Unsustainable and illegal fishing practices are threatening a multi-billion dollar industry that makes a significant contribution to the GDP of many Pacific island states.
Tuna is the economic mainstay of the Western and Central Pacific, with the region’s stock worth $5.5 billion. A combination of unregulated fishing which has collapsed tuna stocks (in early January, scientists released data showing that bluefin tuna in the North Pacific will soon be effectively extinct) and the growth of global demand for tuna has pushed the value of the fish continually higher. A single Pacific bluefin recently sold in Japan for $1.76 million.
To protect their tuna economies, eight Pacific neighbors (Micronesia, Kiribati, Nauru, the Marshall Islands, Palau, the Solomon Islands, Papua New Guinea, and Tuvalu) formed a collation called the Parties to the Nauru Agreement (PNA) to sustainably manage tuna fishing in their territorial waters. Together the islands states control 5.5 million square miles of national waters in prime tuna fishing grounds, containing nearly half of the world’s skipjack tuna—America’s favorite fish—and nearly one-third of the world’s total tuna harvest.
The core of PNA’s plan is a “vessel day scheme” (VDS) that limits both the number of boats in their collective waters and the total number of days those boats are allowed to fish. The VDS is based on a limited number of fishing days that are divided among PNA members which auction off fishing days to the highest bidder. When a country reaches its fishing day limit, it is required to trade for additional fishing days from other members to keep their ocean zones open to fishing.
To protect tuna from fishery predation in the ocean regions beyond their control, in 2010, the PNA told the foreign companies that held PNA licenses, that if they wanted to fish in the consortium’s territorial waters, they had to agree to not fish the international waters in between territories. The fishers had little choice but to agree.
The Western and Central Pacific Fisheries Commission (WCPFC) decision to uphold the PNA’s claim that they own their fishing rights is a first. Tuna rights in the Atlantic Ocean have generally gone to powerful fishing countries that claim “historic rights” to fishing grounds far from their own shores. The PNA’s move in the Pacific has got countries off the African coast thinking of banding together to do the same thing.
Despite the coaliton’s new rules, there remains the issue of who controls the high seas and the problem of unregulated boats simply stealing fish.
Fisheries worldwide – particularly tuna fisheries– have long been plagued by rogue fishers who plunder the global commons by catching fish illegally inside territorial waters then escape into the unregulated high-seas where they “launder” their catch by transferring it to refrigerated ships which transport the tuna to port. The result is that nobody knows where or when the fish was caught or if it was caught legally.
With few boats of their own to police the vast ocean, the island states remain vulnerable to these pirate fishers. Palau, for instance, with only a single patrol boat, in 2010, recorded about 850 pirate fishing vessels plundering its waters.
One such vessel is the Heng Xing 1, a refrigerated, or “reefer,” vessel. The Heng Xing 1 and two other ships were recently caught in the act of transferring tuna and boarded by Palau authorities. Tons of frozen skipjack tuna was found in the hold.
The boat’s captain freely admitted moving the fish from a fisher boat but professed to be unaware that it is illegal to do so. All three vessels broke the law, but since they were stopped in international waters, the inspectors had no authority to impose a penalty.
The biggest challenge for the PNA to achieve its grand vision, is just sticking together. When a cartel artificially restricts supply of a good, there’s a temptation for individual states to break off and sell more. With 1.37 million square miles of ocean holdings, Kiribati, which has a particularly rich fishing zone broke ranks from the PNA in 2012 and oversold its quota. The PNA let Kiribati off the hook after it agreed to commit to enforcing the VDS this year. But with the price of tuna continuing to rise, human nature guarantees that problems will persist despite the best intentions.
Fortunately, the world is beginning to take steps, albeit slowly, to tamp down the illegal fishers. Interpol recently announced plans to create a fleet with actual authority to patrol international waters to enforce high-seas law. How many boats, where they would patrol, and what it means are all being worked out.