Editor’s Note: This blog was updated on March 8, 2023, to accurately reflect the meeting dates.
The North Pacific Fisheries Commission (NPFC), one of the world’s newest regional fishery management organizations (RFMOs), is tasked with the long-term conservation and sustainable use of fisheries resources of the North Pacific Ocean. Among NPFC’s immediate priorities should be improving management of transshipment—the transfer of fish or other marine wildlife between a fishing vessel and a carrier vessel at sea or in port.
Transshipment is an important part of the global seafood supply chain but when poorly managed creates opportunities for bad actors to move illegally caught fish to market. Illegal, unreported, and unregulated (IUU) fishing, which accounts for up to US$23 billion worth of seafood annually, carries a host of negative consequences, including for law-abiding fishers, coastal communities, fisheries managers, market stakeholders, and ocean biodiversity.
Approximately 85% of fish harvested in NPFC’s waters is transshipped and the commission is far behind other RFMOs in monitoring transshipments. This is in part because NPFC has not updated the interim management measure since it was first adopted, shortly after NPFC’s inception in 2016; the commission had intended to take action on the measure at its 2022 annual meeting but that meeting was cancelled.
Now the commission has a chance to fix this. When NPFC meets in Sapporo, Japan, March 22-24 its members should strengthen transshipment management in line with other RFMOs—specifically the Inter-American Tropical Tuna Commission (IATTC), International Commission for the Conservation of Atlantic Tunas (ICCAT), and Indian Ocean Tuna Commission (IOTC).
Doing this would also help NPFC members meet the commitments they made to the Food and Agricultural Organization of the United Nation’s Committee on Fisheries newly endorsed transshipment guidelines, which provide the commission a blueprint for safeguarding the North Pacific.
Stronger regulations would improve fisheries management
NPFC’s current interim transshipment measure was adopted more than six years ago and applies only to fish caught by its bottom fisheries—those that operate on, or very close to, the sea bottom. However, many of the culturally, economically, and ecologically important pelagic species within NPFC’s jurisdiction, such as Pacific saury and neon flying squid, are also transshipped.
The existing measure does not provide mechanisms for authorities to verify reported data on transshipment of these species, which in turn limits those authorities’ ability to monitor and control the transshipment. Further, NPFC lacks a regional observer program—an essential management tool that many other RFMOs use to ensure independent onboard monitoring of fishing activities.
Recognizing these deficiencies, NPFC members agreed in 2019 to develop a proposal to reform transshipment management and close several loopholes in the policy. To ensure adequate oversight, NPFC members should update the existing measure to improve vessel authorization processes, verify carrier vessel activities, increase observer coverage onboard all vessels involved in transshipping, and require real-time submission of data—ideally immediately after a transfer of catch occurs.
Data sharing can improve understanding of transshipment of non-NPFC managed species
In addition to adopting a new transshipment measure, members and the NPFC Secretariat should create a data-sharing agreement with the Western and Central Pacific Fisheries Commission (WCPFC), given the millions of square kilometers of overlapping management areas of these two RFMOs. In recent years, satellite data has shown high levels of carrier vessel activity in the WCPFC/NPFC overlap area, raising concerns that unreported or misreported transshipments could be occurring in this area. The lack of transshipment notification requirements for authorized carrier vessels in these dually managed waters, coupled with the lack of an information-sharing agreement between the WCPFC and the NPFC, limits both RFMOs’ understanding of carrier vessels’ activities in this region. These discrepancies potentially allow vessels registered to both RFMOs to transship without abiding to either’s rules for reporting. These overlap areas can also have multiple management regimes in place for the same waters, providing avenues for misreporting to one or both RFMOs. Given their large overlap, WCPFC and NPFC should collaborate and harmonize on management of these shared waters, including through increased monitoring, reporting, and data sharing of key transshipment activities.
Implementing a data-sharing memorandum of understanding (MoU) between these organizations would significantly increase transshipment oversight in these overlap areas by establishing an active and regular exchange of transshipment-related data. An MoU could also allow for the development of joint monitoring, control, and surveillance activities to ensure compliance with transshipment regulations and facilitate processes to promote compatibility of transshipment measures.
Members must seize opportunity to improve oversight
The flag States operating in the NPFC have experience with independently run transshipment observer programs, through their membership at other RFMOs or participation in existing regional programs. This provides a valuable precedent for the development and implementation of such a program for the NPFC.
At the NPFC’s annual meeting in Japan, it is up to all its members to adopt a new, more robust transshipment measure, and to enhance its effectiveness with a data sharing agreement with WCPFC. These actions are critical to improving fisheries governance in the region and would address critical gaps in monitoring and management to help ensure NPFC does not fall out of step with other managers and fisheries.
Raiana McKinney is a senior associate with The Pew Charitable Trusts’ international fisheries project.