The COVID-19 pandemic has complicated fisheries management around the world, including in the roughly 20% of the ocean managed by the Western and Central Pacific Fisheries Commission (WCPFC). Meetings of the Commission that are normally held in person have been moved online, making it difficult for negotiators to connect. And independent fishery observers have been temporarily removed from vessels due to concerns over health risks.
Still, fishing for valuable tuna species continues, and the supply chain effects of the pandemic have underscored the importance of maintaining healthy and resilient fisheries that are equipped to handle unexpected shocks to the management system. When the WCPFC meets virtually for its annual meeting Dec. 9-15, its focus should be on advancing and adopting measures to ensure that the fisheries are sustainably managed—per the best available science—and that rules are enforced, even in difficult times.
In 2014, the WCPFC committed to transition its management approach from short-term quotas to a long-term methodology called harvest strategies. This science-based, precautionary approach is designed to meet a set of agreed objectives for management of a fishery, such as preventing overfishing, by automating catch limits that have the best chance of meeting those objectives. That transition is not yet complete, so this year the WCPFC should focus on taking the important next steps to develop harvest strategies while ensuring that healthy stocks don’t deteriorate and that unhealthy stocks are at least put on the path to recovery. Those steps should include:
The WCPFC should also use this meeting to improve oversight of transshipment, the practice of moving catch from a fishing vessel to a carrier vessel that brings fish to port. Transshipment often occurs far out at sea, away from the eyes of authorities, and offers an opportunity for illegal, unregulated, and unreported (IUU) fishing and other violations to occur. The number of annual at-sea transshipments reported within WCPFC waters increased by 166%—from 554 transfers to 1,472—from 2014 to 2019.
Although transshipment has become a key step in the seafood supply chain, a 2019 Pew study and a separate Pew and Global Fishing Watch study the same year highlighted that the WCPFC’s management and reporting rules are insufficient for detecting and monitoring all transshipments and may, in fact, contribute to the annual transfer of an estimated $142 million worth of IUU catch in the region. Compounding this issue is poor observer coverage of the longline fleet, which accounts for most of the vessels that transship at sea; and, as noted above, that coverage has slipped further because of COVID-19 restrictions. This year, the WCPFC can close loopholes that allow IUU activity and improve oversight of transshipment by:
Despite the challenges of a global pandemic and a virtual annual meeting, the WCPFC has many opportunities to achieve progress this year. Commission members must remain committed to coordination and compromise, and support the development of solutions that will enable more effective management and stronger oversight in the coming years.
Glen Holmes works on The Pew Charitable Trusts’ international fisheries project.