Will this year’s WCPFC annual meeting bring progress on the sustainable management of the world’s most abundant tuna fishing grounds?

Date: November 20, 2016

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


With purview over an ocean region that provides an estimated 60% of the world’s tuna catch, the Western and Central Pacific Fisheries Commission (WCPFC) meets annually under the watchful eye of many stakeholders—in an official capacity or otherwise. It’s a high-stakes meeting: Progress on the sustainable management of the region’s tuna resources is a must.

For some important tuna species like bigeye tuna and Pacific bluefin tuna, for example, catches remain too high. Existing WCPFC conservation measures are inadequate to address overfishing and to rebuild the stocks to healthy levels.

ISSF and WWF have a robust list of items we want WCPFC member nations to tackle this year; here, we highlight those priority items that have special urgency for December’s annual meeting. 


Harvest Strategies for Adequate Tuna Species Protection

This year’s Commission meeting must make concerted progress consistent with their 2015 Harvest Strategy work plan.

Harvest strategies (also known as ‘Management Procedures’), which include harvest control rules (HCRs) and reference points, are an essential tool for modern and precautionary fisheries management. The evidence of success from fisheries where harvest strategies have been implemented is clear—not only do harvest strategies provide a strong platform to rebuild stocks that have been subject to overfishing, they also allow greater understanding of cumulative effects of management decisions and the impact of uncertainty. And governments and industry can plan for the long-term.

Progress against WCPFC’s Harvest Strategy work plan means agreeing to a rebuilding timeframe for the bigeye tuna stock, as well recording management objectives and the acceptable level of risk of breaching the limit reference point.  The Commission must also adopt a target reference point for south Pacific albacore tuna, a decision that was deferred at the 2015 meeting. 

ISSF and WWF also urge WCPFC to devote greater attention to other highly migratory species – by agreeing to rebuilding timeframes for Pacific Bluefin tuna, as well as a target reference point for south Pacific Albacore tuna. And we call on the Commission to increase the level of monitoring coverage of all fishing activities and associated on-water practices to ensure that management measures are implemented rigorously and to allow for effective assessment of compliance with these measures. 


Reforms Needed for Observers

Low levels of observer coverage on the more than 3,000 WCPFC-registered longline tuna vessels, for which the current requirement is 5%—coupled with failures by some nations to comply with historical catch-and-effort reporting requirements—is undermining scientific assessment of longline fishing mortality.

It is very difficult to sustainably and properly manage a fishery with incomplete or inaccurate data. Because on-board observers are essential to collecting such data, as well as to monitoring the implementation of conservation and management measures, addressing unsatisfactory compliance with the existing five-percent observer coverage requirement in the longline fishery is a matter of urgency. 

Increasing the required level of longline observer coverage is an issue that also needs the Commission’s attention. Interactions with sensitive species other than tuna, such as sharks, sea turtles and sea birds, can be sporadic and infrequent in tuna fishing, yet still be significant—and therefore critical to track—across a fishery. Scientists have advised that the level of observer coverage needed to properly assess impacts on these non-target species should be much higher than 5%—closer to 20%, for example. Other tuna RFMOs have already begun to consider such an increase. ISSF and WWF request that WCPFC task its Scientific Committee with providing advice on the appropriate level of observer coverage required for scientific purposes.

Finally, to ensure that the Commission receives quality data through the regional observer program, it is essential that these observers are able to do their jobs in a safe and professional environment. Last year alone, observers reported more than 100 instances of harassment or intimidation. WCPFC must take these reports seriously and give due consideration to measures that will further ensure the safety of observers. 


Transparency in Compliance Monitoring

ISSF and WWF continue to be concerned with the lack of transparency in the WCPFC Compliance Monitoring Scheme (CMS). This situation is not only wholly inconsistent with modern best practice in RFMO governance, it also allows bad actors to remain hidden and creates an uneven playing field for those parties that do follow the rules.

We urge the Commission to bring its practices in line with the other four tuna RFMOs and reform its CMS process so that: 1) Accredited meeting observers may attend the working group meetings and 2) Member nations’ plans to address the areas of non-compliance are made public. 


Non-Entangling FADs

WCPFC continues to lag behind the other tuna RFMOs on FAD management, including on the adoption of simple precautionary measures like the use of non-entangling FADs. It is disappointing that the second WCPFC FAD Management Working Group did not make clear recommendations to the Commission on the implementation of non-entangling FADs.

Since 2005, scientists and fishers have been collaborating to design drifting FAD designs that minimize the likelihood of entanglement of sharks and other non-target species.  The resulting FAD designs —like those developed by scientists working with ISSF—are less likely to entangle non-target species. A recent study shows that the industry acceptance level of such designs by fishers and ship-owners has progressed rapidly since 2010. Fleets have replaced traditional FADs with lower entanglement risk and non-entangling FADs, while experiencing no decrease in tuna catches.

Given the clear science, growing adoption by global purse seine fleets, and the action in three of the four tuna RFMOs, ISSF recently adopted a new ISSF Conservation Measure -3.5 Transactions with Vessels that Use Only Non-entangling FADs to support of the global transition to non-entangling FADs. The measure requires that ISSF participating companies conduct transactions only with those purse seine vessels whose owners have a public policy regarding the use of only non-entangling FADs and that the policy should refer to the ISSF Guide for Non-Entangling FADs.

Measures and actions such as this one by ISSF and its participating companies are designed to demonstrate the seriousness with which the market, NGOs, and vessel community consider making progress on global tuna sustainability. It is hoped that this will provide momentum for WCPFC to require the use of non-entangling FADs as a precautionary measure to reduce the entanglement of sharks and other non-target species in the WCPO purse seine fishery.

With responsibility for the world’s largest tuna fishery, there is a lot at stake for the upcoming WCPFC meeting. NGOs like ISSF and WWF have worked collaboratively throughout the year with industry, fleets, scientists, governments, sub-regional organizations and the WCPFC Secretariat to support progress on key issues like harvest strategies, electronic reporting standards, electronic monitoring, bycatch mitigation and FAD management. But now it is time for the WCPFC members to act and take the decisions necessary to secure the valuable tuna resources of the WCPO for the future and all those who depend on them.