The Central and Western Pacific Fisheries Commission, also known as the Tuna Commission, held its annual compliance meeting earlier this month.
In this Pacific Beat special, Sean Dorney reports from the Federated States of Micronesia.
Presenter: Sean Dorney in Federated States of Micronesia
Speaker: Steve Peter, fisheries observer; Transform Aquorau, Forum Fisheries Agency; Sylvester Pokajam, Managing Director of Papua New Guinea's National Fishheries Authority; Steve Retalmai, coordinator of the observers in the Federated States of Micronesia; Glen Joseph, Director of the Marshall Islands Marine Resource Authority; Andrew Wright, Director of the Tuna Commission; Ambassador Satya Nanan, Chairman of the Tuna Commission; Dr Tony Lewis, chief of tuna tagging program with Secretariat of the Pacific Community, SPC; Wendell Sanford, Chairman of the Compliance Committee Meeting; Phil Roberts, TriMarine;
DORNEY: Steve Peter is heading off to work. A Micronesian from one of the many islands in the Federated States of Micronesia, he is one of the new foot soldiers helping stamp the authority of the Pacific Islands over the management of the world's biggest tuna fishery. Steve Peter is an Observer. And he's being winched on board a foreign owned purse seiner fishing vessel which has come to the anchorage off Phonpei to transfer its tuna catch to its mother ship. Communication is a constant problem.
PETER: So what are you doing? Language is always the problem. These people are, what they say, 'No English! No English!'
AQUORAU: They are the front line people in the, in the battlefield.
DORNEY: Transform Aquorau from the Forum Fisheries Agency.
AQUORAU: Absolutely important. Both from compliance and also collection of data. It's the data they collect - the scientists need that information to do all the analysis which then allows managers to take the management decisions.
DORNEY: Transform Aquorau is number two at the Forum Fisheries Agency - the Pacific Islands Forum subsidiary body that provides more than half the membership of the Central and Western Pacific Fisheries Commission. He's in Pohnpei for one of the Commission's most vital meetings - the annual Technical and Compliance meeting. The island countries have insisted on the observer program and from next year every purse seiner operating in the fishery must have an observer on board.
POKAJAM: We don't know what they catch and we don't know how they take the fish.
DORNEY: Sylvester Pokajam is the Managing Director of Papua New Guinea's National Fishheries Authority.
POKAJAM: It's very, very important that we have observers on board so that they can physically supervise those catch and come back and report to us.
DORNEY: It's not an easy job for the observers. They come under all sorts of pressures. Some have been offered bribes and one reported last year that he couldn't get into the shipping vessel's wheel house because it was guarded by two vicious dogs. The coordinator of the observers in the Federated States, Steve Retalmai, says the attempted bribery could well end up in court.
RETALMAI: Recently, I think there are a few incidents similar to, ah, yeah, bribery. But we're not really in a position where I can talk about it. It's been brought to our legal people so, yeah, I can say, 'Yes'.
DORNEY: To understand why the Pacific island countries have such a say in the Tuna Commission you need to understand some recent history and geography. Back in 1982 when the Law of the Sea was coming into force with 200 mile Exclusive Economic Zones eight of the island countries, known as the Nauru group, decided they would try to control tuna - like OPEC controls oil.
AQUORAU: The Nauru group is a subset of eight countries who are also members of the Forum Fisheries Agency.
DORNEY: The Forum Fisheries Agency's Deputy Director.
AQUORAU: These are Papua New Guinea, Tuvalu, Kiribati, Nauru, Solomon Islands, Palau, the Federated States of Micronesia and the Marshall Islands. These eight countries control about 60 percent of the global tuna supply. A lot of the measures that we now have in place have been, sort of, initiated by this group.
DORNEY: One of the most fiesty of the Nauru Group is the Marshall Islands where Glen Joseph is the Director of the Marshall Islands Marine Resource Authority.
JOSEPH: The amount and the value of the fishery taken out of the Pacific Island waters amounts to about four billion dollars. And by all assessments the Pacific Islands are not getting a fair share of that four billion dollars.
DORNEY: The Director of the Tuna Commission, Andrew Wright, has a huge responsibility.
WRIGHT: The whole area covers just slightly less than 20 per cent of the earth's surface.
DORNEY: But most of the tuna are caught where?
WRIGHT: Most of the tuna are caught within this band between 20 north and 20 south stretching across the Pacific. But in most years the majority of the catch is taken in the Western region from Kiribati, Federated States of Micronesia, Papua New Guinea, Indonesia and Philippines.
DORNEY: The new Chairman of the Tuna Commission, Ambassador Satya Nanan from Fiji, was one of the architects of the Law of the Sea Convention which has given these mostly impoverished island countries control of a massive resource.
NANDAN: We produce something like 55 to 60 per cent of the world's tuna in this area and this is a very major resource.
DORNEY: But the scientists are warning that two of the three tuna species in the Pacific are not doing so well. Dr Tony Lewis is in charge of a major tuna tagging program that the Secretariat of the Pacific Community, the SPC, has been contracted to do by the Tuna Commission.
LEWIS: Two of the three species that are exploited in this fishery, in this very large fishery, the largest tuna fishery in the world, are either over exploited or so close to full exploitation that it doesn't matter. That's the Yellowfin and the Bigeye tuna. Skipjack which is the most abundant tuna and which is about 70 per cent of the catch - stocks still seem to be in quite good shape.
LEWIS: So, Sean, these are the blocks of tags ready to be used, blocks of a hundred. Each tag is fitted into a sharpened needle and applied to the fish. The tags are individually numbered.
DORNEY: So, how many would you have tagged?
LEWIS: It's close to a quarter of a million now. A few hundred to go but we're extremely close to a quarter of a million. Our original plan was to tag a hundred thousand if we could so it's exceeded our wildest expectations in the three years we've been tagging. It provides some of the absolutely key information that we need for our stock assessments.
DORNEY: One of the issues is the transfer of the tuna catch from the fishing boats to the mother ships. At present, a lot of that happens way out to sea but what the Island Countries would like is for it to happen in-shore near the ports where they not only get the economic benefits but they can also keep an eye on what's going on.
JOSEPH: When these vessels come ashore, come in our ports to trans-ship there are economic benefits as a result - provisioning, fueling, crew exchange. You know, those, as small as they are, with the numbers and the number of vessels that are out there and if they do trans-ship in port it adds up with significant economic gains.
DORNEY: Glen Joseph from the Marshall Islands Marine Resource Authority. The Chairman of the Compliance Committee Meeting was Wendell Sanford, a Canadian diplomat, who says the Pacific Islanders have realised the real strength they have if they stay unified.
SANFORD: Pacific Island countries are just, just past masters at this. They caucus frequently to come up with what is known as a Forum Fisheries Agency position. And, of course, inside the Forum Fisheries Agency there are divergent views. There are islands with a lot of fish, there are islands with not much fish and everyone has their own special considerations. But they do an excellent job of developing unified positions and then by virtue of stength of their position they do exceptionally well in terms of achieving their objectives in this organisation.
DORNEY: Even distant water fishing nations understand that the voting power in this Tuna Commission rests with the Islanders. Phil Roberts is with TriMarine one of the world's major tuna operators and cannery owners.
ROBERTS: It's obviously very difficult to get so many parties to agree on anything. I guess this is just a feature of international politics. I'm pretty confident that in the end these people will agree to measures that will make this a sustainable fishery because in the end the people who are investing in fishing boats today want to know there's going to be fish for them in 10, 20, 30 years time.
DORNEY: However, not all operators obey the rules and illegal fishing is a major problem.
AQUORAU: There's various figures, I think, ranging from 300 to 500 million dollars. That's a fairly significant amount of money that we're losing.
DORNEY: A major weapon the Tuna Commission has to combat poaching on such a massive scale is its black list of fishing vessles that have been found to have been engaged in illegal, unreported or unregulated fishing. It's known as the IUU list and nobody wants to get on it because processors will refuse to take their fish. Seventeen vessels were alleged to be at fault and delegates from the Flag State countries concerned fought to have some removed.
WRIGHT: Last year, the Commission adopted two vessels to our IUU list - one from Venuzeula and one from Chinese Taipei.
DORNEY: Andrew Wright, the Director of the Tuna Commission.
WRIGHT: This year, the TCC, which is the Technical and Compliance Committee we've just completed, the TCC decided to send up 15 vessels to the Commission for consideration for IUU listing in December. And they involve vessels from Panama, Indonesia, China and Chinese Taipei.
DORNEY: The Compliance Committee Chairman, Wendell Sanford, says that although the Central and Western Pacific Fisheries Commission is the youngest such commission in the world, it had made great progress.
SANFORD: We're four and a half years since the inception and already we have many elements that are more highly developed and more sophisticated than the other tuna organisations in the world. We have the world's only boarding and inspection program for high seas tuna. It was agreed a year and a half ago. It is now in operation. We've just implemented in April a VMS tracking system, tracking the vessels by satellite. Over a thousand vessels are already on that system. We've made enormous progress in a very short period of time doing as well or better than any of the other tuna organisations in the world.
DORNEY: A lot of the credit goes to the island nations which have been unafraid to use the power they have gained from the Law of the Sea.
AQUORAU: We've always had that power and it's just a question of timing and the question of the right time in which to weild that power. And the commission has really given those island countries that power, I think.
DORNEY: Fish have always been important in the diet of most Pacific islanders. Now the Pacific island nations are making a determined effort to ensure that their tuna stocks not only remain healthy but contribute substantially to their national economic prosperity.