Proposal Would Weaken Oversight of $13 Billion Pacific Fishery

Managers should work towards science-based, modernized rules for tuna stocks

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Proposal Would Weaken Oversight of $13 Billion Pacific Fishery
A large blue-and-white vessel, with some visible rust and other signs of wear, sits in a dark blue ocean at a port dock, set against a bright blue sky with fluffy white clouds. The vessel has many booms for nets and has a yellow raft attached to the side
A purse seine fishing vessel sits at dock in Pohnpei, Micronesia. A new proposal for the Western and Central Pacific Fisheries Commission would weaken oversight of the purse seine fishery in the region.
The Pew Charitable Trusts

When the Western and Central Pacific Fisheries Commission (WCPFC) meets 4 to 8 December in the Cook Islands to set its rules for the 2024 fishing year, managers will have a stark choice: Weaken the Commission’s oversight of a large percentage of the vessels that fish its waters, or increase independent monitoring and continue a shift towards science-based, precautionary ways to manage fisheries worth billions of dollars each year.

New proposal would lower oversight for one vessel type instead of working to improve it for all

The WCPFC’s compliance monitoring scheme (CMS) plays a key role in helping the Commission meet its mandate to ensure that countries are following the rules. To do that, the CMS requires the Commission's Technical and Compliance Committee to annually review members’ activities. But the effectiveness of the CMS is being threatened this year by changes proposed by several WCPFC member countries.

For example, WCPFC requires that purse seine vessels, which use large nets to scoop up schools of fish—and which catch most of the tuna in the region—have observers on-board every ship (that is, 100 per cent observer coverage). At the same time, longline vessels are required to have only 5 per cent observer coverage. Due to this imbalance, the Parties to the Nauru Agreement (PNA)—the eight countries and territory of Tokelau that contain some of the world’s most productive tuna fishing grounds—have put forth a proposal that would significantly reduce the Commission’s ability to get a full picture of potential rule violations by the purse seine fleet.

This would move WCPFC in the wrong direction by weakening oversight of purse seiners instead of raising it for longliners. If WCPFC adopts the PNA proposal, the compliance committee could miss signs of systemic or serious problems, which could further encourage bad actors. Instead of weakening the CMS, WCPFC should actively work towards strengthening it for all vessels. By embracing technology—specifically, electronic monitoring systems that could help longline vessels match the 100 per cent coverage that the purse seiners already meet—the commission would ensure that all members comply with their obligations, without lowering the bar on those obligations.

The commission renews its CMS every year or two, which means that some member countries perennially see it as a temporary scheme. To fulfill its mandate, WCPFC should agree to make the CMS permanent.

The CMS does not call for action when violations are detected, and that, too, should change. Instead, the CMS should include previously agreed-upon actions when non-compliance is detected and allow for participation in the compliance review process by Commission observers, including non-governmental and other civil society organizations. These actions would show that compliance is a lasting, critical priority for the Commission and its members.

Implementing binding management procedures would be major achievement for the region

In addition, WCPFC has other major work to do, including implementing a binding agreement on its management procedure (MP) for skipjack tuna and the adoption of a similar plan for North Pacific albacore tuna. A management procedure, also known as a harvest strategy, is a way of managing fish stocks that has proven more predictable and effective than traditional methods. And because management procedures include previously agreed-upon rules for how much fishing can take place to keep a population at a healthy level, they are also more efficient than other approaches.

Last year, WCPFC adopted an MP for skipjack tuna, a stock worth nearly $10 billion a year. But that MP failed to include any binding language, and although it serves as a good framework for managing the fishery, members can choose whether their vessels will comply with it. Without adequate implementation, it could end up being ineffective. Members should fully implement the skipjack MP this year as part of the tropical tuna measure renegotiation.

North Pacific albacore is big business in North American markets, sold mostly in cans. The Inter-American Tropical Tuna Commission, which manages the stock in the eastern Pacific, has already approved a management procedure for North Pacific albacore, and the WCPFC Northern Committee has also recommended that the WCPFC adopt a similar measure for this population. Now, the Commission should adopt this plan and create the first Pacific-wide harvest strategy—which would be a major milestone for how fisheries are managed.

This year, WCPFC members can either show their commitment to robust monitoring and enforcement—which would include improving some rules based on science—or take a step backwards. Over the decades, WCPFC and its vast waters have benefited from steadily improving management, a trajectory that has helped sustain and grow these billion-dollar fisheries. To ensure continued sustainability, it is critical that WCPFC continues to lead the way with robust rules—and oversight of them.

Glen Holmes is a senior officer with The Pew Charitable Trusts’ international fisheries project and Dave Gershman is an officer with The Ocean Foundation’s international fisheries conservation project.

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