South Pacific longline fisheries declining due to economics

Categories News, NewsPosted on

Data gathered by the FFA shows that economic conditions in the South Pacific long-line fishery is on a downward trend, with no signs it is likely to return to the profitability of previous years.

Dr Chris Reid, Chief Economist for the Forum Fisheries Agency, says that the fishing in the Pacific has always been subject to variability.

“The profitability of the long-line industry is determined by a number of factors: catch rates, fishing costs and the market price for fish,” he says. “When fuel costs are low and prices are good, most fishers have a smile on their face – as long as they are catching enough fish.”

There are a number of factors in play. There are good seasons and bad seasons, and the industry has natural fluctuations, up and down.

But the last five or so years have given poor returns to fishers, both domestic fleets and foreign vessels. The normal variability between good seasons and poorer seasons has been replaced by a trend downwards. These years have been marked by higher costs and a lower CPUE – catch per unit effort.

“The main thing about catch rates since 2011 is that they’ve consistently been lower than the average,” Dr Reid says.

The graph illustrates his point. The figures for 2011, the start of the downward trend, show high prices for fish but are offset by high costs and a bad CPUE. The black line shows very poor overall economic conditions in the industry.

Graph showing
Index of economic conditions in the south Pacific longline fishery. Source: Terawasi, P. and Reid, C. 2018, Economic and Development Indicators and Statistics: Tuna Fisheries of the Western and Central Pacific Ocean 2017, Forum Fisheries Agency. Note: Based on the longline fishery south of 10⁰S within the WPCFC Convention Area.

“It has got to the stage that a good year today is what an average year looked like 10 years ago, and today’s average year is like a poor year then. If we have a bad year now, it’s going to be absolutely terrible,” says Dr Reid.

In 2013, some fleets withdrew and in the last couple of years there appears to have been a significant drop-off in effort. Dr Reid says this is just simple economics.

“It’s like a classic open access fishery. Everybody floods in, then catch rates drop off and people withdraw. Catch rates might come back a bit but unless there’s a management regime in place, you just return back to this situation so the fishery will always just bump along the bottom,” he says.

“It’s economic over-fishing.”

He contrasts the economic notion of sustainability with a scientific stock assessment, which says the stock is biologically healthy. The long-line industry, though, targets the bigger fish and many of these have already been caught.

“The fish that are susceptible to being taken by long liners are the older fish, for example, for albacore it is those fish that are around five years and older that are susceptible. So the size of this segment of exploitable fish keeps shrinking even though the stock remains in a biologically healthy state,” he says.

“When you put out a line, instead of pulling in 40 kilograms for every 100 hooks you’re now pulling in 20, and it cost you the same amount of money to put the line out so your revenue is cut in half while your expenses aren’t.”

Dr Reid says that if fishing activity was reduced the bigger fish would likely come through again and catch rates increase. But because the scientific stock assessment shows over-fishing is not occurring, some members of the Western and Central Fisheries Commission (WCPFC) are reluctant to take action. Nonetheless, being conscious of the fall in catch rates, the Scientific Committee of the WCPFC has recommended that there be no further increase in fishing mortality on albacore to ensure the economic sustainability of the fishery.

He says the domestic fleets are affected more than the foreign fleets.

“If they do keep driving down the catch rates and boats stay there, the ones that are more likely to leave are the domestic boats because they don’t have the subsidies, they tend to have a higher cost structure and they have less ability just to move elsewhere. So they’re the ones that typically tie up,” he says.

“And you can only tie up for a certain period of time. The decision then becomes, if I have to have a major refit of the boat or I need a new boat, am I going to re-invest in this industry? I expect that they would be the ones who would get out.

“In recent times, the Fijian, Samoan and American Samoa fleets have all tied up at various times and there were stories of many operators trying to sell out. There were certainly examples of domestic fleets tying up whereas there was no indication of the Chinese or Taiwanese tying up.”

According to the scientists, things are going to get worse before they get better. They claim that if the fishing effort is maintained at current levels then the stock will keep falling in size until it stabilises at a lower level.

“A further decline in catch rates of seven per cent or so will obviously make the long-line fishery even less profitable. Half the problem with it being unprofitable is that nobody makes money so what’s the point in having a fishery out there? It could mean withdrawals of more domestic fleets,” Dr Reid says.

There is pressure within the Commission to include economics in the decision-making process, so that target points for albacore should not just be made on a biological basis. Many of the members of the WCPFC including both coastal states and fishing nations recognise that economics is important, and the decision-making processes have moved a long way from being biologically focused to include economic implications.

“At the national level we’ve seen Fiji cut their licenses because they had issues about catch rates in decline within their own national waters. They reduced the number of licenses to mitigate that effect. But it’s very hard if you’re in a zone to do something that is going to make any difference when everybody outside is continuing to fish. Often it can make some difference, but without necessarily bringing it back to where you used to be,” Dr Reid says.

“It’s all about creation of wealth. There’s a fish stock out there, it’s in my waters. I can try to extract as much wealth from that as possible, now how do I do that?“

Crucial turning point for world’s biggest fishery

Categories @WCPFC13, FFA Media Fellows Past EventsPosted on

The Western Pacific tuna fishery is balanced on a knife edge, with over-fishing, rogue fishing activities and an insatiable demand for fish placing heavy pressure on this rich resource.

Bigeye tuna at just 16% of its natural population levels is now below the 20% level that automatically restricts fishing activity in countries like Australia.

Jemima GarrettJemima Garrett, an former ABC journalist covering Pacific affairs for the last 30 years, told a training group of leading journalists from Pacific countries they had a crucial role to keep the public informed.

“There’s lots of important information locked up in research reports, and your job is to put it into the public arena,” she says.  “Think of it as shining a light into dark corners.”

Ms Garrett described the ‘frightening efficiency” of modern fishing methods, where an operator in remote countries can read sonar and GPS systems to direct trawlers to large schools.

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“We have to keep Pacific people informed.  They rely on radio, television, newspapers and the web to hear about threats to tuna, and issues such as the potentially damaging fishing technique of using fish aggregating devices,” she says.

“This is where a journalist skilled in digging out the information can be vital.”

The battle for the Pacific fisheries is being led by key groups such as the Western and Central Pacific Fisheries Commission, the Forum Fisheries Agency, the Parties to the Nauru Arrangement, and international agreements such as the Nauru Agreement and, in recent years, the Tokelau arrangement.

National governments of Pacific nations and territories, industry associations such as PITIA, environmental groups and coastal communities all have an important role.

Ms Garrett says there is a huge demand for fish, with growing world population and an increasing awareness of the health benefits of eating fish.

“This is giving fishing fleets every incentive to maximise their catch.  There are tremendous vested interests here, and they will just keep fishing if there are no rules.”

Tuna Pacific website to meet needs of oceanic fisheries community

Categories FeaturesPosted on

People involved in the tuna industry across the Pacific have demanded simplicity, clarity and a focus on the essential numbers in a new website on tuna in the Pacific.

400 leading figures involved in tuna were asked what they wanted from the site. Thirty per cent responded, a good rate for a survey of this nature.

Their answer, in a word, is data.

“I want to know how many fish are out there, how healthy the stocks are, and what is predicted for the future,” says one respondent..

“That’s the only way we can write fishing policies that will keep our industry alive and well.”

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Jenni Metcalfe, the consultant designing the web site, says that the best sites reflect what users need.

“The information they need should be only 2 clicks away. They are not storehouses of organisational information,” she says.

Survey respondents were drawn from groups and individuals with an interest in Pacific tuna, from the fishing industry, environmental groups, scientists, and government officers who write fishing policy.

The web site is designed to cover tuna interests in Micronesia, Polynesia and Melanesia. While data is their main need, respondents raised other issues as well:

  • information on the benefits and employment from tuna
  • examples of successful policies and ideas
  • a section for each country, to portray the unique qualities
  • headlines and news, including biodiversity status

They also want a web site suitable for the region, simple, user-friendly, interactive and easy to navigate.

Simplicity is important, because the site has to serve an audience ranging from local communities to international conservation organisations.

The speed and cost of internet services is a factor, and also getting access to a computer in communities and offices where equipment has to be shared and may not be the most modern.

The site is part of the Global Environment Fund support of the Oceanic Fisheries Management Project. Implementation is the responsibility of the Pacific Islands Forum Fisheries Agency.

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