Caught in a net of denial: the cost of record tuna catches.



Over 4 million tonnes of tuna are taken from our oceans each year. There is no doubt, scientifically or otherwise, that fish stocks are being depleted all over the world with Yellowfin and Bigeye tuna populations rapidly decreasing. Scientists know it by means of data and fishermen know it through years of direct experience. Surrounded by the vast Pacific Ocean, Vanuatu’s waters and those of neighbouring Pacific nations contain one of the last ‘healthy’ marine zones in the world. How long it stays this way is in the hands of the people who are able to draw up and implement the policies and legislation to guarantee its long term survival.


smblacksand-fishing-4A small archipelago in a big ocean

Vanuatu is an island nation and its total water area, 668,220 km2, is over 56 times the size of its land mass. Its exclusive economic water zone (EEZ) extends 200 nautical miles out from land. Overall, Vanuatu’s fisheries industry is comprised of what is known as oceanic fisheries and coastal fisheries including commercial, artisanal, subsistence fisheries and aquaculture. Oceanic fisheries refers to offshore fishing; more than 12 nautical miles from land and predominantly involves the catch of the main four tuna species – Albacore, Bigeye, Yellowfin and Skipjack. Since early 2000, tuna catches in Vanuatu waters have more than quintupled in size with an annual catch that far exceeds the catch of its coastal fisheries.

Tuna caught in Vanuatu is destined for foreign markets and most of it never touches Vanuatu shores, being caught by foreign boats and offloaded and prepared for export in foreign ports. Current depletion of tuna in the Atlantic and Indian oceans has transformed the Pacific Ocean and Vanuatu’s waters into a sought-after fishery. According to the 2008 Vanuatu Diagnostic Trade Integration study, fishing vessel numbers in Vanuatu’s EEZ have increased substantially in the last twelve years with long line vessels fishing in Vanuatu’s EEZ rising from 48 in 2001 to 127 in 2005.

In an attempt to preserve its tuna resources and with the purpose of strengthening strategies focused on monitoring, control, surveillance and the licensing of foreign vessels, the Vanuatu Fisheries Department implemented its new Tuna Management Plan in 2008. Some of its objectives are to ensure that the exploitation of tuna resources is compatible with sustainability, to ensure long-term economic and social benefits as well as guaranteeing food security. The plan has set a maximum number of fishing licenses, it has banned transhipment between two vessels while in Vanuatu waters (except with the permission of the Director, under certain conditions) and has created a new observer program.

However, for the new Tuna Management Plan to be implemented properly, the Fisheries Department needs the budget to allocate enough staff and resources to monitor and liaise with other organisations, as well as the full cooperation and support of its government. The maximum number of fishing licenses in the new plan has been set at 100 licenses for foreign tuna long liners, ten for purse seine and ten for tuna pole and line. As studies point out that, on a global basis, Yellowfin and Bigeye tuna are being fished over sustainable levels, the number of licenses allocated could still be too many. John Taleo, Deputy Commissioner of Police Operations and Acting Commander of the Vanuatu Maritime Police, thinks that a better way to monitor fishing in Vanuatu waters and to preserve our stocks, would be to cut down the number of fishing licenses.

‘I was in Fiji a while ago and the wharf there was madness. There were hundreds of boats,’ he said. ‘If we don’t look after our fish stocks, with the current levels of fishing, we will decimate the population and there will be nothing left for our children,’ Mr Taleo explained. The Maritime Police has one boat allocated to police Vanuatu waters, the RVS Tukoro which last year patrolled the water for a total of 82 days.


smvila-offloading-tuna-1Untangling the numbers caught

One of the problems Pacific nations face when trying to preserve their tuna stocks is that nobody seems to know the total catch of fish taken overall from Pacific waters. The Tuna Management Plan has set a quota, with a maximum catch per year of 10,000 tonnes for Albacore, 3,000 tonnes each for Yellowfin and Skipjack and 1000 tonnes each for Bigeye tuna and billfish. But monitoring how much tuna is being caught is fraught with difficulties. Studies show that there is a history of vessels under-reporting catch, mostly offloaded in Fiji, from which log sheets are submitted to the Secretariat of the Pacific Community (SPC) for data entry and whose accuracy is hard to verify. By-catch such as damaged fish, low quality fish and protected species such as dolphins and turtles are also not recorded in these log sheets.

Atuna, the world’s leading website on tuna industry news, reported that statistical data between the Food and Agricultural Organisation (FAO), and the Western and Central Pacific Fisheries Commission (WCPFC) differs widely on the total catch figures for Pacific waters. In the year 2011, the FAO reported 1.9 million tonnes whilst the WCPFC reported a total catch of 2.1 million tonnes. The WCPFC uses observers aboard vessels to report their numbers while the numbers collected by the FAO are sent by government ministry bodies based on annual questionnaires. It has been suggested that fishing bans in the eastern Pacific Ocean, imposed to ensure sustainability, could be fuelling a tendency to under report volumes of catch by the major fishing nations.

To better monitor the catch taken in Vanuatu waters as well as to increase the revenue that Vanuatu makes from this catch, the Department of Fisheries built the necessary facilities to offload and process tuna in Vanuatu for export. Most of the tuna taken from Vanuatu is currently offloaded in Fiji and ultimately, every boat licensed to fish in Vanuatu would be required instead to offload its catch in the local facilities, providing the Vanuatu Fisheries Department with a more accurate record of the catch. Vanuatu would also be entitled to a percentage of the revenue from the sale of the tuna caught in its EEZ. To this end, back in 2007, the Department built the current facilities in the Black Sands area of Efate. Built as part of a joint agreement between the China National Fisheries Corporation (CNFC) and the Vanuatu Government, it can accommodate the catch of 40 Chinese long line vessels offloading and preparing tuna for export.

‘These facilities will bring an enormous amount of revenue per year. It would also bring employment opportunities as well as offer the possibility of improving the monitoring of the catch in Vanuatu waters,’ explains Fisheries’ Director Moses Amos. However, strong opposition from different sections of the community on the chosen site for the facilities halted its operation. The opposition was not so much to the idea of a tuna offloading facility in Vanuatu but to the chosen site in the Black Sands area, on Port Vila’s Bay, an area of great tourist value and where most of the population lives. ‘Black sands does not have a deep water wharf and it is too close to Vanuatu’s major tourism and cruise ship port, and the potential negative impact of the fishing factory on the tourism port needed to be avoided.’ explains MP Ralph Ragenvanu who was part of RAPT, (Residents Against Processing Tuna in Port Vila), the group formed to oppose its operation. Environmental impact caused by disposing of the plant’s biological waste and boats going in and out of the harbour created cause for concern. To further complicate matters, the facilities do not have a purpose-built wharf to offload and the current Port Vila main wharf, already full to capacity with cargo and cruise ships, is unable to take the extra traffic.

An alternative put forwards then was to use the existing facilities in Palekula Bay, Espiritu Santo. Established in 1957 by the South Pacific Fishing Company, at its height of activity it was estimated that over 100 long liners visited the facility in a year. The Palekula site closed in 1986 when the remaining vessels relocated to other islands to take advantage of incentives offered. ‘At the time, we recommended that the project should be located in Palekula, because what it needed was a deep-water wharf and access to an international airport and Palekula has that,’ explains Ragenvanu. Because of its location in a deep-water bay open to the ocean, away from the main town, the fact that the facilities already exist and operated in the past, and the potential to divert population, employment and economic resources to the outer islands, the use of the Palekula site was considered as a possible answer. To date, a solution has not been found.

The tuna offloading and export facilities located in Palekula are not to be confused with the latest plans for a fish processing plant who was scheduled to be built by the Tutong group in the Melcofe area in downtown Luganville. The Melcofe plant met with strong opposition from the community because of its location and the ways by which its waste water was to be disposed off as well as its impact on fish population and local fisherman. The processing methods, fishing methods, target catch and purpose of the fish processing plant have not been properly defined and sufficient community consultation has not been undertaken.

The negative effects of the immediate environmental damage caused by operating a tuna offloading and export facility in Vanuatu will need to be carefully weighed and analysed against the environmental gains of being able to properly monitor the catch and reap higher economic benefits. However, it would be a mistake to think of the implementation of a tuna offloading and export facility as a solution to the overfishing of Pacific waters, which needs a decrease in the overall quota allowed to ensure sustainability.

Vanuatu local Eric Buyosesta has been fishing for over thirty years. He is worried that in another five to ten years, stocks of Yellowfin tuna will suffer the same fate as the Bluefin. ‘Fifteen years ago we used to go fishing not so far from the coast, coming back to shore with one tonne of Yellowfin tuna, caught in half a day.’ After fishing for 26 years in his own small commercial boat, four years ago Eric had to take another job as a skipper since his catch no longer provided enough income. ‘Foreign boats are taking all the tuna and not leaving any for Vanuatu fisherman. The three long liners that offload in town sell the tuna that they can’t use for export very cheaply, driving prices down, and the smaller local fisherman cannot compete,’ he explains.


A bigger piece at a cheaper price – today’s pirates.

Besides the difficulties that Pacific countries encounter monitoring the actual catch taken by licensed foreign vessels, piracy or what is known as IUU (Illegal, unreported and unregulated) fishing is a major issue in the downward spiral towards unsustainability. The Pacific is a big ocean and many of its nations lack the resources needed to adequately patrol and monitor. With only one vessel, policing illegal fishing in Vanuatu’s EEZ is restricted to what is possible. The relatively new VMS (Vessel Monitoring System) equipment is helping to curb IUU but there are still big holes in the way reporting is coordinated and enforced. Vessels need to specify their position through their VMS at all times back to the country to which they are flagged. If a vessel turns off its VMS and stops transmitting its position, the vessel is considered to be engaging in IUU. Vessels intending to engage in IUU choose to be flagged under countries which have a low level of monitoring and enforcement, because of either a lack of resources or will to monitor.

Vanuatu and Fiji were given a warning by the EU for poor monitoring of their registered vessels and failure to punish vessels flying their flags and engaging in IUU. Both nations have been given a set period of time to improve their monitoring and enforcing system. Vessels registered under the Vanuatu flag are commonly not owned by Vanuatu nationals nor do they fish in Vanuatu’s waters. Under what is known as FOC (Flag of Convenience), Vanuatu has one of the largest fishing fleets operating in the Eastern Pacific and the fastest growing fleet in the Indian Ocean. In many cases, the only tie that these vessels have with Vanuatu is that they are registered in the Vanuatu registry which means, amongst other things, it is the responsibility of the Vanuatu Fisheries Department to monitor their position. In the recent past, some of these vessels were implicated in IUU fishing activities.

‘We have received 15 million vatu to create a new division which will be in charge of monitoring Vanuatu flagged vessels so we can meet the required responsibilities,’ explained Moses Amos.

One country with a love-affair for FOCs is Taiwan. According to the 2010 ‘Taiwan’s Flag of Convenience’ report by Greenpeace, the country has the largest number of tuna fishing vessels in the world with as many as 384 FOC vessels of which only 108 are registered with the Taiwanese government as required by legislation. In 2008, the Taiwanese fleet caught 828,427 tonnes of fish. According to this report, Taiwanese flagged vessels as well as vessels owned or operated by Taiwanese nationals flying a flag of convenience have often been found to have close links with IUU fishing. Unfortunately, the Western and Central Pacific tuna fisheries are Taiwan’s largest fishing ground.

IUU is one of the most difficult issues for fisheries departments to tackle. Greenpeace’s November 2012 report ‘International Findings at Sea’, showed widespread non-compliance with high seas fishing regulations. The organisation found vessels operating in high seas without high seas permits, vessels that failed to report their position by VMS, illegal transhipments occurring between vessels failing to report their position, purse seine nets with a mesh size much smaller that the stipulated 3.5 inches and alarming numbers of FADs (Fish Aggregating Device) being deployed. Greenpeace estimates that about US$9 billion a year are lost to pirate fishing. In many cases, vessels found engaging in IUU are not prosecuted as maritime law stipulates.



smvila-tuna-boats-4The cost of record catches

Tuna is a highly migratory species and unlike on land, there are no natural borders to stop tuna in their annual migrations across the Pacific. Tuna catches have been increasing globally since the 1950s with catch records in 2009 and again in 2012. It is estimated that over 60% of the world tuna is coming out of the Pacific Ocean. Herve Picarda has been in Vanuatu for over 40 years. An avid fisherman, he started his commercial fishing charters operation in 1993 and has been fishing recreationally all of his life. ‘Years ago,’ he explains, ‘we used to go out fishing off Pango Point, right up close to the coast and would come back a few hours later with a boat full of 60kg and 70kg Yellowfin tuna.’ Herve explains how every year during the dry season, there used to be huge schools of tuna swimming very close to the coast; locals didn’t need to go far for a good catch.

‘Now,’ he says, ‘the schools of tuna are smaller, less frequent and don’t stay for as long as they used to.’ Vanuatu is itself a small fish in this landscape, as most of the tuna is found further north and closer to the Equator. According to the Western and Central Pacific Fisheries Commission ‘Tuna Fishery 2011 yearbook’, the global catch for tuna’s main four species in 2011 was 4,146,369 tonnes. Of this, 2,901,575 tonnes were caught in the Pacific Ocean. The rapid increases are due to a few factors, such as better technology and the proliferation of the purse seine. A report by scientists from the Secretariat of the Pacific Community (SPC) shows a record catch of 2.6 million tonnes of tuna in the Central and Western Pacific waters in 2012. In an interview with Radio Australia, Dr Shelton Harley, the author of the report, said that this was a record year for purse seine fishing, taking 1.8 million tonnes of the total catch.

With exponential increases in catch in Pacific waters, one would think that Pacific countries would have experienced an enormous increase to their revenue. Studies by Greenpeace show that the vast majority of Pacific tuna is caught by fleets from Japan, Korea, Taiwan, China, USA, Philippines and the EU, with the region earning in licence fees a mere 5% of the US$2 billion the fish is worth on the market. In Vanuatu, the Chinese fleet is currently the dominant fleet closely followed by that of Taiwan. The revenue that Pacific countries obtain from foreign fishing vessels’ licenses arise mostly from bilateral agreements, details which are often kept highly secret. Nonetheless, the revenue is substantial considering the small size of most economies in the region. However, for countries like Vanuatu, with fishing licenses going for only US$15,000 to US$45,000 per vessel per year, what these vessels pay to plunder the ocean should be carefully measured against the future costs.

To increase revenue, better manage their fisheries and protect their stock, the Pacific countries of the Federated States of Micronesia, Kiribati, Marshall Islands, Nauru, Palau, Papua New Guinea and the Solomon Islands signed the Parties to the Nauru Agreement (PNA) in 1982. The purpose of the agreement was to coordinate efforts, programs and strategies amongst Pacific countries such as the granting of fishing licenses, an observer program, surveillance activities and enforcement of their fisheries laws. To date, the PNA has implemented conservation measurements such as high seas closures, VMS requirements, FAD controls, 100% coverage of purse seine vessels with observers and a licensing system based on the allocation of fishing days. The system in which a number of fishing days are allocated per year and sold at a daily fee greatly increased the revenue earned by the PNA countries for their fisheries. But, a question to ask is whether economic greed could be clouding the good judgement of some Pacific countries. According to data by the Western and Central Pacific Fisheries Commission, in 1982, when the agreement was signed, the total tuna catch in the WCPFC area was 863,761 tonnes. In 2011, the total catch for this area had increased to a whopping 2,323,047 tonnes. In May 2008, to protect the state of its waters further, the PNA signed their 3rd Implementing Arrangement which decreed that fishing vessels would no longer be allowed to fish in high seas pockets (small areas of international waters surrounded by EEZs), banned the use of FADs by purse seine vessels for set time periods, and introduced catch retention and observers on every purse seiner. The expedition by Greenpeace’s vessel ‘Esperanza’ in that same year, revealed vessels such as the Kenken 888 had, during one month, conducted six separate transhipments with other vessels from the same fleet, all in the high seas pocket north of Papua New Guinea which has been declared a non-fishing zone.

In 2009, the WCPFC had its biggest tuna catch ever recorded, at 2,603,346 tonnes. If indeed Pacific countries and members of the PNA are making an effort to preserve their fish, the numbers coldly and systematically show that something is clearly not working, because while the catch keeps rising, the tuna population will keep falling.

A decrease in fishing licenses in the Pacific would mean a loss of revenue for the countries involved. But if fishing is not managed in a way that is sustainable, so that it can continue to generate revenue for decades to come, the Pacific has a lot more to lose economically and otherwise by depleting its fish stocks, guaranteeing itself no economic return whatsoever in another decade. Increasing the price of licenses is another tool that Pacific countries have at their disposal to balance the cost of decreasing the number of fishing licenses.


smblacksand-fishing-2Preserving our food

The importance of preserving fish stocks for the future has not fallen on empty ears in every nation. Boldly leading the way towards sustainability are countries like Palau, which plans to become the first Pacific nation to ban commercial fishing in its EEZ and turn its waters into a complete marine sanctuary. The island nation is also considering drones for IUU surveillance which can be operated on a bigger scale and at a much lower cost than patrol vessels. Greenpeace has proposed the creation of marine reserves in four areas within the Pacific Commons, areas frequently used to ‘launder’ fish due to lack of regulations. This would curb IUU fishing and transhipments in these areas as well as create sanctuaries where fish populations are able to breed undisturbed. As always, it will be today’s children who will inherit the problems created by the decisions of a few. For Pacific locals like Eric, the depletion of fish stocks is not only a matter of less revenue but a question of ‘what will we eat tomorrow?’ The effects of climate change and rapid population growth are turning tuna into a matter of food security and studies show that tuna is, for many Pacific countries, an insurance against food crisis. Recent reports indicate that unless heavy measures are implemented to cut down tuna catches, populations of Yellowfin and Bigeye tuna will be critically overfished within a few years. The future food security of the Pacific region will depend greatly on its tuna resources and hence the effective management and conservation of these resources should be of paramount importance to every Pacific country. Fish is what our island nations have. It is in the hands of the government of every Pacific country to protect the fish that the children of the Pacific will need to survive in perhaps, a not so distance tomorrow.


Story by Patricia Gil. Photography by Graham Crumb.



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