Improved tuna measures, harvest strategies, and bycatch mitigation top the priority list for annual meeting

By Claire van der Geest and Bubba Cook

Posted 24 November 2015

With multiple stocks now considered to be either overfished or subject to overfishing, the Western and Central Pacific Fisheries Commission (WCPFC) must urgently agree to meaningful management measures at this year’s meeting. Strong leadership from the new Executive Director and Commission Chair has provided forward momentum heading into the 12th Session of the WCPFC. Emboldened by a refreshed agenda, Commission members will be squarely focused on key issues: harvest strategies and target reference points for skipjack tuna; amendments to the tuna conservation measure that will meaningfully address the overfishing of bigeye tuna; addressing the management of the southern albacore fishery; strengthening bycatch mitigation and observer safety.

Together, ISSF and WWF are eager and hopeful for significant progress regarding the common appeals we’re making to the WCPFC in the interest of long-term fisheries sustainability.

Effective Fisheries Management and HCRs

The need to take decisive and effective management action for Pacific bluefin, North Pacific striped marlin, and bigeye tuna is urgent, with all of these species now below the Limit Reference Point (LRP), 20% of unfished biomass (noting that the Commission only officially adopted the LRP for bigeye tuna).

On bigeye specifically, while there was no new assessment in 2015, catches continue to increase, and therefore it is expected that overfishing continues. The number of FAD sets in the purse seine fishery in 2014 was 5% above the recent average, despite the 3-4 month FAD closure in the CMM.  In addition, the longline fishery has a similar impact on the reproductive capacity of the stock as the purse seine fishery does. Overall, fishing mortality on the stock needs to be reduced by about 36% in order to end overfishing.

Many would agree that CMM-2014-01 is overly complex and has too many exemptions and optional clauses, which render it ineffective and difficult to enforce. The WCPFC could consider adding other incremental measures to the CMM (such as extending the FAD closure period, limiting the number of FAD sets made each year or the number of FADs that each vessel uses), but this is what has been done since 2009 and it is clearly not effective. ISSF and WWF urge the WCPFC to eliminate the exemptions in the tuna conservation measure and to adopt management measures that are effective and easier to enforce, or a reduction in fishing effort, to meet the objective of ending the overfishing of the bigeye stock.

Urgent action in Bali is needed for bigeye tuna, Pacific bluefin, and North Pacific striped marlin, to enable the Commission to meet its mandate ‘…to ensure, through effective management, the long term conservation and sustainable use of highly migratory fish stocks…’ (WCPFC Convention Article 2).

The need for increased management of southern Albacore is also a central issue for the Bali Commission meeting. The recently southern Albacore stock assessment reveals that the spawning potential of the stock may not support viable fisheries for many countries, even though it is at a healthy level of abundance. The Commission must therefore devote considerable effort to addressing the management of this resource too.

It is also imperative that the Commission take definitive actions toward operationalizing the commitment to take uncertainty in stock assessment into account – specifically through the use of pre-agreed decision rules, or harvest control rules (HCRs). Essential to modern fisheries management HCRs help maintain the stock at the target reference point or rebuild the stock biomass if it has breached the limit reference point. This approach is a far better alternative to the often highly politicized and protracted practice of annual negotiations among parties. HCRs establish clear guideposts and actions for the Commission to follow to enable effective management of the fishery resources.

To that end, ISSF and WWF were very pleased to see intersessional progress on the development of the harvest strategies workplan and advice from scientists on acceptable levels of risk and uncertainty. Further information on uncertainty and risk in stock assessments can also be viewed in ISSF Technical Report 2015-06.

Supporting Data

The provision of timely and accurate data is necessary to support both effective management and compliance. Although the Commission’s compliance process has improved the timeliness of the data reporting from members, greater accuracy and completeness is required. This is particularly the case for data on fish aggregating devices (FADs) and in relation to historical data for longline fisheries. Those member states that continue to withhold operational data must join other members by contributing such data in a manner fully consistent with Commission rules.

Bycatch Mitigation and Non-Compliance

The WCPFC Technical and Compliance Committee (TCC) meeting in September noted a high level of non-compliance regarding bycatch mitigation measures. Reports from the Regional Observer Program (ROP) showed that some conservation measures are interpreted as suggestive only, at least by captains of certain vessels. Specifically, observer reports showed retention of prohibited species such as silky and oceanic whitetip sharks as well as continued setting on or improper handling of cetaceans and whale sharks, with little consideration of the survival of the animal. Observer reports also indicate that the Conservation and Management of Sea Turtles measure is not being effectively or fully implemented and so impacts on threatened and endangered sea turtles in the region continue.

Further, observers reported that shark finning continues unabated. We once again invoke the advice from the WCPFC Scientific Committee regarding the deficiencies of the 5% shark carcass to fin ratio, including the inability of enforcement officials to effectively police the measure. WWF and ISSF call on the Commission to execute the advice of the Scientific Committee and adopt measures that provide comprehensive protection including a requirement that sharks be landed with fins naturally attached.

ISSF and WWF further urge the Commission to adopt a multiyear measure to assess flag State performance and to begin developing a scheme of responses to non-compliance, especially for serious breaches of Commission measures. To ensure the integrity of the assessment process, we suggest cautious and careful consideration of proposed changes to the assessment frequency. Finally, we continue our appeal to the Commission to grant accredited observers access to the Compliance Monitoring Working Group, thus enabling a transparent assessment of the implementation of Commission measures. The WCPFC remains the only tuna RFMO with a closed compliance committee.

The 12th Session of the Western and Central Pacific Fisheries Commission will run from 3-8 December 2015 in Bali, Indonesia. Both ISSF and WWF urge the Commission to take effective action for the sound management of the tuna resources and ameliorate negative impacts on the broader ecosystem, which is underpinned by solid scientific data.


Claire van der Geest is Strategic Policy Advisor for ISSF and Bubba Cook is the Western and Central Pacific Ocean Tuna Programme Manager at World Wide Fund for Nature.