Commercial tuna fisheries contribute more than $40 billion to the global economy annually and hold such enormous cultural and ecological significance that the United Nations has designated May 2 as World Tuna Day. Sustainable, well-managed tuna fisheries— with transparent and accurate assessments of catch, fishing effort, and compliance—can help preserve and build on the enormous value the fish generate globally.
Unfortunately, the past 14 months have been a difficult time for gathering fisheries data because, to stem the spread of coronavirus, many regional fisheries management organizations (RFMOs) suspended requirements that observers be on board fishing and carrier vessels. This necessary health and safety choice has led to a significant reduction in the independent catch information that fishery managers need to ensure sustainable fishing, safeguard vulnerable wildlife, and preserve marine ecosystems.
This interview with Helena Delgado Nordmann, the responsible sourcing manager for the U.K.-based global supermarket chain Tesco; Bubba Cook, the New Zealand-based Western and Central Pacific Tuna Programme Manager at the World Wildlife Fund; and Dr. Lara Manarangi-Trott, the Micronesia-based compliance manager for the Western and Central Pacific Fisheries Commission, has been edited for clarity and length.
Q: How has a year with reduced independent data affected your work—and tuna fisheries writ large?
Manarangi-Trott: COVID-19 has significantly affected routine monitoring of fishing activities. In early April of last year, the Western and Central Pacific Fisheries Commission suspended a requirement that all purse seine vessels carry observers. Then, in May, the commission suspended the requirement to observe transshipments—which is the transferring of fish from one ship to another while out at sea—by having an observer on board either the carrier vessel or the fishing vessel.
Meanwhile, on land, ongoing border restrictions have meant reduced opportunities for in-port vessel inspections.
Delgado Nordmann: This reduced observer coverage has been a step backward for the industry, because the traceability, transparency, and useful data that observers collect is essential for fisheries science and management—and to ensure that our policies and governmental legislation are being followed.
Q: Can you say a little more about the importance of these observers?
Manarangi-Trott: It isn’t practical, particularly in the case of highly migratory fish stocks like tunas, to count every fish in the ocean. Instead, scientists use data collected by countries and observers as a proxy for determining the size and health of regional fish stocks, which becomes the basis for their advice and recommendations to fisheries managers. Observers are the Commission’s eyes and ears on the water. As a result of their work, there are now few major gaps in fishery data sets—and we have a more complete picture of what’s happening on the water.
Cook: When fisheries observers aren’t present, we aren’t getting a complete picture of what’s actually happening out on the water. And the longer those observers are kept from their duties, the more uncertain the information about the fisheries becomes—and the less reliable management actions become.
Q: What tools would be helpful to improving observer coverage during a pandemic?
Delgado Nordmann: Modern technologies such as electronic monitoring (EM) have helped reduce human contact on the vessels and could be used to further improve observer coverage during the pandemic.
Cook: The most obvious solution, in the absence of fisheries observers, would be to further develop and implement EM to collect critical data that might otherwise be lost. In the meantime, regional authorities are taking steps to develop policies for redeploying observers at the earliest opportunity to do so safely, as the vaccination rate increases and we get closer to herd immunity. These policies could be adapted to use during future pandemics.
Manarangi-Trott: Since the unprecedented disruptions caused by the global pandemic, there has been greater interest in and consideration of the potential that technologies such as EM can provide to supporting routine monitoring of fishing activities under the mandate of the Commission.
Q: Is electronic monitoring ready for prime time?
Cook: Like many other technologies, electronic monitoring has advanced dramatically in the last few years, and many of the previous objections—that it was expensive, had limited storage capacity, and demanding power requirements—have fallen away. Now EM is more capable, more powerful, more reliable, more compact, and less expensive than ever. It’s been proven across multiple fisheries in different capacities, and while once it was viewed as an expensive novelty only suitable for discrete applications in relatively high-margin fisheries, it’s now increasingly viewed as a viable complement or supplement to human observer coverage across almost any fishery.
Manarangi-Trott: For the last five years, the Commission has been considering the application of electronic reporting (ER) and EM technologies for fisheries monitoring. A key risk has been a lack of documented policies and standards for these technologies. The commission’s Electronic Reporting and Electronic Monitoring Working Group has made good progress on the adoption of ER standards for logbooks, observer data, and high seas transshipment notification and declarations. More recently, the working group’s focus is developing EM standards.
Q: What about improving observer coverage post-pandemic?
Cook: Whether they’re using human observers or electronic monitoring, the RFMOs must acknowledge that increased observer coverage is not a new cost; rather, it’s a cost that the industry should have been paying all along and has gotten a free ride on for decades now. With the current precarious status of many fish stocks globally, RFMOs must absolutely prioritize the rapid expansion of observer coverage, whether human or electronic, across all fisheries. The RFMOs need to meet the commitments that they've made, in some cases more than a decade ago, to establish appropriate observer coverage—at a level consistent with meeting the objectives for a fishery’s management. As it is, the longline tuna fishery in the western and central Pacific is only required to be 5% observed, which isn’t even statistically significant for stock assessment purposes and falls well short of providing the necessary independent data to properly manage the fishery. In some cases, nothing short of 100% coverage will be appropriate.
Delgado Nordmann: One hundred percent observer coverage should be mandatory for all industrial fleets overseen by all regional fisheries management organizations and across all exclusive economic zones.
Q: Are you optimistic?
Delgado Nordmann: The pandemic has opened the opportunity to bring attention to the imperative need to improve observer safety aboard fishing vessels. Tesco’s new tuna sourcing approach will map out our supply chain to understand the overall observer coverage and where we need to focus our efforts.
Cook: Thanks to the increasing application and expansion of electronic monitoring, complemented by artificial intelligence and machine learning, we stand poised on the precipice of a new era in fisheries management—one based on full accountability, and on more timely and accurate data than has ever been available for fisheries management.