The effective management of the fish stocks in the Pacific is important for the food security, healthy ocean ecosystems and livelihood security for those regional states. In many ways, sustainable fisheries help to underpin regional political stability.
This week the annual meeting of the Western and Central Pacific Fisheries Commission opened in Cairns, where there’s likely to be some disputes between the island countries and distant water fishing interests. The WCPFC has 25 members, including the European Union as a group, and operates by consensus.
Several Pacific island countries have EEZs of over a million square kilometres. The economic potential of the maritime zones of these developing countries is mostly unrealised. A notable exception, however, is the importance of coastal and oceanic fisheries, especially for tunas: they play a significant role in development opportunities and foreign earnings, as well as providing food for local communities, jobs and a safety net for people living in the region.
In 2012, the Western Central Pacific tuna fishery produced its highest catch on record, 2.65 million tonnes of tuna, which is around 60% of the total world’s tuna catch. The estimated landed value of the total Western and Central Pacific tuna catch last year was around US$7 billion. The landed value of the tuna catch from Pacific EEZs is estimated at around US$ 4 billion. The returns to Pacific Island Forum countries from access arrangements and other investments is estimated at around $300 million, or around 8% of the gross value of the Pacific fishery.
But with overcapacity and overfishing having taken their toll in many fisheries, more fishing boats are heading to the Indian and Pacific Oceans. There are also growing concerns that rapid population growth projected in several islands will outstrip the capacity of coastal fisheries to supply fish for food. Seafood is being replaced in Pacific diets by nutritionally poor imported foods, contributing to the rising prevalence of obesity and related diseases.
As Pacific island countries aim to grow their economies, and to feed their people, many want to compete with distant-water fishing nations harvesting and exporting their tuna stocks in their coastal and oceanic fisheries. With more vessels under construction all chasing the same stocks, catches rely on smaller fish sizes to feed growing needs.
A key fishing issue is that China has the biggest distant-water fleet in the world. It has rapidly expanded its western and central Pacific tropical longline fleet to be the largest. They’re focused on albacore, but it’s only a matter of time before they move to other tuna species. Yet China also faces challenges in keeping accurate logbooks and observer data (PDF), properly identifying bycatch, and attributing catch to the correct country of origin.
The Executive Director of the WCPFC, Glenn Hurry, warned Forum island leaders in September this year that the record Pacific catch was taken with an increased number of vessels, fishing harder than they’ve ever fished before, with better technology than seen in previous years. Hurry said that catches of three of the region’s tuna species (skipjack, yellowfin and albacore) remain sustainable, but bigeye tuna is subject to overfishing and requires a reduction in catch of around 30% from current levels.
Hurry pointed out that that are 23 large purse seiners (vessels over 70 metres) and 22 medium purse seiners (over 50 metres) under construction in Asian shipyards, and that over half of these vessels will begin to enter the Pacific fishery from 2014. He argues that this will mean capping and reducing the number of vessels in the fishery, as well as taking hard decisions for the management of the region’s tuna stocks.
As one commentator put it, a lack of action by the WCPFC in Cairns this week ‘will undermine its role as a credible regional fisheries management organization, particularly if island nations see they cannot get collaborative action from distant water fishing nations to support sustainability of the resource’.
Australia’s participating in this week’s WCPFC Cairns meeting. We need to be thinking more strategically about how and where fisheries fit in terms of our long term Pacific islands regional policy: it’s not just about fish.
Anthony Bergin is deputy director of ASPI and co-author of Our Near Abroad: Australia and Pacific Islands Regionalism (ASPI) and Japan’s tuna fishing industry: a setting sun or new dawn?. Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.