FFA Director General Dr Manu Tupou-Roosen briefing Pacific regional media from isolation in Auckland, NZ.

The 18th and latest annual meeting of the Western Central Pacific Fisheries Commission (WCPFC), held virtually in December 2021, reconfirmed the world’s largest tuna fishery continues to successfully weather the full impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic.

To continue its pandemic-defying performance into the future, WCPFC18 had one job: endorse the Tropical Tuna Measure (TTM). And to do so without overly compromising the hard-won provisions that nearly collapsed the WCPFC14 negotiations in the Philippines in 2017. And if nothing else is achieved, it will mean more work for 2022 – but that will be manageable.

After seven days of negotiations – they did it.

The 28 multinational WCPFC membership that includes G7 members (US, Japan, Canada, France), China, Chinese Taipei, European Union, and 17 Pacific forum countries agreed to a two-year measure set to come into force on 16 February 2022.

How the TTM was won

Key to the positive outcome was the leadership and efforts of Pacific small island developing states and territories (SIDS*) with Australia and New Zealand.

At plenary, they were able to help Commission members and the large number of industry and NGO stakeholders navigate the complex TTM talks.

Pacific efforts focused on maintaining the regulatory backbone balancing the fine line between conservation and commercial efforts, the rights and interests of coastal states versus fishing states, and exclusive economic zones versus high seas that were hard won in the Philippines 2017. They tabled proposals aimed to assist all Commission members improve the fishery ecosystem, and enhance revenue performance in the pandemic-ravaged global market and supply chains.

“This was a hard-fought win by the Forum members,” Mrs Atelaite Rokosuka, Chair for the Pacific Forum Fisheries Committee (FFC) told regional video via Zoom. “The implication for our priorities from the outcome of this Commission meeting will continue to have a social economic development, geopolitical and geostrategic resonance.”

What the victory means for Pacific fisheries revenue

Mr Stan Crothers, speaking on behalf of the Parties to the Nauru Agreement (PNA) and Tokelau spoke straight to the economic impact of the new measure for the bloc. “The long-term sustainability of the Pacific’s tropical tuna stocks and SIDS government fisheries revenues were at stake,” he said from his New Zealand base.

“But we were able to maintain the regulatory environment which will ensure the health of the tropical tuna fisheries and enable us to continue to earn sustainable fisheries revenues.”

The eight member-PNA plus Tokelau bloc control the world’s largest purse seine fishery. In 2020, this was valued at US$2.8 billion, a 57% share of the total WCPFC harvest of US$4.9 billion. It is where 71.8% of the total tuna catch in the WCPFC area was caught, which in volume equates to 37.5% of the total global tuna catch for 2020.

“With that TTM remaining in place for the next two years, it looks relatively positive for maintaining our much-needed fisheries revenue, at current levels for at least the next two or three years – so that’s a really positive outcome.”

It could have been better but for COVID-19

However, Mr Crothers added a cautious dose of reality: “COVID-19 and the associated virtual Commission meetings had resulted in many critically important tropical tuna measure–related issues being kicked down the road. There is now a lot of work for the Commission to do over the next two years to enhance the TTM.”

Of particular importance is the need to “adopt harvest strategies, substantially improve the monitoring of the longline fishery, allocate high seas fishing opportunities, and enhance on Fish Aggregating Device (FAD) management”.

Advising and advocating for Pacific Forum members is the intergovernmental agency: the Pacific Islands Forum Fisheries Agency (FFA). The WCPFC18 meeting represented the landing point of a year’s amount of work and effort, all done virtually, to position Pacific countries priorities with the best opportunity and support to push Commission outcomes over the line.

That was certainly the case in the negotiations for the crown jewels, the TTM. FFA’s Director General, Dr Manu Tupou-Roosen, speaking from managed isolation and quarantine in Auckland, New Zealand, was all smiles in praising the outcome as “a great achievement for not just the FFA membership, but for the Commission as a whole”.

She said it was not “a simple roll-over”, highlighting how the Pacific membership managed to extract more provisions out of the negotiations that are now embedded in the newly minted TTM.

FFC Chair Mrs Rokosuko

 

A big climate change win and environmental FAD provisions

One big surprise was the successful push, led by Tokelau, to include a climate change provision into the TTM preamble. It provides two important stepping stones for greater Pacific advocacy in the WCPO fishery, she said.

“Whilst it’s in the preamble, it does put a stake in the ground, highlighting the priority of this area to our membership and ensuring that in the discussions of the Commission, climate change impacts on alternative fisheries are really important.

“It’s also been important with the TTM, as it puts in place the building blocks for future tasks, especially on allocation in the hard limits for high seas purse seine effort limits, and also for the big eye tuna catch limits.

“Our members were also successful in achieving progress on FAD entanglement measures; for example, the prohibition on the use of mesh,” she explained. “That’s around the FAD design and the investment in ensuring materials used are biodegradable, non-entangling – that has been a positive additional outcome.”

Why WCPFC decisions are important

Decisions made at WCPFC meetings have direct life-changing impacts on the people of the Pacific. And the Pacific delegations that attend these annual meetings, individually and collectively, are intimately aware of the burden they carry for Pacific communities.

“At the heart of all this discussion is about the people in this region. It is about their wellbeing,” Mrs Rokosuka reminded journalists. “When we talk about the wellbeing of the tuna stocks, for us, it’s real, because for centuries, and for many years, the tuna stock is for our livelihood.”

Dr Tupou-Roosen emphasized the point: “The tuna fisheries are so critical to our membership, the stakes are always high. They are just so important for their economic development, food security, employment and so forth.

“And so the FFA membership’s hard work throughout the year, starting the consultations with each other, positioning themselves as a group, and then engaging well in the WCPFC processes led by the Chair, have been so encouraging in terms of working towards success at this Commission meeting to have a measure in place in 2022.”

For the Pacific weavers, planters and fishers back home, the fruits of their negotiators’ efforts at WCPFC18 was quantified as “surprisingly better than expected”, according to Mr Crothers.

“Since we renegotiated the tuna measure [in 2017], we have enjoyed since 2018 significant benefits from the purse seine fishery, especially under these settings. From that perspective we lost nothing, but maintained a very good measure. So that’s why we’re pretty satisfied with the outcome.”

However, in the midst of celebrations, SIDS did not forget the disappointment that they were unable to help one of their own: American Samoa, going through tough times.

“American Samoa is currently suffering quite significantly,” said Mr Crothers. “While many of the issues that the purse seine fleet and processing plant face in American Samoa can only be addressed by the US government, there may have been some small things that we could have done to level up the playing field.

“To be frank, it is not up to SIDS to fix the problems of one of the wealthiest countries in the world; however, I am of the view that if the US government could have sat down earlier with the PNA plus Tokelau, something could have been put in motion for American Samoa.

“I am reasonably confident that we may have been able to reach some compromises. It would not have solved all their problems, but it may have provided some help to American Samoa.”

Pacific SIDS are hopeful that 2022 will bring better fare for American Samoa. It may happen if the American government hold talks with Pacific SIDS or groups like the PNA plus Tokelau well ahead of WCPFC19 in December 2022.

Two men seriously talk at a desk labeled Tokelau with a microphone in front of them

Stan Crothers and Feleti Tulafono, Tokelau’s Director of Fisheries, were critical in getting the Bridging Tropical Tuna Measure over the line at the 2017 Tuna Commission meeting in the Philippines. Photo: Fatu Tauafiafi

 

* For the avoidance of doubt, where the term “SIDS” is used throughout the TTM, the term includes Participating Territories of WCPFC [American Samoa, Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands, French Polynesia, Guam, New Caledonia, Tokelau, Wallis and Futuna].

 

What the Pacific achieved at WCPFC18

Led by the FFA, Pacific countries and territories went to WCPFC18 with the five key priorities listed below.

“The fact that these are the issues identified for 2021 does not mean that there is no pressure on issues that have been identified in previous years and have not been sufficiently advanced (due to COVID-19 or not). Among these are the review of the regime of high seas transhipment and further coverage of electronic monitoring and electronic reporting initiatives,” noted FFA Director General, Dr Manu Tupou-Roosen.

PRIORITIES HEADING TO WCPFC18

  1. Tropical Tuna Measure: Support a cautious approach to changes to the current provisions in the Tropical Tuna Conservation and Management Measure (CMM) because, in addition to meeting its objectives, the current CMM already takes into account the best available scientific advice.
  2. South Pacific albacore: FFA members wish to convey our strong concerns in relation to the situation facing the South Pacific albacore stock. Call for immediate action by WCPFC18 to avoid further declines in the South Pacific albacore stock while work continues on a revised CMM for South Pacific albacore. Specifically, FFA members call for an immediate freeze in catch and effort for South Pacific albacore by CCM vessels operating on the high seas south of the equator.
  3. Compliance Monitoring Surveillance (CMS): Rather than investing further time in implementing the current measure, FFA members suggest the WCPFC focuses its collective efforts on progressing the critical suite of future work to ensure the CMS will achieve the purpose, goals and principles that the Commission committed to.
  4. Labour Standards: A conservation management measure id needed to make labour standards binding.
  5. Nomination of Officers: FFA Members have the honour to nominate Dr. Tuikolongahau Halafihi, Chief Executive Officer of the Ministry of Fisheries of the Kingdom of Tonga as the Chair of the Scientific Committee.

RESULT

They came away satisfied with fully achieving three priorities, upward movement in one and maintaining the status quo with the fifth. However, it is noted that the rating is highly subjective – as fully achieving four priorities but failing the TTM would have rendered the entire negotiations a total failure, regardless.

FULLY ACHIEVED: Priorities 1, 3 & 5

  1. Tropical Tuna Measure (10/10)

A new measure has been agreed by the Commission for the management of tropical tunas to replace the current Measure, that was rolled over from 2020. The new measure shall come into effect on 16 February 2022 and remain in effect until 15 February 2024 unless earlier replaced or amended by the Commission.

Among the key features:

  • The preamble now contains the following text: Recognizing the United Nations’ Climate Change Sustainable Development Goal to “take urgent action to combat climate change and its impacts”, and that climate change has particularly negative impacts on Small Island Developing States; and noting that Article 5 (c) of the Convention requires the application of the precautionary approach , and Article 5 (d) of the Convention requires the Commission to assess the impacts of fishing, other human activities and environmental factors on target stocks, non-target species, and species belonging to the same ecosystem or depend upon or associated with the target stocks;
  • Progress on (i) FAD entanglement measure that bans the use of mesh and (ii) mitigate pollution by investment into the use of biodegradable and non-plastic materials
  1. Nomination of Officers (10/10)
  • Tonga’s Tuikolongahau Halafihi elected to Chair the Scientific Committee
  • Australia’s Mr David Powers elected to co-Chair FAD
  1. Compliance Monitoring Scheme (10/10)
  • Secured two more years for current measure
  • Endorsement to finalise three work areas (audit points, risk-based assessment framework, and guidelines for observer participation in the CMS) ready for adoption at WCPFC19. Aim: In 2023, these WCPFC19 adopted work areas will then be used to assess Members’ compliance over the 2021 and 2022 periods in time for negotiating a new measure.

MINOR PROGRESS: Priority 2

  1. South Pacific Albacore (2/10)

Did not get a binding measure to freeze limits. Instead, the meeting “encourage members to manage voluntary limits”. Rating (2/10)

NO PROGRESS: Priority 4

  1. Labour standards (0/10)

The meeting “supported continuation of intersessional work led by Indonesia and NZ”. There was no progress, with the status quo maintained.

Although there was disappointment at the lack of progress in two priority issues, the negotiations did raise to the surface a number of unexpected gems, with the climate change inclusion into the TTM preamble the prime example. These are listed below with updates in other important WCPFC areas gleaned from the post-WCPFC18 media conference via Zoom with Dr Manu Tupou-Roosen and FFC Chair, and Deputy Secretary for Fiji’s Ministry of Fisheries, Mrs Atelaite Rokosuka.

 

Other Pacific gains

Swordfish

This is a priority delegated directly by Pacific Fisheries Ministers to FFA. There was general support from the WCPFC18 meeting to amend the current measure to ensure fishing mortality is contained across the swordfish fishery. [The Commission noted the work led by Australia to strengthen CMM 2009-03 on Southwest Pacific swordfish, and looked forward to consideration of a revised CMM for the stock in 2022.]

Electronic reporting (ER) and Electronic monitoring (EM)

This is a high priority for the FFA membership. The Technical and Compliance Committee (TCC) has been tasked in 2022 to continue the work, especially on the EM standards for consideration by WCPFC19 meeting December, 2022.

Transhipment

This is a priority for the Pacific membership. “We are to receive and review the co-chair’s report in 2022 to inform the review of the transshipment measure. So that work will continue and we will engage strongly in that intersessional working group to ensure that we can get a measure in place,” said Dr Tupou-Roosen.

Observer safety

This is a long-standing priority for the FFA membership. “There is a continuation of the suspensions for the three intersessional decisions that have been in place for quite some time now during the COVID period. The reason, for example, a suspension on observer coverage on purse seiners’ 100% requirement, is because of observer safety,” said Dr Tupou-Roosen.

Charter Notification

This measure has been extended for another three years. “This is an important measure to support the domestic development aspirations of the FFA membership,” said Dr Tupou-Roosen.

 

WCPFC18 AGREED CONSERVATION AND MANAGEMENT MEASURES

  1. Tropical Tuna Measure

A new measure has been agreed by the Commission for the management of tropical tunas to replace the current Measure, that was rolled over from 2020. The new measure shall come into effect on 16 February 2022 and remain in effect until 15 February 2024 unless earlier replaced or amended by the Commission.

Among the key features:

  • The preamble now contain the following text: Recognizing the United Nations’ Climate Change Sustainable Development Goal to “take urgent action to combat climate change and its impacts”, and that climate change has particularly negative impacts on Small Island Developing States; and noting that Article 5 (c) of the Convention requires the application of the precautionary approach , and Article 5 (d) of the Convention requires the Commission to assess the impacts of fishing, other human activities and environmental factors on target stocks, non-target species, and species belonging to the same ecosystem or depend upon or associated with the target stocks;
  • FAD measures designed to reduce bycatch (non-entangling FADs, banning of mesh nets) and pollution (use of non-plastic and biodegradable materials).
  1. Conservation and Management Measure for Pacific Bluefin Tuna
  2. Conservation and Management Measure on the Compliance Monitoring Scheme
  3. Conservation and Management Measure for Charter Notification Scheme

 

LOCATION FOR NEXT WCPFC ANNUAL MEETING

WCPFC19 would be held in Vietnam in December 2022, with dates to be confirmed by Vietnam in consultation with Secretariat.

In the event that physical meetings for 2022 are not feasible, the expedited decision-making procedure used in 2020 will also be used to facilitate each decision by the Commission to convene virtual meetings in 2021.