2020 tuna research at sea conducted, but cut back to follow COVID-19 rules

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Two important tuna research trips have gone ahead in the Western and Central Pacific Ocean (WCPO) this year, although the research programs and the routes had to be curtailed dramatically.

Both programs, which are run by the Pacific Community (SPC), were cut back to comply with regional practices put in place to prevent the transmission of COVID-19.

For the Pacific Tuna Tagging Programme, scientists continued routine tagging of tuna and tested new sampling methods that will help scientists analyse the structure and behaviour of tuna populations. 

The research was conducted in the high seas and the exclusive economic zone (EEZ) of the Kiribati groups of Line Islands and Phoenix Islands. 

This year’s cruise was originally to have focused on understanding more about the habit of tuna to gather around drifting fish-aggregating devices (FADs). It was to have been conducted in waters around Tuvalu, which have one of the highest densities of drifting FADs in the WCPO.

Three men on deck of research vessel Gutsy Lady 4 being prepared at Kewalo Basin, Honolulu, for the tuna tagging cruise in the central Pacific. Photo SPC.
Research vessel Gutsy Lady 4 being prepared at Kewalo Basin, Honolulu, for the tuna tagging cruise in the central Pacific. Photo: SPC.

SPC research scientists Bruno Leroy and Valérie Allain reported on this year’s tuna tagging cruise in issue 162 of SPC’s Fisheries Newsletter.

The tagging cruise left from Honolulu, Hawaii, in mid-August, and returned to the same port in early October, staying clear of any other ports. Mr Leroy and Dr Allain said that protocols to protect Pacific Islands people from COVID-19 meant that, before the research vessels could depart, the crew and scientists had to stay isolated for 14 days and return negative test results to the disease.

Mr Leroy said that, since the Pacific Tuna Tagging Programme began in 2006, about 455,000 tuna had been tagged. If SPC tagging campaigns carried out since the end of the 1970s were included, the number was more than 800,000. On the 2019 cruise, researchers tagged nearly 17,000 tuna.

Second study to develop better ways to sample small marine animals 

Bruno Leroy and Valérie Allain also reported on a second SPC research cruise, which was also curtailed to comply with COVID-19 rules. 

The SPC’s scientific team conducted a four-day trial to develop a new sampling method to collect micronekton from the surface of the ocean to a depth of 600 m. (Micronekton are marine animals such as fish, crustaceans, jellies and squids that measure 2–20 cm in length. They are the main source of food for seabirds, tuna and marine mammals.)

As the research vessel Alis is based in New Caledonia, the trial was conducted inside the country’s EEZ.

The original cruise planned for this year in the waters of New Caledonia, Solomon Islands and Federated States of Micronesia has been postponed until 2021. It is part of a long-term program to study the ecosystem of the open oceans in the Western and Central Pacific. 

Crew on the research vessel Alis haul in a net full of micronekton during the 2020 research cruise in New Caledonian waters. Photo: Valérie Allain, SPC.
Crew on the research vessel Alis haul in a net full of micronekton during the 2020 research cruise in New Caledonian waters. Photo: Valérie Allain, SPC.

PNG fishing association wins MSC certification

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The Papua New Guinea Fishing Industry Association won Marine Stewardship Council (MSC) certification in May.

The association covers 32 purse-seine vessels flagged to PNG and another 32 flagged to the Philippines that are based in PNG. The tuna must be processed in one of six PNG-based facilities, all of which are members of the association.

The May and June 2020 issue of Trade and Industry News said it was seventh purse-seine certification given in the Western and Central Pacific Ocean (WCPO), and the first covering the use of drifting fish-aggregating devices (FADs). 

As part of becoming certified, the association must meet 10 conditions. Seven relate to lessening environmental impact, including on whales and dolphins, and interactions between whales and sharks. Three relate to how the fisheries are managed. 

Trade and Industry News, which is published by the Forum Fisheries Agency (FFA), said that certified organisations had to adopt harvest strategies to limit fishing to sustainable numbers. However, these were still being developed in the Western and Central Pacific Ocean. 

Marine Stewardship Council logo of certification
MSC certification logo

Certification may help sell local tuna in the US

MSC-certified tuna might give the PNG association an advantage in the US market. Trade and Industry News reported that the US retailer Walmart was moving towards using only certified tuna in its brand Great Value. The brand Bumble Bee was doing the same.

The newsletter also discussed new tariffs on fish products being introduced by the United Kingdom now that it has left the European Union. Even though tariffs for canned tuna and tuna loins would drop from 24% to 20%, the price of Pacific Islands tuna means it should remain competitive.

More deaths on fishing vessels highlight lax approach by operators

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Recent deaths on tuna-fishing vessels operating in the Western and Central Pacific Ocean (WCPO) have again signalled the need to improve safety and working conditions on vessels, and to introduce and enforce meaningful penalties for vessel owners that flout regulations.

FFA’s Trade and Industry News for May and June 2020 reported on the death of a Kiribati observer from “unnatural” injuries in March 2020. It also reported on the deaths of four Indonesian crew on a Chinese vessel in the WCPO. They died in 2019, but their deaths did not come to light until April 2020. 

Existing rules have been criticised for not going far enough to protect observers or crew, Trade and Industry News reported.

It said that at least one well-known voice in the region, Bubba Cook, of WWF-New Zealand, had called for a new approach to keep observers safe, since current rules and penalties were failing observers. Mr Cook said that using more electronic surveillance technology on ships might help. So might banning a ship from ever fishing in WCPO waters if an observer disappeared or died in suspicious circumstances. 

Trade and Industry News said that “the death of an observer must be reported immediately and can shine a spotlight on the situation, some incidents relating to crew death or welfare can go unnoticed for months or even years”.

Two men stand in open hatch on frozen tuna. Photo Francisco Blaha.
Two members of the crew of a purse seiner prepare to unload a load of frozen tuna. Photo: Francisco Blaha.

In 2016, FFA adopted harmonised minimum terms and conditions for access by fishing vessels (HMTCs). They are used to regulate fishing in the waters of the 17 countries that are members of FFA. The HMTCs make getting and keeping a licence to fish for tuna contingent on maintaining a safe work environment for observers. They give instructions on how to do this, and on what to do if an observer is assaulted, harassed, dies, goes missing, or is believed to have fallen overboard. 

The HMTCs were updated in 2019 to state that the operator of the fishing vessel was also responsible for the health, welfare and safety of the crew while they are on board, and for the duration of their contract. Crew members must also be given a contract they understand (for example, in their own language).

The Western and Central Pacific Fisheries Commission (WCPFC) introduced a rule in 2017 that requires vessel operators and captains to immediately undertake the emergency action specified if an “observer dies, is missing or presumed fallen overboard” or “suffers from a serious illness or injury that threatens his or her health or safety”. It builds on older rules on how to help observers do their job properly

Trade and Industry News said the Indonesian Government tabled its concerns about “labour abuse” in a paper to the 16th annual meeting of the WCPFC in December 2019.

Under WCPFC resolution 2018-01, the countries of the region, and other countries that fish in the region are expected to enact laws that require fishing operators to provide crews of fishing vessels with fair working conditions, fair pay, and a safe environment to work in. 

The rules of both organisations reiterate the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS).

Two fisheries observers monitor tuna catch on purse-seine vessel. Photo: Hilary Hosia.
Fisheries observers monitor tuna catches on board purse seiners as well as during transhipment in port. Their work provides important data for fisheries managers. Photo: Hilary Hosia.

Electronic monitoring may help improve working conditions

Trade and Industry News said the use of electronic monitoring and surveillance technology and artificial intelligence may make working conditions safer for observers and crew. 

It reported increased interest in electronic compliance and observance as a result of suspending the observer program as part of COVID-19 restrictions. Observers are a lynchpin in keeping reporting of fishing effort accurate, and in the prevention of bycatch and illegal, unreported and unregulated (IUU) fishing. 

The countries in the region have been working out how to make electronic monitoring feasible, especially for the small island developing states (SIDS). It is expensive, and much of it is not fully developed yet, Trade and Industry News reports.

The FFA newsletter also reported that Thai Union was looking at using artificial intelligence to detect IUU fishing and abuses of human rights on tuna fishing vessels. 

Bank of electronic monitors used to monitor tuna fishing. Photo: AFMA.
Electronic monitoring installed on fishing vessel. Photo: AFMA.

A shared vision for self-determination: the PNA story in print

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A Solomon Islander who is a household name in the Western and Central Pacific tuna industry has written the story of how the Davids of the industry prevailed against the Goliaths.

Fishing for success: lessons in Pacific regionalism is the story of how the Parties to the Nauru Agreement came into being, and is written by one of those involved in its formation: Transform Aqorau.

The book was published recently by the Coral Bell School of Asia Pacific Affairs at the Australian National University. 

Dr Aqorau said in an interview with the Coral Bell School that it was “one of the happiest stories” to come out of the region.

“The huge increases in revenues, from our work in getting hard limits for the Vessel Day Scheme (VDS), and in restructuring the VDS and running it as a business, demonstrated that we can manage our resources more effectively,” Dr Aqorau said. 

“I wanted to share this story because for a long time we were really played off by the foreign fishing operators. It was quite unfair how the distant-water fishing nations, for the better part of 30 years, did not pay us for the true value of our tuna.”

Dr Transform Aqorau on deck of a purse-seine fishing vessel. Photo: Giff Johnson.
Dr Transform Aqorau on board the purse-seine fishing vessel Lojet during a two-week voyage. Photo: Giff Johnson.

The PNA began operating from a small office in Majuro, Marshall Islands, in 2010. Dr Aqorau said that, at that time, the PNA states collected US$60 million in revenue from tuna fishing. 

Because of the agreement, in 2019 the same states earned revenue of US$500 million. 

It was an achievement “that donors, regional organisations and political leaders have been trying to do for years, but could not”, Dr Aqorau said.

“it is about how a group of countries, friends and colleagues – through their friendship, alliance, shared vision and desire to control their fisheries … – put their heads together and created the largest capitalised tuna fishery in the world.” 

He was motivated by wanting “to ensure that our peoples – the young, the old and feeble, the people in the village – get a fair share of the returns from our tuna resources”.

Dr Aqorau charts the early discussions on the agreement, and the opposition, challenges and victories along the way. 

The development of the agreement is threaded through many of the tuna conservation and management tools used in the region today. They include the Vessel Day Scheme for purse-seine and longline fishing vessels, and the Fisheries Information Management System (FIMS). They also include the achievement of the first Marine Stewardship Council certification in the region, and the related set up of the Pacifical tuna-marketing brand.

Some arrangements had been more successful than others, he said, but from the beginning the countries saw that the conservation of tuna populations and economic gain went hand in hand. 

“The story of the PNA has been a remarkable one, especially the success of the VDS and how its significant economic returns have made such a large impact on the development of Pacific communities,” Dr Aqorau said.

The eight states that are members of the PNA are Federated States of Micronesia (FSM), Kiribati, Marshall Islands, Nauru, Palau, Papua New Guinea, Solomon Islands and Tuvalu.

Western and Central Pacific banks on SPC specimen collection

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One of the most important tools in understanding the biology and environment of tuna in the Western and Central Pacific Ocean is a bank.

This particular institution, the Pacific Marine Specimen Bank (PMSB), has been slowly building its revenue of research currency – muscle, organ and bone samples, stomach contents, photographs, and radiographic images – since 2000.

It also collects samples from other large, oceanic species such as marlin and swordfish that are also economically valuable.The PMSB is managed by scientists in the Oceanic Fisheries Programme of the Pacific Community (SPC). The datasets held in the bank help the scientists understand the world of tuna. Their knowledge forms part of SPC’s annual assessments of the state of health of tuna populations. In turn, the assessments are used to manage tuna fishing in the region.

Analysis of the specimens held in the bank also helps scientists understand how the climate crisis is influencing changes in the location of tuna and changes in their diet.

Specimen banks are important because they throw light on our understanding of current situations – and because scientists in the future can use the same samples to find answers to new questions or to ask the same questions using new techniques or research tools.

Four of the scientists involved in PMSB explained the difficulties of managing the specimen bank in the latest Fisheries Newsletter published by SPC.

One of the challenges the staff of PMSB face is ensuring that samples, which are collected all over the Western and Central Pacific Ocean, are kept in prime condition until they get to a permanent storage facility. Part of the scientists’ work is to prepare some samples to make it easier to transport them to analysis laboratories outside New Caledonia.

Two tuna lie in a cradle on a fishing vessel at sea. They are being tagged for scientific research by two men. Photo Pacific Community.
Tagging tuna on a pole-and-line vessel during a research voyage in the WCPO. Data collection during tagging is stored in the specimen bank. Photo: SPC.

Much care goes into getting, storing, and transporting samples so they can be used for immediate research and analysis, and also in many years’ time.

This usually means that they have to be kept cold enough. Many samples can be kept at –20°C; however, those used in genetic analysis must be kept at –80°C. Freezers of the second kind are difficult to come by, and expensive to run.

Other tissue must be preserved in formalin and then transferred into ethanol.

The nine cubic metres of freezer space at the laboratory at SPC in Noumea is now too small to contain the growing collection. Although there are plans to enlarge it, research partners are also helping to house pieces of the collection in other parts of the region.

And SPC has funded the purchase of freezers in the main fishing ports in the region to that samples can be stored safely until they are transferred to their final destination.

In April, the PMSB contained nearly 120,000 samples collected from 34,000 specimens. Some national observer programs have participated in collecting samples for the bank since 2002.

Note: post updated 6 July 2020 to correct a spelling error.