Nadi, Fiji 22 September 2015: “Work with us, and support the systems that we have developed — don’t undermine the fisheries management framework that we have developed, because we will ultimately win,” PNA CEO Dr. Transform Aqorau said in his keynote address to the 5th Pacific Tuna Forum 2015 in Fiji today. “We are here to stay.”

   The major fisheries policy address by Dr. Aqorau highlighted key issues in the tuna fishery in the central and western Pacific, including the evolution of PNA-driven management of the purse seine industry, strategic reviews of the Vessel Day Scheme (VDS) and how these are shaping improvements and changes in its management, and the rollout of a VDS for the longliners to bring management and control to this unsustainable aspect of the fishery. 

   “The PNA fishery is a multi-species, multi-fleet and multi-national fishery,” said Dr. Aqorau, who gave the keynote to the Tuna Forum being held September 22-23 at the Sofitel Resort, in Denarau, Nadi. “It comprises four tuna species in addition to several species of billfish and tuna-like species being fished by a large number of fishing nations, at least 12 nations, employing several different types of fishing gear the most important of which are purse seine, long line, pole and line complemented by various types of fish aggregating devices (FADs). The fishery is prosecuted over a very large area containing many national exclusive economic zones as well as high seas areas and the tuna harvested enters several processing and marketing lines in different countries.”

   Skipjack tuna remains in a healthy state and the challenge, said Dr. Aqorau, is to expand the opportunities in which the economic gains from the harvesting of these resources may be maximized.

   In reference to a New Zealand proposal for replacing PNA’s VDS with a New Zealand-style quota management system, which the Pacific Islands Forum summit in Papua New Guinea earlier this month agreed to examine with a review in 2016, Dr. Aqorau said PNA has already embarked on its own review based on recommendations from an independent review of the VDS that it commissioned in 2014. Among key findings of this independent review was that VDS fees actually collected by PNA nations — currently at a minimum benchmark of US$8,000 per fishing day — are significantly below what has been attainable. “This is borne out by the fact that benchmark VDS fees have increased drastically over the past few years while the operating conditions in the fishery have remained comparatively stable, and last year dipped significantly with no impact on fees,” Dr. Aqorau said, noting that revenue to the eight PNA nations has risen from $60 million in 2010 to an estimated $350 million this year.

   On the key issue of which management system is right for the PNA fishery, catch limits or harvest-based systems such as PNA’s VDS, Dr. Aqorau said the independent review of the VDS concluded that catch limits were superior as a management tool. The VDS suffers from the fundamental weakness that fishing effort is a multi-dimensional activity and fishers constrained by “effort limitation” have a strong incentive to expand those dimensions of fishing effort that are not limited, he said. 

   “In simple terms, if rents are too low, it leaves excess profits to build more over capacity, and logically increase the catch,” he said. “Harvest-based systems, where the volume by individual fishers is constrained, do not suffer from this weakness. The only serious question is whether a harvest-based system could be effectively enforced in the PNA multi-zone tuna fisheries, and whether issues of mis-declaration of catch and area, which plagued pre-VDS governance, can be addressed.” 

   He said the jury was still out because global experience shows that quota systems “work best where there are strong government regulatory institutions and laws, and single zones to manage” — which does not describe the complex PNA fishery.

   Despite uncertainty of how a quota system might work in the vast PNA fishery, the independent assessment of the VDS commissioned by PNA two years ago recommended initiating a study about the feasibility of transforming the current VDS to a system based on harvest restrictions. “This is currently being done, and indeed, was decided even before the Forum Leaders made this decision,” Dr. Aqorau said.

   The PNA CEO made the point that the application of limits through the Vessel Day Scheme has transformed the revenue picture for the eight member countries. “These benefits do not just flow through overnight,” he said. “It has taken 15 years to get to where we are now. There is no doubt that the VDS has been effective in increasing revenue to the PNA members, and will continue to be a valuable instrument to PNA members. To that extent, it is disappointing that in recent weeks those who have been most vociferous in advocating replacing the VDS with a scheme they themselves don’t apply to skipjack are not even Parties to the arrangement!” he said.

   The application of skipjack tuna limits through the VDS, ban on fishing in two high seas pockets, three-month closure for use of fish aggregation devices (FADs), 100 percent observer coverage and in-port transshipment have combined to bring the purse seine industry under effective control. This is demonstrated by the stable catches coming from PNA zones. Dr. Aqorau offered data to back this up, which shows that purse seine catch levels in PNA zones grew less than percent from 2010 (1.34 million tons) to 2014 (1.46 million tons). But, he said, it is on the high seas where the problem exists, an area that is outside of PNA’s management authority. Data provided by PNA shows that purse seine catch outside of PNA waters has risen 50 percent in five years, from 281,000 tons to 418,000.

   “There has to be better control overall, including in Indonesia and the Philippines, and the high seas, particularly the Eastern High Seas areas, which are open,” he said. 

   Dr. Aqorau described as “a paradox” the fact that “some outsiders to the PNA fisheries management systems are calling for us to move away from effort limits to catch limits when the catch limit schemes that do exist in the region are absolute failures in ensuring effective management of bigeye tuna.”

   This is why PNA has moved this year to establish the first-ever VDS for longliners to control the level of longline fishing in PNA waters and increase this fishery’s contribution to sustainable development in PNA nations. The current system of managing bigeye catch through flag state control is “fundamentally flawed and cannot be effective,” he said. Among key problems that must be changed is the structure of the tropical longline fishery based around distant water fishing nation fleets that transship catches on the high seas, an unsustainable process that cannot be effectively monitored or controlled, he said. Operations of high seas longliners are “concealed by the withholding of operational data, and a very low rate of observer coverage. As a result, there is continuous evidence that the distant water longline fleets transshipping in the high seas are engaged in illegal, unreported and unregulated fishing.”

   Dr. Aqorau said the way to fix this problem that threatens the long-term sustainability of bigeye tuna is “to phase out those fleets based in the high seas transshipping their catch, and replace them with fleets that land or transship their catch into ports. PNA members see the longline VDS as a critical instrument in reshaping the tropical longline fishery.”

   PNA’s vision is for a longline fishery “that is largely made up of national fleets landing into their domestic ports, and fleets based locally in PNA members’ EEZs landing their catch into PNA ports for processing and export,” he said. It will be possible to shift the VDS scheme for longliners to a catch limit system at some point in the future. But first, Dr. Aqorau said, the longline industry needs to be reformed and brought under control with effective monitoring of catches.

   “It is clear that economic outcomes and gains depend fundamentally on the structure of the fishery and the day-to-day controls that Pacific Island countries have over the fishery,” said Dr. Aqorau. “PNA Members have shown this to be the case with the reform of the purse seine fishery by the application of hard limits through the Vessel Day Scheme. These reforms and new structures are an evolutionary process that take time to construct, and patience to build, while ensuring that the custodians of this resource are not bystanders but participants in the fishery.”