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Friday, July 14, 2017

Rebuilding Fisheries in the Pacific Islands Region

At this seminar you have heard from FAO and IUCN about fisheries rebuilding in general. Now I would like to focus your attention on the western tropical Pacific – the Pacific Islands Region.

The Pacific Islands Forum Fisheries Agency focuses on tuna fisheries, so that is what I will concentrate on here.

But I will also talk a little about the prospects for rebuilding one of the more commercial coastal fisheries of the region

For us, tuna fisheries are not just about food security but about economic survival.

In the 6 countries and territories you see highlighted on the slide here, tuna fishing accounts for more than 40% of total government revenue. through taxes and resource rents

This means that the tuna fishing grounds within their EEZs are paying for their roads and their schools and all the other infrastructure that improves their basic quality of life. Things that would otherwise only be available through foreign aid, or through a fully-developed cash economy.

There are few other employment and development opportunities on these particular small islands, and the ocean is their greatest resource.

So keeping these fisheries healthy and productive is of utmost importance to us.

The main point I want to draw from this slide is that the revenue that these countries make from tuna fisheries in their waters, COMBINED, is far less than the turnover of a single big tuna company.

So when PSIDS come to international meetings on the UN Fish Stocks Agreement, and RFMO negotiations on the management of regional tuna stocks, we sometimes get a little distressed when the countries that own these industries block our proposals for more conservative and precautionary management measures. The health and productivity of these stocks is far more significant to us than it is to them.

The previous slide was about economic context and the reason why we want to maintain or rebuild our tuna stocks.

This slide is about where we want to rebuild them to.

I won’t go into the scientific details – suffice to say that tuna managers would recognise this as a modified Kobe Plot. The overfishing index on the vertical axis shows the ratio of current Fishing mortality to the Fishing mortality at MSY ("Maximum Sustainable Yield"). And the stock size index along the horizontal axis shows how the current biomass compares to the biomass there would be if there had never been any fishing.

So far so good – it is a useful way for scientists to demonstrate the status of the stock.

But when we add reference points then it becomes a useful dashboard for fishery managers as well.

You may have already noticed that only one of these Western and Central tropical tuna stocks is in the red – and that is bigeye tuna

And thus, by some interpretations, only bigeye needs rebuilding.

The minimum requirement to rebuild this stock is the Limit Reference Point. And WCPFC has agreed that the LRP for all four of these stocks should keep the adult or spawning biomass above 20% of the estimated unfished adult biomass. That is the vertical line on the plot that separates the red block from the rest.

So it looks like we’re doing pretty well – especially when the preliminary results from this year’s stock assessment suggest that the bigeye stock status indicators are already improving.

But rebuilding to the LRP is only the start. The Limit Reference Point defines the absolute minimum that we should let any stock get to. The LRP is the point where drastic action should be triggered.
What we really want to do, and what we are required to do under UNFSA for highly migratory stocks, is to keep stocks at the Target Reference Point. The TRP is the point at which the agreed management objective is achieved.

And this is something that is difficult for RFMOs to agree on, because different governments have different objectives. Some want to maximise the attractiveness of their EEZs to distant water fishing partners. Some want to achieve the maximum possible sustainable catch. Others want to make sure there is enough fish in the water to keep catch rates high enough for a limited number of operators to make an unsubsidised living.

However, in our region FFA members have at least managed to agree on interim TRPs for both the skipjack and south Pacific albacore stocks

These two stocks are the most economically important stocks to FFA equatorial and southern member countries.

But both of these TRPs are well above the MSY level the skipjack and albacore stocks. [MSY for SKJ is around 23% of unfished biomass, and for albacore around 14%. But the TRPs are 50% for skipjack and 45% for albacore]

Why do we want these stocks to be rebuilt to a higher level of biomass than is needed to produce maximum sustainable yield?

There are several reasons, but the main reason agreed by all FFA members is that we want these stocks to be fished not only sustainably, but profitably, and in a way that also takes account of the needs of our coastal fishing communities. The albacore stock may technically be fully sustainably if we fish it at MSY – at 14% of its natural abundance – but 86% depletion will cause a massive reduction in catch rate. An 86% reduction wipes out not only local fishing communities, but also any unsubsidised commercial vessels. 

A 50% reduction against prehistoric catch rates is seen as a pretty fair trade-off when the fishery also finances half of your public infrastructure.

And this is why I have put Article 5b of the WCPFC Convention on the screen.

This mirrors Article 5b of the UN Fish Stocks Agreement. Now many States only look at the first clause of this paragraph, and say that restoring stocks to MSY is good enough.

And many people worry that the second clause, about qualifying MSY with economic factors, is an excuse for overfishing. Or that “including the special requirements of SIDS” is another way of saying “let them overfish if they are extremely dependent”.

But this is clearly not the case when we do a bioeconomic analysis. To us, qualifying MSY with environmental, economic and SIDS social factors means stocks need to be maintained or restored to levels that will almost always be considerably above biological MSY.

And while we’re on the text I would also draw your attention to the last part, where subregional minimum standards also need to be taken into account. If a group of countries in the region have already agreed to a minimum set of standards for a fishery, then the RFMO has to take notice of them, and in our region this one of the mechanisms that has helped WCPFC to adopt standards first developed by a smaller group of FFA member countries – the Parties to the Nauru Agreement.

These have included the interim Skipjack TRP, the FAD closure period, the requirement for 100% observer coverage, the requirement for full tuna catch retention and – for several years, the closure of the two western equatorial Pacific high seas pockets.

We’re currently trying to persuade non-FFA WCFPC members to take into account a subregional minimum standard agreed by a new subregional Arrangement – the Tokelau Arrangement – and this is the South Pacific albacore Target Reference Point.

I will illustrate this with a quick look at a draft table we are going to present to the WCPFC Scientific Committee in August. (This is based on a paper that was presented to the WCPFC nearly 18 months ago)

This table explains some of the reasoning behind the subregional Tokelau Arrangement decision to set the southern Albacore TRP at 45% of the unfished spawning biomass.

In the table we are looking at a range of options, from pure biological MSY in option 8 at the bottom of the table, up to Maximum Economic Yield in Option 1.

Remember that our agreed option its Option 2. We are showing the alternatives to illustrate the consequences if WCPFC decides to go down other paths.

The stock is currently around the level of Option 5 – at 37% of unfished biomass. However it is not in equilibrium at this point because fishing effort is still too high to stabilise the biomass at this level, and it would actually need a 23% cut in effort to keep the biomass where it is.

If we take no action, and don’t cut fishing effort at all, the biomass will stabilise around the level of option 7. Catch rates will be 14% down on today, and the annual catch will be 28% less. And there will be a 20% risk of breaching the LRP

Option 8 - keeping the biomass around 14% of unfished levels, would achieve MSY, and this is what a couple of non-FFA WCPFC have implied is what they want, when they quote the Law of the Sea as mandating management “according to MSY”.

If you run your eye along the option 8 line, it explains the results of managing the south Pacific albacore stock at MSY without “qualifying this with relevant economic factors”.

- For a start, driving the biomass down to biological MSY will more than halve current catch rates

- Under the change in effort column you can see that the size of the fleet would need to more than double from the current level. If there are 600 vessels in the fishery right now, we would need to expand that to 1500 vessels in order to reach MSY 

- and the sustainable total catch from the stock would be 22% less than it is right now. [It may be called “maximum” sustainable yield, but it is achieved under equilibrium conditions, and the stock is not currently in equilibrium]

- finally, the risk of breaching the Limit Reference Point for the stock is not “very low”, as is required by UNFSA.

Option 8 – managing this stock to biological MSY is obviously undesirable from an economic point of view. In fact it is not even economically achievable, unless there are dramatic increases in fishing efficiency. Everyone would be bankrupt, long before the biomass dropped to that level. The trouble is, some distant water fishing countries seem to want to keep trying, and we’re not sure how their vessels can possibly afford it. 

It may be worth noting that maximum economic yield – option one - is not socially achievable. We’d need to take three quarters of the vessels out of the fishery and the fishery production would be more than halved. But it would certainly create a small number of very wealthy vessel-owners.

I might finish this off by mentioning one coastal fisheries example. This is not a transboundary fishery – it is not a UN Fish Stocks Agreement fishery – and that means that it gets a lot less scientific and management attention than more glamourous fisheries that involve foreign negotiations and international collaborations..

At the same time, in some countries the sea cucumber fishery is sometimes more valuable than their tuna fisheries, and can take more biomass out of the water. And it also injects cash directly into rural economies when it is managed properly.

The trouble is, sea-cucumber stocks are overexploited almost worldwide and are one of the primary targets for coastal fishery rebuilding efforts in many Pacific Island countries, especially Melanesia.

One of the problems with the lack of research is knowing where we actually might need to rebuild them to. There are few formal stock assessments for these species, and very little monitoring.

However, our sister agency – SPC, in collaboration with worldfish and others – has been developing what might be called “rules of thumb” to help coastal fishery managers and communities to decide what a “healthy stock” might look like.

This knowledge has been developed over more than 30 years of research and wide-ranging underwater field surveys in all Pacific Island countries. It has led to advice like the table on the screen here, which indicates the density per hectare that you might expect to see during a manta tow across the right habitat, for a number of species. It is a rough guide to what coastal communities might aspire and rebuild to.

The products of this fishery fetch very high prices in their target markets, and as production drops in one area, it becomes economically viable for another less prolific area to start exporting.
This slide suggests that the trade is running out of places to go, as the trade moves from the blue coastal areas, through the spectrum to the red areas over time.

The pressure to harvest is going to grow, and that is going to make rebuilding these stocks even more difficult, despite the fact that rebuilding them above current levels would produce far greater economic benefit.

One of the results of this pressure has been the recent appearance of boats like this in several Pacific Island countries. 

They are small, wooden-hulled vessels out of South East Asia, fishing for coastal species – particularly sea cucumber - and they are entirely outside the normal system.

They are not licenced in the countries where they fish, they do not carry vessel monitoring systems, they don’t show up on our radar, and they are not even flagged in the country where they originate.

And judging by the fact that most of them look new, they could well be the product of a massively subsidised boatbuilding exercise

Robbing Pacific Island reefs is obviously very lucrative for them. We know of one case where the same individual has been arrested, punished and repatriated three times

But I didn’t come here to complain about a new blue plague on the Pacific Islands

The point I want to make here is that the traditional Pacific Island response to coastal overfishing – a temporary moratorium in order to rebuild stocks – was making great progress for a while. Stocks in places like Papua New Guinea have been rebuilding nicely, and people were looking forward to the harvest reopening. But in the face of these unscrupulous externalities the use of geographical moratoria to fast-track rebuilding makes us vulnerable.

I think there are lessons to be learned here. We need to look at more active mechanisms for rebuilding some of the most valuable coastal export fisheries.

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