year if members really work hard on helping and supporting Indonesia’s lead on the drafting of its proposed measure.” 

Dr Tupou-Roosen said: “[We have] a good understanding of just how important it is for us to do the right thing. And that these human rights abuses are not suffered by crew that are operating within our region, and ensuring that the Commission collectively commits to implementing standards for the high seas.”

A win for Pacific members on rolling over the Tropical Tuna Measure

It is fair to conclude that, as of December 2020, Pacific fisheries have come through the COVID-19 pandemic not only relatively unscathed but enhanced in certain areas such as the re-imagining of compliance, monitoring and surveillance.

Another is the successful transition to a virtual work environment. This has provided a platform for FFA and its members to consolidate and table 10 priorities for decision at this year’s Tuna Commission.

The work not only serves the economic and conservation interests of PICTs, but also those of the entire Tuna Commission membership. This is reflected in the most sought-after outcome for this year’s meeting: Commission members’ support to roll over the Tropical Tuna Measure to 2021.

Midway through WCPFC17, the Pacific’s proposal for the Tropical Tuna Measure was passed. And by delivering on everyone’s best interest, the Pacific bloc also achieved its top priority.

“There are other measures that are equally important,” said Mr Pangelinan. “But the Tropical Tuna Measure for us is paramount. It is the biggest fishery in the Pacific.”

Dr Tupou-Roosen added, “Chair [Pangelinan] highlighted that it already has been a big win for all of the Tuna Commission members – it is not just FFA [members].”

Full steam ahead into 2021

Mr Hooper was looking forward to next week, hopeful that the positive feeling generated this year in FFA and solidarity by Tuna Commission members will continue onto the hard work needed next year – even if it is still dominated by SARS-CoV-2.

“This year, not being able to meet face to face has really made it difficult. There are a lot of fishing industry players that are feeling the pain; there’s a lot at stake,” said Mr Hooper.

WCPFC17 will come to a close tomorrow, Tuesday, 15 December 2020. The outcomes will give FFA a better idea of the scope and scale of the work ahead under the large shadow of COVID-19. Nevertheless, there is excitement about rising to the challenge of securing the fishery and its benefits for the people of the Pacific, stewards of the world’s largest and most abundant offshore fisheries resources. 

For more information from the Forum Fisheries Agency on WCPFC17, contact Hugh Walton, ph. +677 740 2428, email Hugh.Walton@ffa.int.