The real problems in the Pacific

Feature story - 23 October, 2006
During two months of joint surveillance with enforcement officials from two countries we've patrolled over 30,000 square miles of ocean. In that time we’ve inspected 8 suspicious fishing vessels, found a warehouse full of de-finned shark carcases and spent a night fishing on a Longliner . The situation in the Pacific is different to what we'd been expecting. The pirate fishing here is much more subtle than in West Africa. There are no rusting unlicensed vessels with demoralised crews fishing surreptitiously. Instead, each of the vessels we’ve inspected has been in good condition, the crew well fed and in good spirits. Nonetheless they are pirates, operating in a grey area between the legal loopholes and lax governance.

Dawn breaking over deck of a Korean longliner, the 'Shin Yung 51'. Yellow Fin and Big Eye tuna stocks are destined to be critically overfished within three years if the fishing of the two fish species continues unabated.

Effective fisheries management relies on up-to-date accurate estimatesof the size of the target fish population, knowledge of the fishesbiology, history of the fish stock and detailed knowledge of thetechnology that has been used to find the fish.  Only then can thescientists model the fish population accurately and have a chance ofestimating how many target fish can be caught.

Effective management and enforcement is key

In 2004 the first step in effective Pacific tuna fisheries managementwas taken with the establishment of the Tuna Commission (WCPFC).  Tunafish are highly migratory, and obviously do not restrict themselves tothe territorial waters of any one country.  The Tuna Commission isa step forward because they  manage the tuna as one fish stock eventhough it ranges over the territorial waters of  multiple countries and the HighSeas (the parts of the ocean that are not under the jurisdiction of anycountry).

Aschool girl stands in front of the Tuna Commission building in Pohnpeiwith tins of Skipjack - the only tuna we could find on the island.

Prior to the Tuna Commission most countries licensedtheir waters with no regard for the licensing arrangements of theirneighbours.  Many of the Pacific Island Countries were in factcompeting to provide distant fishing nations with the cheapest possiblelicensing agreements.  Good for the distant fishing nations, badfor sustainable fisheries management - and ultimately the PacificIsland Countries relying on the tuna fishery.

On a practical level it is impossible for the Tuna Commission to managethe fishery until it has accurate, timely data on the size and healthof each tuna species' population.   At the most basic level alllicences should be based on tonnage of fish caught - not time spent atsea, as was the case with the vessels we boarded.  Moreover,licences need to be strictly enforced.  We came across vesselswhose licences had lapsed - but these were renewed without penalty via aphone call.

The problem is compounded by the fact that the vessels' activities areonly partially regulated.  The Vessel Monitoring System (VMS) thatis required by all vessels fishing in the territorial waters of TunaCommission's member countries proved to be unreliable.  Allvessels had the system installed but it did not work consistently due toa number of loopholes.

Bait and switch

A second problem in the regulation of fishing surrounds thetransfer of fish to a larger factory vessel (reefer) - a process calledtranshipping.   When done in port or in a country's waters(EEZ) transhipping requires a licence for each transhipment and ismonitored. This enables the Commission to record how much fish has beencaught.  To avoid the licence costs and the costs incurred ingoing to port many vessels tranship on the high seas.  Currently,for Longliners, this is NOT illegal.

Fixing these governance and legal loopholes is not rocketscience.  All that's needed is agreement from all members of theTuna Commission and some money to set up and enforce the system.  

Thenear empty hold of the Korean Longliner 'Dong Won 117'.  The vessel hasbeen at sea for thirteen months without making any port calls, callinginto doubt the captains claims that the vessel has not made anytrans-shipments since it left its home port of Busan, Republic of Korea.

Transhipmentis further aided by lax regulations around refuelling andresupplying (bunkering) at sea.  Most Pacific Island Countriesallow vessels to bunker in their territorial waters and there is noregulation around bunkering on the high seas.  If bunkering at seais banned, vessels would need to go to port every month - making iteasier for authorities to monitor their catches. This would alsoprovide revenue for the host Pacific Island Country in terms of portfees and resupply contracts. Currently this revenue resides with thedistant fishing nations that supply the bunker vessels.

The costs of piracy and underpayment

Money would not be an issue if distant fishing nations recognised thatlicence fees need to reflect both the market value of the fish and thecost of protecting the fishery. When this is the case Pacific IslandCountries, most of which rely heavily on fishing licenses for revenue,can collectively demand fair license fees. At the moment the licencefees reflect neither the value of the fish nor the cost of protectingthe fishery. In the Pacific up to US$400 million worth of fish isstolen by pirate fishing each year, more than 4 times what the regionearns in licences.  This is much more a reflection on the low costof licences that the extent of pirate fishing in the region.

With these loopholes closed the reporting of all catch figures(including all transhipments) and estimates of the size of the tuna populationswill be greatly improved.  This would allow the Tuna Commission toset realistic catch quotas for the tuna stocks.  The quotas are likelyto be substantially lower than the free-for-all allowed by the currenttime based licensing system. However, if the Pacific tuna are to besaved from imminent commercial extinction then this step must be taken.

Next steps

In December Greenpeace will be taking the findings of this expeditionto the Tuna Commission's annual meeting.  We will be recommendingmeasures that ensure all catch figures are reported, that loopholes in the VMS are closed and that all transhipments and bunkering atsea be outlawed.

Listen to 'Pirates of  the Pacific' documentary - part 1 (5mins) >>

Listen to 'Pirates of  the Pacific' documentary - part 2 (5mins) >>

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