South Pacific longline fisheries declining due to economics

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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 The normal variability between good seasons and poorer seasons has been replaced by a trend downwards.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?“

Pacific tuna fisheries sustainable but need to consider threats, especially from climate change

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The foresight of Pacific Islands country leaders in the late ’90s means that the tropical tuna stocks in the Western and Central Pacific today are being fished sustainably, despite pressures from increased fishing, including illegal, unregulated or unreported fishing.

These are the findings of UN expert consultant on ocean and coastal management and governance, Dr David Vousden, who presented the conclusions of a detailed analysis of Western and Central Pacific oceanic fisheries to a meeting of Pacific fisheries managers in Rarotonga, Cook Islands, earlier this month.

Dr Vousden says one of the most notable aspects of the tuna fisheries within the Pacific Islands region has been its continuing sustainability.

“All the available scientific monitoring evidence and modelling supports the conclusion that the tuna fishery in the Convention area is sustainable and is currently not being overfished.

“This is down to the fact that the countries have been working together through this Convention [Western and Central Pacific Fisheries] and by carrying out the various activities and requirements in terms of monitoring and managing the fisheries, both within their EEZs [exclusive economic zones] and out there in the high seas as well.”

Many Pacific Island Countries and Territories (PICTs) depend on tuna fisheries for a significant part of their income through their own domestic fishing operations and through licensing foreign vessels. About 60 per cent of the world’s commercial tuna supplies come from this region.

But tuna are highly mobile fish that moves across the EEZs of many different countries and also across the high seas. For this reason, Pacific tuna fisheries management is considered to be a “transboundary concern” whereby countries need to negotiate with each other about fishing access and sustainability.

The Oceanic Fisheries Management Project (OFMP2) contracted Dr Vousden to conduct a “Transboundary Diagnostic Analysis” of the Western Pacific Warm Pool Large Marine Ecosystem.

“This process identifies the threats and their effects on fisheries and people, but it also looks at the real root causes that are making these happen,” he says.

“So, if you have a threat like overfishing, why is this happening? Is it because it’s not being monitored properly? Is it due to illegal fishing?

“Once you know these root causes, you can look at how best to resolve them and reduce or remove the threat.”

Dr Vousden found that while the tuna fisheries in the Pacific Islands region are currently sustainable, they are also being threatened by the future risks of overfishing, climate change, bycatch of non-target species like sharks and turtles, and potentially by pollution from the land and from vessels on the sea.

“One of the biggest challenge is improving the management processes,” he says. “The current management processes have been successful but they are rather ad hoc and there is a need to move to stronger longer term strategies for managing harvesting to avoid the risk of overfishing, supported by strengthened compliance and enforcement and enhanced information gathering and scientific understanding.

Dr Vousden presents about the TDA in Rarotonga (Photo: Toss Gascoigne)

Dr Vousden also noted the massive issue of climate change and pointed to the “exceptionally good climate change modelling” being conducted by the Pacific Community (SPC) scientists. Within this context, he cautioned that the predicted impacts from climate change could potentially upset and confound the otherwise good efforts toward long-term, sustainable management of the oceanic fishery.

“Tuna are restricted in their range by water temperatures and by the amount of tuna ‘forage’ or food supply that they have. Climate change affects both of these parameters,” he says.

In Rarotonga May 2018: (left) Perry Head, acting DDG for FFA; (middle) David Vousden; (right) Hugh Walton OFMP2 Coordinator with FFA (Photo: Toss Gascoigne)

“We are seeing a change over the past decade where tuna populations are moving away from some islands and migrating closer to others. We are also seeing the upwelling currents from ocean floors diminishing and, along with them, much of the nutrients that drive the food chains that the tuna rely upon.”

Dr Vousden has set out his findings in a technical report, which needs to be factually approved by all the Forum Fisheries Agency (FFA) Pacific member countries. Once agreed, the next step is to produce a Strategic Action Programme (SAP) for ministerial endorsement. This may then well lead to further funding and investment to support the PICTs in implement the actions identified and endorsed within the SAP.

Dr Vousden is optimistic that such support to implement the SAP would receive international support and funding, especially given the record of OFMP2: “This is about as good a flagship project as you can get in terms of governance and management of large marine ecosystems. The countries and their partners really understand what needs to be done in terms of oceanic fisheries management, and they’re really going for it.”

Despite the scale of possible threats and their impacts on the marine ecosystem, Dr Vousden is also confident of the ability of the regional and national fisheries managers to tackle them.

“When you’re dealing with an area the size of the Western and Central Pacific and you’ve got maybe 4,000 fishing boats out there at any one time, some in the high seas and some in EEZs, with different roles and regulations applying to them, just monitoring the fishery is a massive challenge.

“But I have seen this region slowly but surely rise to this challenge over the past two decades, both in understanding what needs to be done and in taking the necessary management actions. This gives me enormous optimism for the fisheries in this region.

“If they can keep going the way they are, and if they can maintain their dedication and interest in managing the fisheries, and with further advances in the science and our knowledge, then I think the Pacific oceanic fisheries stands every chance of remaining in good shape into the foreseeable future.

“The one overriding concern that remains, however, must be the monitoring of the impacts from climate change and being able to adaptively manage the fishery and the potential socioeconomic effects in the region that climate change can cause.”

The Pacific Islands Forum Fisheries Agency (FFA) is managing and administering the Oceanic Fisheries Management Project (OFMP2), which is being implemented jointly by the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) and the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) on behalf of the Global Environment Facility (GEF), which provides the funding support.

The OFMP2 builds on previous GEF support that assisted the region in developing and adopting the Convention and then assisted with building the foundations, institutions and capacity for more sustainable Pacific fisheries management.

The objective of OFMP2 is to support Pacific SIDS in meeting their obligations to implement and effectively enforce global, regional and sub-regional arrangements for the conservation and management of transboundary oceanic fisheries thereby increasing sustainable benefits derived from these fisheries.