Fisheries officials the key to unlock the Pacific’s multi-billion-dollar potential

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The Pacific Ocean is vast.

It is so big you can fit not one, not two, but five of Earth’s moons inside it and have room left over. If that doesn’t sound impressive, then how about fitting the whole of the planet Mars in it and having 20 million square kilometres of room spare?

Spread throughout this planet-size swimming pool are some 25,000 small and isolated islands, mostly in its western and central region. And teeming within their many millions of square metres of exclusive economic zones (EEZs) are the commercially important tropical species of tuna that feed a large portion of the world. 

Three of these islands are the atolls of Fakaofo, Nukunonu and Atafu that make up the Tokelau group. Together, they add up to 12 square kilometres of land – a miniscule string of pearls adorning Tokelau’s 318,000 square kilometre EEZ. 

In 2020, when the COVID-19 pandemic spread to all corners of the world, only a handful of countries managed to stay COVID-free. Tokelau was one of them. For most of the countries that remained free of the disease in 2020, that fragile status is being maintained at crippling economic and social costs. The lucrative tourism sectors of the small nation’s Pacific cousins of Samoa, Cook Islands, Niue, and Tonga were decimated. It has made their fisheries revenue that much more valuable. 

Enoka Puni with myself and Vase Reupena enjoying a bounty of skipjack tuna caught only a few metres from Atafu’s reef in April 2018. Photo: Litara Reupena.

Tokelau is an exception

But Tokelau is the exception. 

Its domestic economy does not rely on tourism. Instead, an estimated 80% comes from fisheries revenue alone. With their fisheries income mostly unaffected by COVID-19 so far, the people of Tokelau have been living in pre-pandemic normal since the World Health Organization declared COVID-19 to be a pandemic on 11 March 2020

Yes, there are small doses of pandemic reality: COVID-19 drills in the three atolls, construction of managed isolation facilities, border controls, disruptions to the supply chain, and citizens repatriated – but they are small morsels of the enormous realities outside 318,000 square kilometre moat. 

There is one reality that Tokelau shares with the outside world: that the commercial performance of the Pacific fisheries has been largely unaffected by COVID-19. With time, it has become clear that this reality has not happened by luck or in a vacuum. It is the culmination of years of hard work and a special working relationship, trust even, among its group of Pacific island officials, select fisheries experts, and their networks of partners. 

Pacific fisheries officials and their collaborating partners at the annual MCS Working Group meeting at FFA headquarters, Honiara, Solomon Islands, 2017. Photo: Fatu Tauafiafi/Pacific Guardians.
Pacific fisheries officials and their collaborating partners at the annual MCS Working Group meeting at FFA headquarters, Honiara, Solomon Islands, 2017. Photo: Fatu Tauafiafi/Pacific Guardians.

One of these groups is the Parties to the Nauru Agreement (PNA), which is made up of eight Pacific island nations and Tokelau, who, under their cooperative arrangement, manage the largest tropical tuna fishery in the world. Working in conjunction with the Pacific Islands Forum Fisheries Agency (FFA), Secretariat of the Pacific Community (SPC) and various other partners, they have somehow kept tuna stocks in their waters in healthy numbers while increasing revenues. (Revenue from tuna fishing grew from around US$60 million in 2010 to US$500 million in 2018.)

The secret to success, according to former PNA CEO, Mr Transform Aqorau, is relationships. In a 2016 statement, he said: “The secret lies in the close friendships and relationships that exist amongst your officials. These are not just friendships borne out of a common bond by the work we do, but transcend to our families and siblings in some cases. These friendships have allowed us to work together even where we disagree with each other. We still value each other’s company and still share a meal and drink at the end of the day.”

One individual who has been part of that group since 2010 is Tokelau’s fisheries adviser, Mr Stan Crothers. 

In this writer’s mind, Stan symbolises the hard-nosed yet unconditional love that fisheries officials have. They have dedicated themselves to claiming as much of the benefits rightly due from the region’s fishery to local people and their future generations.

With Stan’s involvement, Tokelau was accepted into the PNA’s Vessel Day Scheme in 2012. The immediate impact of that association saw the annual fisheries revenue increase by 100%, from NZ$2.7 million to NZ$5.5 million in 2013. The revenue continued its upward growth, from 2016 plateauing at around NZ$20 million a year. In 2019, its NZ$21.6 million contribution made up 77% of the total domestic economy, up from 27% in 2010.

Table showing increase in revenue for Tokelau tuna fisheries from 2010 to 2019 after Tokelau began to take part in PNA's Vessel Day Scheme in 2012.

Stan, like many of his fisheries compatriots, prefers effort and results to do his talking. 

At the 2017 WCPFC meeting, Stan and Tokelau played a crucial role that helped pass the bridging Tropical Tuna Measure, averting what would have been a historic collapse at a Tuna Commission negotiations. (This is the situation that occurred at the Inter-American Tropical Tuna Commission in 2020.)

But it means that most of the citizens of countries like Tokelau, who now enjoy a more equitable economic share of revenues from their fisheries, have no idea of who has achieved this result or of the amount of work involved. 

The reality is there’s a tuna war taking place. It’s a hugely complex battlefield requiring combatants with specialised skills and technical acumen, with a good and agile grasp of political brinkmanship. In this field, tiny countries such as Tokelau, which do not yet have the human capability and resources for these types of soldiers and generals, could be expected to be reaping NZ$2-$3 million a year in tuna revenue. Instead, the island has earned NZ$20 million a year for the past four years.

Stan has been – and continues to be – the key that unlocked Tokelau’s multi-million dollar potential in fisheries. And with his work with the PNA, FFA and other fisheries partners, he has helped extend similar benefits to other Pacific island countries and territories. 

And here’s the rub: All of Stan’s efforts for Tokelau and for other parties have been provided on a largely pro bono basis for the public good. 

But perhaps the magnitude of even the vast Pacific Ocean is not large enough a symbol for the value and heart of fisheries workers. For it is they who make the difference. Day in, day out, they go to battle with the aims to sustainably manage the fisheries, to negotiate fair and equitable benefits for the Pacific people who own these resources. 

Their work has so far made fisheries one of the few sectors in the world to successfully hold off the devastation of the still uncontrollable SARS-CoV-2 virus.

It is really hard work. And many in the public arena just do not know about it. 

In an interview shortly after the latest Tuna Commission meeting in December 2020 (WCPFC17), Stan said, “I think I’ve had a total of around three work days over the past six months where I haven’t been on Zoom meetings to do with fisheries. 

“So, I’m shot. But hey, I think a couple of weeks without Zoom meetings to get my eyes rested and we’ll be ready to go again in 2021.”

It is important that we acknowledge this line of work in the modern era – one that reaches back to foundational giants in Ambassador Satya N. Nandan of Fiji, Elisala Pita of Tuvalu, and countless others. To do so, following is a light-hearted version of a story on Stan and Tokelau that I wrote for the Nukunonu newspaper, Te Ulugā Talafau. It was published in August 2020.

Grant Thomas and the Tokelau child with the million-dollar smile 

Before COVID-19 changed the world, the new decade in New Zealand and Tokelau was heralded by the publication of the 2020 Queen’s New Year Honours List in January. Among the awardees was one Mr Grant Thomas Crothers, who became an Officer of the New Zealand Order of Merit (ONZM) by way of services rendered to Tokelau and the fishing industry. 

The citation stated that Grant Thomas was the “Deputy Chief Executive and Acting Chief Executive of the Ministry of Fisheries in New Zealand. Upon retirement, he began pro bono work in the Pacific Islands to ensure small island countries could reap sustainable outcomes from their fisheries resources. 

“In 2009–2010 he started working with and advising the Parties to the Nauru Fishing Agreement (PNA) and Tokelau. He played a key role in helping to develop the Tokelau Fisheries Policy, a document that was formed through extensive consultation with the Tokelau community, which enabled Tokelau to join the PNA.”

At about this point, there will be a lot of confused people in Tokelau, with many asking, “What is this? Who is Grant Thomas?” 

And that is because Grant Thomas is an alias that stands for “Stan”. So when the name Stan Crothers is called out loud, not only will Tokelauans immediately say, “Oh, our Stan?” but virtually the entire international fisheries sector right down to the little children on outboard boats skimming the lagoon stretch between Fakaofo’s Fale and Tai islets will also go, “That’s our Stan.”  

But more than just a popular personality with a few choice words, Stan has shaped Tokelau’s fisheries sector from a six-figure annual revenue stream in 2011 to an eight-figure boon starting in 2016.  

Stan’s “input has helped grow the Tokelau fisheries sector from just under NZ$1 million per year to NZ$20 million annually” in less than a decade. These funds make up approximately 80% of Tokelau’s domestic revenue, and have allowed the New Zealand territory to improve its infrastructure, build hospitals, boost education outcomes and make other gains. The one smidgeon of regret for Stan, though, is that not one cent of the fisheries revenue has gone into building up Tokelau’s Trust Fund that currently sits just below NZ$100 million. 

Sunrise over the Fakaofo lagoon, Tokelau, November 2018. Photo: Fatu Tauafiafi/Pacific Guardians.
Sunrise over the Fakaofo lagoon, Tokelau, November 2018, viewed from the front of the Sakava residence, the place where Stan Crothers mulled over a decision about Tokelau’s fisheries back in 2010. Photo: Fatu Tauafiafi/Pacific Guardians.

But how did a sought-after expert come to swap lucrative consultancy work with international institutes to volunteer his time and efforts for Tokelau some 10 years ago? 

The Hollywood drama-style answer is revealed at the end of this article. But first, a window into some of the quirks and characteristics of this highly reserved individual, which are best garnered from comments by those who work closely with him. 

Dr Manumatavai Tupou-Roosen, Director-General, FFA

“Having experienced first-hand the significant contribution that Stan makes to our fisheries work, I was delighted that he is to be awarded this honour of Officer of the New Zealand Order of Merit. Stan’s contribution to the Pacific Islands Forum Fisheries Agency (FFA), particularly Tokelau, has been immense,” Dr Tupou-Roosen wrote.

“The extraordinary work that he has done with the leaders and people of Tokelau to turn around their fisheries management and development to reveal its true value and potential has been remarkable. Without a doubt, the merits of this wonderful collaboration will benefit the people of Tokelau today and for generations to come.

“In the wider region, FFA continues to benefit regularly from his vast knowledge and experience in our fisheries discussions. His commitment, passion and diligence for the people of the Pacific in our fisheries work makes this a most well-deserved award for Stan Crothers.”

Dr Josie Tamate, Deputy Chair, WCPFC, and Director-General, Niue Ministry of Natural Resources

“This is an excellent achievement for Stan!” Dr Tamate wrote.

“I have great respect for Stan, particularly his contribution to the management of the tuna fisheries in the WCPO and especially for Tokelau. He has a wealth of experience on fisheries management and negotiation that have flowed on to Pacific island and FFA island colleagues.

“We have learned from him, and his sense of humour is quite interesting, especially through the analogies and metaphors that he sometimes uses. Only Stan can make an intervention with reference to a ‘divorce and/or marriage’ during a serious fisheries negotiation … yet in many instances, it helped break the ice and pressure a bit. Congratulations, Stan.”

His Excellency Mr Ross Ardern, Administrator of Tokelau

“On a personal level and as the Administrator of Tokelau, I was so pleased to see Stan receive acknowledgement of his work in the fisheries sector in the New Year’s Honours list,” Mr Ardern wrote. 

“His elevation to that of Officer of the New Zealand Order of Merit is richly deserved. I am particularly pleased that Stan’s family will be able to participate in the award ceremony in Wellington in the not-too-distant future as they, too, have played their part in supporting Stan and his work.

“Stan has epitomised what it is to be a public servant. The work that he has done in lifting the fisheries profile of Tokelau has paid significant dividends. It has given Tokelau the ability to focus on core infrastructure relating to schools, public service buildings and the education sector.

“Stan has passed a great deal of institutional knowledge about the technicalities of the fisheries sector to others – his great work will continue and all pacific countries will benefit from that.

“Thanks, Stan, for all you have done for the Pacific.”

And now, the reason behind Stan’s decision to help Tokelau in 2010, is given by Mr Feleti Tulafono, Tokelau’s Director for Fisheries, in his inimitable and colourful way.

Stan was an unknown individual to us, most probably because he was very high up in the echelons of the then New Zealand Ministry of Fisheries.

When Stan came into Tokelau Fisheries, we worked very closely with him. And as we got to know him better, we found out he was a former Deputy Director and Acting Director of NZ Fisheries. At this time, Stan was doing consultancy work for the World Bank in the area of fisheries. For me, I had a burning question that I wanted to ask Stan.

Feleti: Stan, what made you change your mind and agree to help Tokelau Fisheries?

Stan: When I agreed to the late Ulu, Foua Toloa and Fisheries Minister, Keli Kalolo’s invitation to travel to Tokelau to help Tokelau realise the potential from her fisheries and build that potential, I knew it would be near impossible. That it was going to be a very big undertaking because the proper legal, development and management frameworks were not in place. Most specifically, because of Tokelau’s current constitutional status [as a territory of New Zealand].

Students of Tialeniu School make their way to the school shuttle to take them across the lagoon to Fenuafala where the school is located. Photo: Litia Maiava/Te Mana.
Students of Tialeniu School make their way to the school shuttle to take them across the lagoon to Fenuafala where the school is located. Photo: Litia Maiava/Te Mana.

Feleti: So what made you agree to help us?

Stan: Well, it was a spur-of-the-moment decision. On my first evening in Fakaofo, I was talking with the late Foua Toloa and Keli Kalolo. They had been trying very hard to convince me to help them and Tokelau. I told them, when we broke off to go to bed, that I would think about it.

The following morning I went for a walk around the village and I could see schoolchildren. Some walking and some joyfully running to the jetty where they board the school boat to take them to school on the other islet, Fenuafala.

I kept walking towards the jetty and two young schoolgirls came skipping along and one of them said ‘Good morning Stan!’ It took me by surprise because I did not know who they were. 

It was later when I went to see the then Manager of Fisheries, Mose Pelasio, that I came to know the young girl who said good morning was Mose’s youngest daughter, Te Kaumana’alofa.

The ‘good morning Stan’ from that young girl, at that moment while I was watching the young children cram into that small school boat was the turning point – I decided there and then to help Tokelau.

And so the arrangement began. To this day, Stan has not budged into a formal arrangement, preferring to honour the 2010 ‘shake of hands’ with Foua and Keli, a gentleman’s agreement for his services.

New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern (left) learns steps of a traditional dance from Tokelau's Te Kaumana'alofa (right) during official visit to Tokelau in July 2019. Photo: Fatu Tauafiafi/Pacific Guardians.
That ‘Good morning, Stan’ smile is just as bright now … Te Kaumana’alofa (right) teaches New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern (left) the actions to one of Tokelau’s traditional dances during Ms Ardern’s state visit to Tokelau in July 2019. Photo: Fatu Tauafiafi/Pacific Guardians.

Success of 2021 WCPFC meeting could be hampered by ongoing travel restrictions

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The year 2020 will be remembered for the many different ways the COVID-19 pandemic dominated human lives.

COVID swaggered; blazed. Seemingly overnight, it carved a one-in-a lifetime transboundary trail through countries, races, creeds, status and belief systems. It doled out death, economic meltdowns and societal disruption while planting uncertainty in the globe-wide swathe leaving human misery festering in its wake.

Yet, dotted among the devastation are small clusters of human resistance. And isolated within some of these clusters are the rare nuggets – small pockets of people claiming victory by maintaining a semblance of pre-COVID normalcy.

One such pocket is the Western and Central Pacific Ocean (WCPO) tuna fisheries managed by the Western Central Pacific Fisheries Commission (WCPFC), also known as the Tuna Commission. It is a body where all 41 stakeholders develop management measures collectively and operate by consensus.

For many of the bloc of 24 Pacific island countries and territories (PICTs), victory in 2020 boiled down to two key things: committed, hardworking people; and ‘one decision’ (consensus).

Together they blunted most of COVID-19’s disruptions to the harvest and commercial activities in the region’s US$6 billion a year fisheries sector.

Due to COVID-19, Pacific fisheries ministers and national representatives met for the annual Forum Fisheries Committee meeting in August 2020 over the Zoom platform. Photo: FFA Media.

Blunted: COVID-19’s influence on Pacific fisheries

The commitment and dedicated work of Pacific fisheries officials included the efforts of their many intersectoral and international partners. Without ongoing fisheries activity, incoming revenue and an operating regulatory machinery, the sector would have been neutralised. But the sacrifices, resilience and sheer doggedness of the people involved “kept the fisheries open and active in producing the necessary catches”, according to Mr Eugene Pangelinan, Chair for the Pacific’s Forum Fisheries Committee (FFC), who spoke to journalists at a media conference during the 17th annual meeting of the Tuna Commission last month.

“That dedication ensured the markets continued to receive the supply of tuna from the Pacific to feed the world,” Mr Pangelinan said.

Officials’ work also ensured that “all key tuna stocks – the skipjack, yellowfin, bigeye and albacore – are all very healthy. So, I think that’s something we can be very proud of.”

Eugene Pangelinan, Chair, Forum Fisheries Committee, December 2020-screenshot taken during online media conference
Forum Fisheries Committee Chair Eugene Pangelinan during the post-WCPFC17 media conference, held via Zoom. Photo: Fatu Tauafiafi/Pacific Guardians.

The WCPFC’s consensus way of operating was notable in a decision made at WCPFC17, which was held virtually from 8 to 15 December.

Of the 96 decisions made by the Commission, it was decision number 39, on the rollover of the Tropical Tuna Measure (TTM), conservation and management measure 2018-01, that was important above all others. That single decision has enabled the gains hard won in 2020 to be followed through in 2021.

More importantly, decision 39 provided an opportunity for those in charge of the tuna fisheries to maintain the current measure beyond its 10 February 2021 expiry date, while they craft a new TTM for endorsement when the Commission meets in December 2021. In the interim, the current TTM provides certainty, trust and transparency for Pacific members that its fisheries will be managed well as the Commission continues its work towards establishing harvest strategies for the four most important species.

Why the Tropical Tuna Measure mattered above all other measures

Decision 39 on rolling over the TTM reads: “The Commission agreed on a simple rollover of CMM 2018-01 for one year and accordingly adopted CMM 2020-01 Conservation and Management Measure for bigeye, yellowfin and skipjack tuna in the Western and Central Pacific Ocean.”

At the heart of the Tuna Commission negotiations and decisions are the three tropical tuna species, skipjack, bigeye and yellowfin). The TTM is central to harvesting the species in a sustainable manner and also attempts to take into account the special requirements of the Pacific’s small island developing states (SIDS).

It does this by defining the limits for fishing in both the sovereign waters of PICTs and the high seas pockets on the WCPO by setting out effort and catch restrictions for the two principal WCPFC fisheries – the tropical purse seine fishery and the tropical longline fishery. Together, they comprise approximately 75% of the tuna caught in the WCPO, which provides 66% of all the world’s tuna. In 2019, the value of WCPO tuna value was estimated at US$5.8 billion (purse seine US$3.02 billion, longline US$1.61 billion).

When decision 39 was endorsed, it was no surprise to hear Pacific negotiators’ stress levels giving way to relief, according to Mr Stan Crothers, who represented Tokelau and shared a perspective as part of the Parties to the Nauru Agreement (PNA).

“We were quite concerned that if they [the Commission] hadn’t concurred, we would have been in the awful situation where there is no conservation and management measure in place. We certainly didn’t want to get to that point – an open slather – especially on the high seas,” Mr Crothers said.

“So, if there’s one word that describes what this means, it is ‘relief’ that we got a measure to keep things in place. And because of the COVID-19 conditions, this was a huge success.”

At the post-WCPFC17 media conference, Mr Pangelinan also paid tribute to the effort behind the scenes by Pacific members and their partners that led to the victory.

“The Forum Fisheries Agency [FFA] team as a bloc, working together with the Parties to the Nauru Agreement as a bloc, succeeded in having the TTM rolled over,” he said.

As well as securing a process for the 2021 negotiations that will include two intercessional workshops in April and June–July, they ensured the process would take into account COVID-19 impacts, and ensure a special provision to “avoid a situation in which the WCPFC had no Tropical Tuna Measure”.

Mr Pangelinan was especially satisfied with securing the special provision.

“There’s a key provision in there that I took away as being very essential,” he said. “In the event there is no agreement – that if we are unable at WCPFC18 to agree on a Tropical Tuna Measure – then we [Tuna Commission] shall commit to another roll over of current measures to ensure the fishery has a management regime in place in 2022.”

Mr Crothers was asked how the Pacific would fare if such a scenario should come to pass.

“Are we really concerned about another rollover of the Tropical Tuna Measure? No, we’re not,” he said.

“The TTM that we’re operating under is good for the fishery and really good for the PNA and therefore good for Tokelau. So, we’re actually quite relaxed about it [if there’s another rollover].”

2021 to be a “monster” year of pushing through delayed work

The new conservation and management measure needs to be well crafted and negotiated exhaustively so there is consensus when it comes before WCPFC18 in December 2021.

However, it is far from the only work to get through in 2021. Some Pacific negotiators have said the Commission has created a problem because it has rolled over other key issues from year to year.

Mr Crothers said, “If the rollover decision had been made in pre-pandemic times, we would have said, ‘That was not a very successful meeting.’ But because of COVID-19, it ended up being a huge success.

“But what it really highlighted was that, over the years, we’ve been kicking the can down the road on a whole lot of issues. And in the COVID crisis, we’ve been able to sort of bounce around and get by. But a lot of stuff has been delayed and is now building up.

“It now means 2021 is turning into a monster because we have got to renegotiate the Tropical Tuna Measure, we’ve got to negotiate an albacore measure, and then, on top of that, we’ve got to renegotiate the US treaty. Further, we have to progress the FFA longline strategy, enhance the PNA Longline Vessel Day Scheme, implement electronic reporting and electronic monitoring, and so forth.

“So the challenges for the FFA and the PNA in 2021 are huge, because the work delayed in 2020 is now pushed out to 2021.”

US Treaty signing ceremony in Nadi, Fiji, in 2016. Photo Fatu Tauafiafi/Pacific Guardians.
US Treaty signing ceremony in Nadi, Fiji, in 2016. Photo: Fatu Tauafiafi/Pacific Guardians.

Face-to-face meetings likely to be further delayed

Despite hopes at the end of 2020 that international travel might resume by July, it now seems unlikely that this will be the case.

Mr Crothers said: “My biggest worry is that, if we’re not travelling in the Pacific by, at the latest, June or July, then I think we are not going to be able to get the work done to negotiate a new Tropical Tuna Measure, and therefore we may be faced with another rollover by this time [December] in 2021.”

Mr Pangelinan agreed that another rollover at WCPFC18 was a real possibility. The majority of negotiators have readily admitted that, to get such complex issues over the line, physical meetings are a must. Yet even with COVID-19 vaccination programs underway in various countries, Mr Pangelinan didn’t hold out much hope for the resumption of physical meetings soon.

“I think we must accept the fact that if things are not going to change by early 2021, we will have to just simply resort to this [Zoom] platform to try and progress these issues as much as possible,” he said.

The Director-General of FFA, Dr Manumatavai Tupou-Roosen, said FFA would focus on improving preparations and briefings for its members using the virtual platforms, and also on building even closer coordination with partners and stakeholders.

“Everybody’s hopeful that we could start some physical engagements because we have pushed a lot of work – that’s not understating it – a lot of work to 2021,” Dr Tupou-Roosen told Pacific journalists at the WCPFC17 media conference.

“It will require us to be very organised in getting in touch virtually as FFA members and also with our partners in advance of any set dates for WCPFC workshops leading up to the WCPFC18 in December 2021.

“And what has really shone through during the present challenge created by COVID is the strength, resilience, adaptability and innovation of our Pacific people. And being led by their continued commitment to cooperation.”

Pacific island states disadvantaged by virtual meetings

For the 2021 work, Pacific members are still hoping that a return to physical meetings will come to pass this year. That is because, as has been confirmed in 2020, virtual platforms dilute their positions and collective strength dramatically.

According to Mr Crothers, there are two areas that highlight the Pacific’s concerns: technology infrastructure, and platform to agree on collective action.

“It is particularly difficult to negotiate complex measures, using this [Zoom]. It has compounded the problems for SIDS on two levels,” he said.

“The quality of their internet connection and so forth is not great. We had people dropping in and out while meeting, so there’s that the technological infrastructure problem. It means that the SIDS’ ability to participate is constrained.

“If they can’t participate, their interests are not reflected and therefore it’s quite hard to get a consensus.”

Secondly, the strength of the FFA and the PNA is in collective action. This has come to the fore in recent meetings of the Commission. This was illustrated by the passage of the climate change resolution at WCPFC16.

“We are a whole lot of little guys and we’re up against the heavyweights of the EU, US, China and Japan. The only way we can compete with them is if we all band together as a collective,” Mr Crothers said.

“We can do that best when we meet physically – to negotiate our collective positions and settle on our game plan.”

It is never an easy task, as every Pacific country and territory has its own views and unique interests and needs.

“So getting a consensus amongst Pacific countries is a challenge. But once we have it, that’s when we can compete against the big guys,” he said.

“With COVID in the mix, it’s been difficult to get the FFA positions sorted, build a consensus and get our game plan sorted. So, once again, this situation means it’s been a difficult time for us.”

The clear advantage of physical meetings … Pacific negotiators revisit their strategy on the climate change resolution during one of the breaks at the 2019 Tuna Commission in Port Moresby, PNG. Photo: Fatu Tauafiafi/Pacific Guardians.

2021 expected to be difficult – but doable

Difficult is still doable: the Pacific fisheries sector has shown that in 2020.

And even though there is a lot of uncertainty about what may or may not be achieved in 2021, the largest bloc at the Tuna Commission took time out to celebrate and reflect on the WCPFC17 success, and especially the continuation of the TTM.

On reflection, there was time to evaluate several disappointments. The biggest one for the Pacific was the Compliance Monitoring Scheme.

“The compliance monitoring report was probably the biggest disappointment of the 2020 meeting for us,” said Mr Pangelinan, referring to a Commission member that was able to manipulate the system to continue to escape being held accountable for not complying or adhering to its limits on the high seas.

“It is a very unfortunate one because, for us, we are now wondering about the integrity of the entire Compliance Monitoring Scheme as a package of measures that look at how members meet their obligations,” said Mr Pangelinan.

Getting policy results will be a big challenge

As a result of the lack of action by the Tuna Commission, “we’re going to have to look very carefully, think very hard, about any future Tropical Tuna Measure and how those elements of limits or even obligations themselves are going to be interpreted.

“I would say this one is the big fish that got away. We should have had an assessment but we did not successfully do that.”

He said that the use of virtual platforms as the form of communications and negotiations was a definitely a contributing factor.

“I would say that, if this was not done through this virtual platform, I think the outcome would have been totally different,” Mr Pangelinan said.

Several issues significant to the Pacific were pared right back at WCPFC17, and some were not even discussed: the climate change resolution; harvest strategies; maritime boundaries; high-seas allocation, and illegal, unreported and unregulated (IUU) fishing.

“Those particular issues may become watered down as people will be more focused on what we are trying to achieve through the objectives we will be agreeing to in the early parts of 2021,” Mr Pangelinan said.

“It will be quite a challenge to bring in elements of crew and labour standards, COVID-19, climate change, and so forth, into these discussions as we start carving out a new measure, so it’s going to be very difficult, I will say.

“We will have to be really ready and prepared so that, as we have these discussions, we keep those in the back of our minds that they’re equally important to our people. We also have leadership directives from our highest levels of government, that those are priorities as well.”

In March, a study on IUU fishing, which revisits a 2016 report, on IUU will be tabled. That should help provide some oxygen for the work on IUU mitigation going into 2022.

Another major 2021 event will be the La Niña weather pattern. It is forecasted to bring a boon for fisheries in the west of the region.

Mr Crothers said, “We’re likely to see good catches in the Solomon Islands, Papua New Guinea, Nauru and so forth, and not so good conditions in Tokelau, Kiribati and Tuvalu.”

It is also likely that for 2021 and 2022, and beyond, the waters of Pacific small island states and territories will remain the lucrative, as the three commercially important tropical tuna, plus albacore tuna, have been confirmed by scientists as remaining in a healthy state. This knowledge reassures officials that fisheries revenue, employment, private sector opportunities and developmental progress for many PICTs are inoculated against the more virulent assaults of COVID-19.

Tokelau, where fisheries provide about 85% of the territory’s entire domestic GDP, is one of the lucky few: the benefits it gains from its fisheries are almost immune to COVID-19. This is also the case for a number of other WCPO states. But that immunity has come about entirely through the hard work of its national fisheries officials, as well as their regional and international network of partners, among them FFA and PNA members.

“The TTM we’re operating under now is good for the fishery, it’s really good for the PNA, and it’s good for Tokelau,” said Mr Crothers.

“If a rollover happened again into 2022, so be it.”

But wouldn’t it be great if travel to fisheries meetings is allowed to take place by July 2021?

Nukunou, Tokelau. Photo Fatu Tauafiafi/Pacific Guardians/Taupulega Nukunonu.
Nukunonu, Tokelau, is one of the few COVID-free pockets in the world. Photo: Fatu Tauafiafi/Pacific Guardians/Taupulega Nukunonu.

How the Pacific fisheries sector managed to navigate COVID-19

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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

Set in stone: 2021 rules and regulations for tuna fishing in the Western and Central Pacific Ocean

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The collapse of negotiations to regulate and manage tuna stocks in the Eastern Pacific Ocean last week is cause for international concern.

The ensuing lack of management oversight by the Inter-American Tropical Tuna Commission (IATTC) for 2021, unless addressed urgently, will impact the viability and sustainability of not just the Eastern Pacific fishery but potentially the tuna stocks in the Western and Central Pacific Ocean (WCPO) as well.

With the Western and Central Pacific Fisheries Commission (WCPFC) getting its 17th annual meeting underway this week, concern is heightened that the management of the world’s largest tuna stocks in the WCPO could face a similarly challenging path.

But that will not happen, according to Mr Eugene Pangelinan, the Chair of the Forum Fisheries Committee, the largest bloc in the WCPFC – that of Pacific member states and participating territories taking up seats at the table.

“The good outcomes have already happened,” Mr Pangelinan told regional journalists on Monday during a Zoom panel discussion with senior management of the Pacific Islands Forum Fisheries Agency (FFA).

The good outcome Mr Pangelinan referred to was the withdrawal by the United States of its proposal to negotiate the Tropical Tuna Measure, and agreeing with the proposal from Pacific island members to “roll over” the current measure to 2021. (The Tropical Tuna Measure, CMM 2018-01, governs the conservation and management of bigeye, skipjack and yellowfin tuna. It is due to expire in February 2021.)

“I think the US accepting the fact that this is not the environment to negotiate a very substantive measure, that has very dramatic impacts on small island developing states. And agreeing to just roll over next year, I think is a very good outcome already,” he said.

The point cannot be overstated that the US supporting the position FFA members have put forward, and now supported by others, will effectively allow the continuation of the status quo in 2021.

Dr Manu Tupou-Roosen, the Director-General of FFA, provided more details confirming the significant impact of the US agreeing to the Pacific’s position to roll over.

“[It] has been a big win for all of the Commission [WCPFC] members; it’s not just FFA,” Dr Tupou-Roosen said.

“Also, the recognition that it is harder to work through virtual platforms on quite complex measures such as the Tropical Tuna Measure, hence the agreement from the US, who continues to be a valued partner in this space, of their acceptance of this enabling the Tropical Tuna Measure could continue by rolling it over to next year.”

She admitted it did push all the work of renegotiating the measure to 2021.

“What we want to see coming out of this year is a clear process on how we will work this through with Commission members in the lead up to next year’s Commission meeting,” Dr Tupou-Roosen said.

What is clear from the tone of Mr Pangelinan and Dr Tupou-Roosen is their confidence that the rules and regulations for tuna fishing in the Western and Central Pacific Ocean will remain firmly in place for 2021.

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