Today Nauru became the third Pacific Island State to stand up for conservation and ban transshipping in its waters.  That’s a big stand for the smallest state in the South Pacific, especially in the face of significant pressure from the many foreign fishing fleets sniffing around and competing for fish.  

It’s definitely worth celebrating. 

In you and me speak, transshipping is when tonnes of frozen fish are transferred between boats – usually from a longliner to a big refrigerated mothership, which then takes the fish away for processing, so the longliner can keep on fishing. 

It can be convenient, but it’s also an easy way to take the transparency out of tuna fishing and allow companies to get around the law.  

Sometimes the motherships also provide the longliners with fuel and food. This enables boats to loiter on the high seas - out of sight of land and law, where they’re free to plunder the ocean, take illegal catch, and keep crew isolated and vulnerable to abuse – sometimes for years at a time.      

The mothership is effectively a laundry service for ‘cleaning’ illegal fish.  Tuna from any number of boats may be combined in the one freezer.  And then who’s to know where each fish came from, or who or what was harmed in the process? It makes knowing who caught your tuna, where, and how, almost impossible.

Nauru’s announcement follows the Rainbow Warrior’s bust of the illegal longliner Shuen De Ching No.888 last week in the high seas that border its waters.  And it’s this bust that Nauru’s Government credits with prompting the ban.  

As well as the illegal shark fins and logbook discrepancies found on the Sheun De Ching, the team on the Rainbow Warrior also suspect that the Taiwanese flagged boat had engaged in illegal transshipping.  Contradictory statements from the captain, coupled with logbooks and holds that were far too empty for the time the boat had been at sea, indicated something was seriously amiss. 

The high seas of the Pacific are loopholes for pirate fishing boats.  In yesterday’s Guardian article on the transshipment ban,  the Nauru Fisheries and Marine Resources Authority (NFMRA) is quoted as saying that it regularly observed “longliners in the high seas acting suspiciously and intruding on our borders”.

“These seas act like a safe haven for pirate boats, and transhipment allows them to stay at sea even longer, and launder fish out of the area,” the NFMRA said.

Greenpeace oceans campaigner Lagi Toribau, on board the Rainbow Warrior, recalls a similar case Greenpeace exposed in 2009 near Micronesia:

“Because the country had a ban on transshipping of foreign vessels in its waters, a Taiwanese longliner with a license to fish there simply slipped over the border into the high seas to transfer the catch to another vessel, before returning to continue its plunder,” Lagi tells us.

“Although more than 70% of the world’s tuna comes from the Pacific, only 20% of that is actually caught by Pacific Island fleets. Industrial fishing has a huge impact on the Pacific Island countries that have relied on tuna for generations.”

Pacific tuna stocks are declining at a rapid rate. In Fiji, local fishing vessels are mothballed and workers have been laid off. Local fisheries in Samoa, Tonga and other Pacific Island nations are also suffering. For many Pacific Island countries, Tuna means jobs, and transshipping means those countries miss out on both.

Nauru’s announcement brings it in line with the Marshall Islands and Tuvalau, which also have a blanket ban on transshipping in their Exclusive Economic Zones.

And although several Pacific Island States, including PNG, Micronesia, Vanuatu and Samoa have banned the practice for foreign fishing vessels, they exempt foreign boats with a local connection, for example those that have an office on the island or land a percentage of catch locally.  In other words, it’s probably quite easy to establish a connection if you’re a big industrial fishing company motivated to fish in that area.

Other States, including New Zealand and Tokelau, prohibit the practice “with exceptions”, while Fiji, the Solomon Islands, Kiribati and the Cook Islands allow the practice with government authorisation.

As the Pacific Tuna Commission must adopt rules for the high seas that are compatible with those put in place by Pacific Island countries, domestic bans by coastal States are incredibly important. This means the more countries that declare transshipping bans in their waters, the stronger the impetus to close the high seas to the practice.

Lagi calls today’s announcement by Nauru a “shining example” of the action that needs to be taken urgently to protect our Pacific Islands.

That’s why we’re calling for other Pacific Islands to follow Nauru’s lead, and push for a complete ban on transshipping at sea, including on the high seas.

According to Lagi, “If fishing vessels had to go to land to transfer their catch it would solve many of the problems out here in the Pacific. “Not only would it make it easier to properly account for and manage these catches, but it would also boost the economy of the Pacific Island countries where the catches come from. If the fishing industry is above board, they should have no problem with this solution. We need to put a stop to hiding dirty fishing practices out at sea.”