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.