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Progress stagnates at WCPFC16

No agreements to promote sustainable tuna harvest strategies

Unfortunately, after a relatively successful meeting last year, the 16th Regular Session of the Western and Central Pacific Fisheries Commission (WCPFC) deferred to the status quo and left IPNLF, fellow NGOs and some concerned delegations disappointed by a distinct lack of further progress. 

In the run up to this year’s meeting, held in Port Moresby, Papua New Guinea, on 5-11 December, IPNLF presented its Position Statement, calling for the adoption of management tools and controls that would safeguard tuna stocks and ecosystems in the region. 

A key point of discussion at WCPFC16 was the agreement of target reference points (TRPs) for both tropical and temperate tuna species (including albacore, skipjack, yellowfin and bigeye) to keep in line with the Harvest Strategies work plan. Sadly, consensus on TRPs could not be reached during the meeting. By and large, this was due to arguments over the multi-species nature of harvesting tuna, where fleets will capture a mix of skipjack, yellowfin, bigeye etc., while the current harvest strategy frameworks are based on actions for each tuna species individually. It was felt that more consultation was needed on this in order to accommodate a multi-species framework in the harvest strategies that would be practical in implementation. 

At the same time, and in spite of rebuilding plans for Pacific bluefin tuna scheduled to take effect in 2024, delegates continued to lobby hard to increase catch allocations through trades in quotas with other states both within and outside of the Commission. Additionally, a grave concern for civil society was the status of oceanic whitetip sharks, with populations at just 4% of their spawning stock biomass. Regrettably, discussions on rebuilding plans for this vulnerable species were inconclusive. 

While WCPFC did implement seasonal FAD closures and commit to more biodegradable materials for FAD designs in 2020, a lot of valuable time was spent negotiating semantics, such as what constitutes a FAD and how information should be reported. Historically, such technicalities have had an impact on the compliance of flag states and monitoring compliance during FAD closure periods. Efforts to control fishing on the high seas were also thwarted by time-consuming negotiations on the terms of reference (ToR), conducted ahead of discussions about effort management measures. 

Another one of IPNLF’s focus areas at all tuna RFMO’s is to advocate for shark conservation and Fins Naturally Attached (FNA) policies as being the most robust measure to combat shark finning, the practise of removing a shark’s fins, and discarding the body at sea. Although an FNA policy was adopted, vessels fishing in WCPFC waters will still be allowed to apply alternative management measures, resulting in complicated, and quite likely ineffective, monitoring, compliance and surveillance.  

Some key positives to come out of the meeting included resolutions to incorporate climate change and its economic impact on SIDS and participating territories within fishery management decision-making, improving scientific understanding and further considering options to reduce environmental impacts. More controls on fishing effort and capacity for scientific data collection were also agreed in order to conserve mobulid rays and seabirds. 

Important progress was also made to pass resolutions on labour standards for crew on fishing vessels. This followed concerns raised by the Indonesian delegation about the abuse of Indonesians working in foreign fleets. Indonesians make up a significant proportion of the crew on distant-water fishing vessels, but the mistreatment of these workers is quite commonplace, with many of them effectively left unprotected in a sort of ‘international limbo’ - working on a vessel from one country, fishing in territorial waters belonging to another, and being contracted through an agency from a third country, for example. 

IPNLF’s South East Asia Director, Jeremy Crawford, attended the WCPFC meeting and lent his support to the Indonesian delegation. He attributed the lack of necessary outcomes to the RFMO’s decision-making process, which often settles on the lowest common denominator. 

“This in itself can hold progress hostage,” he says.