The tuna fisheries in the western and central Pacific Ocean are the largest and most valuable in the world. The region is the source of 55 percent of global tuna catch, with an annual value of more than $5 billion to fishermen in the region and over $22 billion at the final point of sale. The Western and Central Pacific Fisheries Commission (WCPFC) is the regional fisheries management organization (RFMO) responsible for managing these vast ocean waters. It is charged with ensuring the sustainability of the highly migratory fish stocks, including tunas and sharks, in the area, but faces significant management challenges due in part to the high volume of fishing vessels, transshipment (transfer of catch between fishing and carrier vessels) and port activities in the region.
At WCPFC’s 5-11 December meeting in Port Moresby, Papua New Guinea, members must improve control over these fisheries to protect their value by strengthening oversight of fishing vessels—at sea and in port—and modernizing management for long-term sustainability.
Increase transparency to prevent illegal fishing
Illegal, unreported and unregulated (IUU) fishing is a major threat to the sustainability and profitability of the world’s fisheries. WCPFC member States boast some of the busiest ports in the world and need stronger controls in port and at sea to account for all catch and deter illegally caught fish from making its way to market. A recent study estimated that IUU catch in the region was worth $616 million annually, with most of it misreported or unreported by licensed vessels.
To increase information-sharing and monitoring and transparency of their fisheries, WCPFC members should:
- Strengthen port controls to provide States greater control over foreign fishing vessels in their waters, which would help deter IUU fishing. To accomplish this, the Commission should amend its rules—which are voluntary—to give States more information about foreign vessels before those ships are granted port entry and to facilitate the sharing of information about vessels that are refused access.
- Increase observer coverage rather than relying on self-reporting. Independent sources of information help verify that fishing vessels are complying with rules and provide data to improve fisheries science. WCPFC’s current requirement to achieve just a 5 percent level of observer coverage is insufficient to manage a multimillion-dollar fishery. Instead, the Commission should require 100 percent observer coverage on longline vessels—the same requirement already applied to its purse seine fleet. Members should also commit to developing the standards and infrastructure for a Commission-wide electronic monitoring system that would help attain that 100 percent observer coverage.
- Improve monitoring of transshipment to help ensure that transfers that happen far out at sea, beyond sight of authorities, still comply with the rules. Transshipment is a key step in the seafood supply chain, but a 2019 Pew study found there is a strong likelihood that more transshipments occurred in 2016 than were reported to the Commission, and a Pew/Global Fishing Watch study found that same thing likely happened in 2017. WCPFC management and reporting rules are insufficient to detect all transshipments and may contribute to the annual transfer of an estimated $142 million worth of IUU catch in the region. WCPFC should strengthen monitoring requirements, mandate that reports from observers on carrier vessels be sent to the Commission’s secretariat and the carrier vessel’s flag State, and develop data-sharing arrangements on transshipment activities with other RFMOs.
Modernize fisheries management
Sound fisheries control also requires clear rules regarding how much fish can be caught and with what gear, so that fishing levels do not become unsustainable. To achieve that, WCPFC should:
- Advance harvest strategies, precautionary sets of science-based rules designed to meet management objectives set by fisheries managers, such as maintaining stocks at healthy levels over the long term with a high degree of certainty. Well-designed harvest strategies—tested via computer simulation and agreed to in advance—provide managers with greater control over the fisheries by creating more predictable and stable outcomes. WCPFC should create a harvest strategy working group to foster dialogue among scientists, managers and stakeholders and to make recommendations to the Commission. WCPFC must also continue advancing its harvest strategy workplan, including by setting target reference points for bigeye and yellowfin tunas at current levels, which would help avoid stock declines.
- Protect sharks, mantas and mobula rays to protect biodiversity in the ecosystem, which in turn helps these tuna fisheries. The population of oceanic whitetip sharks in WCPFC waters is down to just 4 percent of its pre-fishing size, and the Commission’s Scientific Committee has recommended urgent efforts to reduce catches of the species and improve handling and release after catch. As one option, a 2015 study found banning the use of shark lines and wire leaders in longline fishing operations would reduce catch. Members should also prohibit retention of manta and mobula rays and require safe handling of these species, which are globally threatened by fishing and at risk of extinction.
At the Port Moresby meeting, WCPFC members will have many opportunities to improve control over—and management of—its valuable fisheries. If States can improve the monitoring and verification of fishing operations, take steps to develop precautionary, science-based limits on catches and institute protections for bycaught species, WCPFC can become a global leader in sustainable management.
Jamie Gibbon is a manager with The Pew Charitable Trusts’ international fisheries team.