Battle for Pacific tuna

The crew of a purse seiner unload skipjack tuna for transshipment to a carrier vessel in Majuro’s lagoon. Photo: Giff Johnson.
The crew of a purse seiner unload skipjack tuna for transshipment to a carrier vessel in Majuro’s lagoon. Photo: Giff Johnson.

The visit to Majuro this week by a New Zealand team reviewing commercial tuna management schemes highlights a growing debate between the eight PNA members and distant water fishing nations. The conflict centers on whether “catch limits” are better than “effort limits,” which is what PNA uses to manage the skipjack tuna fishery. Effort limits restrict the number of days that can be fished, while catch limits put a limit on tonnage that can be caught.
The Parties to the Nauru Agreement (PNA) has effectively used “effort limits” to manage the skipjack tuna fishery, skyrocketing revenue for the eight member nations, including RMI.
“Revenue from our purse seine fishery has increased five-fold, required 100 percent observer coverage on vessels, has a high-level of data collection, and requires in-port transshipment,” said PNA Commercial Manager Maurice Brownjohn speaking about the effort limit that is enforced through PNA’s “vessel day scheme.” In contrast, the longline industry that operates under catch limits has seen revenue remain flat for 15 years, has only five percent observer coverage, very low reporting of tuna catch data, and high seas transshipment that limits availability of catch data, he said.
New Zealand put the proposal for switching to catch limits to the recent Pacific Forum leaders summit, which endorsed a joint task force of the Forum Secretariat, Forum Fisheries Agency and PNA to look at how to increase sustainable economic returns from the fishery. The task force is also looking at New Zealand’s quota system for the southern Pacific fishery as an option. New Zealand aid and fisheries officials are touring the Pacific islands to collect information for the review. New Zealand has offered $30 million for fisheries reform in the Pacific.
PNA’s CEO Dr. Transform Aqorau told the Journal this week that PNA is way ahead of the curve on this issue, having conducted an independent review of the VDS two years ago that addressed comparisons of catch versus effort limits. He also pointed out that PNA has initiated an official dialogue through a regional discussion paper and is hiring independent consultants to further develop pros and cons of using these two systems.
“The heart of the issue is maximizing sustainable benefits,” said Aqorau. “We’ve shown how to do it with the VDS.”
Brownjohn’s concern about catch limits is specific to the PNA fishery, which is a multi-zone, multi-species fishery in which numerous countries fish. “Consider  applying quota to the purse seine fishery of the PNA nations,” he said. “Boats hold licenses to multiple zones and will fish multiple zones on a single trip. Under a quota regime each zone may have different values, for different species, each catch would need to be allocated to each zone. But it is not practical to separate in multiple holds, and by species, therefore it’s impractical to track zonal catch. PNA nations foregoing sovereignty and managing as a common zone won’t happen. So the mis-declarations of species make up and catch per zone and free fishing in high seas are incentivized. Clearly compliance and enforcement capacity would need significant bolstering to counter the compliance issues created, and based on other fisheries it may be a marginal success at best — but at what cost to the countries?”
Meantime, the quota versus effort debate continues as the New Zealand team begins its rounds through the Pacific to collect information. The Forum Leaders asked for a report on the issue to be submitted in time for the 2016 leaders summit to be held in Pohnpei.

Read more about this in the November 13, 2015 edition of the Marshall Islands Journal