The Tuna Industry: Embracing technologies and sustainable strategies

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Photo: SOCSKSARGEN Federation of Fishing and Allied Industries Inc.

Republished from Panay News, 23 August 2019

by Belinda Sales-Canlas

THE 21st National Tuna Congress is happening on September 4-6, 2019 in General Santos City. The Theme for this year’s Congress: “The Tuna Industry: Embracing Technologies and Sustainable Strategies”. Why this Theme?

The choice of the Theme is anchored on sustainability supported by technologies. We all know that Sustainability of Tuna Resources is paramount to the fishing industry. It cannot be overemphasized that the sustainability of the ocean’s resources does not only rest on the shoulders of government. The same responsibility is likewise demanded of the private sector, especially the global players of the Tuna Industry, and the global fisheries advocates.

The Theme calls that sustainability can only be achieved if Conservation and Management Measures are dutifully observed, and international and regional agreements calling for preservation of species and recovery plans, are honoured.

Sustainability also means no overfishing.  It means that we enable an environment for Tuna and Tuna-like species to spawn and propagate for another season of catch. The intention is not to deplete our resources.

On technology, the world is currently driven by technology. The fishing industry needs to keep up by continuously upgrading systems and processes to achieve full efficiency while being ocean-friendly.

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For 2019, the SOCSKSARGEN Federation of Fishing and Allied Industries, Inc. (SFFAII) welcomes its new President, Andrew Philip Yu. Outgoing President Joaquin T. Lu has served SFFAII for 8 years, starting in 2011. He also held the chairmanship of the National Tuna Congress for eight years. 

President Lu’s accomplishments include: Active and dynamic Advocacy, Lobby Work, and Involvement in International and Regional Collaborations; Focused Partnership with National Government and Steadfast Observance and Compliance with Philippine Laws; and Implementation of the electronic Catch Documentation and Traceability System (eCDTS).

On the first, the country is a driven Member of the Western and Central Pacific Fisheries Commission. Under his watch, the Philippines has been granted access to fish in the High Seas Pocket 1 (HSP1). This means that the country’s 36 fishing fleets can fish in the HSP1 of the Western and Central Pacific Ocean. This is a major breakthrough for the country. It may be recalled that for a time, the Philippines was no longer allowed to fish in Indonesia. The prohibition affected the Tuna Industry. The severity of the situation was felt in General Santos City, the home base of the Tuna Industry.

Under his leadership, the fishing industry was able to surmount the acute challenge. Of course, even as the Philippines is granted access to fish in the high seas, the country is duty bound to comply with international regulations, like the observance of conservation and management measures.

SFFAII also pushed for the Philippines’ inclusion in the Indian Ocean Tuna Commission. The high seas of the Indian Ocean and the Exclusive Economic Zones of member-coastal states are potential fishing grounds for Philippine purse-seine fishing vessels. Fishing in other fishing grounds will enable our own fishing grounds to recover.

SFFAII also pushes the promotion of ASEAN Tuna globally and branding it as a suitable and traceable-produced product. SFFAII supports the move to properly label the fishing industry and its allied industries’ products. However, it likewise urges that international certification be made affordable, yielding benefits not only to stakeholders, but also on marine ecosystems.

On Focused Partnership with National Government and Steadfast Observance and Compliance with Philippine Laws. For 20 years, SFFAII has hosted 20 Tuna Congresses. The Tuna Congress is now on its 21st year. The yearly Congress has become a venue for intense lobby efforts from among the active players and loyal stakeholders of the industry. The issues and concerns afflicting the industry are highlighted in the yearly Tuna Congress.

The yields of the past Tuna Congresses include the Formulation of a Policy governing Illegal, Unlawful, and Unregulated fishing practices; Finalization, Production, and Issuance of the Philippine Fishing Vessels Safety Rules and Regulations; 2018 National Tuna Management Plan which is aimed at establishing a sustainably-managed and equitably-allocated Tuna fisheries by 2026 and promoting responsible fishing practices and trade of Tuna products; Creation of National Fisheries and Aquatic Resources Management Council that serves as an advisory/recommendatory body to the Department of Agriculture in policy formulation; Reconstitution of the National Tuna Industry Council; Approval of the Handline Fishing Law and the amendment of the Implementing Rules and Regulations of the said law; among others.

On Implementation of the eCDTS. In 2017, a major milestone for the Tuna Industry unfolded when SFFAII partnered with USAID Oceans and Fisheries Partnership and BFAR to develop and implement the eCDTS. The system, when operational, will trace the movement of seafood from “bait to plate”, all the way through to export markets like US, EU, and neighbouring ASEAN markets. General Santos City has been chosen as the pilot city. Now on its final year, we will see how this system will actually impact the fishing industry.

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?“