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 The normal variability between good seasons and poorer seasons has been replaced by a trend downwards.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