Pew’s Glen Holmes calls for WCPFC to step up on observer, data-sharing requirements

Published on
December 10, 2020

The Western and Central Pacific Fisheries Commission (WCPFC) will have its annual meeting from 7 to 15 December. In an interview with SeafoodSource, Glen Holmes, an officer with The Pew Charitable Trusts’ international fisheries project who leads the organization’s engagement with three of the world’s five regional fisheries management organizations overseeing tuna fishing, including the WCPFC, called for the regional fisheries management organization to adopt more significant observer requirements, electronic monitoring, and stricter limits on bycatch.

SeafoodSource: Due to COVID-19, observers have been removed from vessels. Going forward, you’re looking to not only restore previous levels of observer coverage, but to increase the amount of live coverage undertaken in the area the WCPFC regulates?

Holmes: Ideally. Right now, the amount of coverage – particularly in the longline fleet – is very, very low. The purse-seine fleet has near to 100 percent observer coverage. The longline fleet has near to five percent observer coverage. There are some differences between different fleets. The U.S., for example, has a much higher rate of observer coverage in their longliners, but across the board, it’s very, very low.

So, there is a very large gap in the independent data collection within the longline sector, for a range of different reasons. Longline boats often go out to sea for a lot longer at a time. The conditions on the boats aren’t as easy to accommodate observers sometimes. It’s hard to find observers willing to go on longline boats for those sort of reasons. So there’s a whole lot of logistical reasons why it’s tricky – that are valid – and that’s why we also think the progress of an EM [electronic monitoring] program is essential, because that can then compliment human observers within the whole sector and increase the amount of independent data that’s collected, so it becomes easier to manage the fishery.

SeafoodSource: Do you see EM eventually replacing the human observers? For example will the five percent coverage for longline go up, or will EM replace everybody?

Holmes: I don’t think EM will replace everybody. I think EM and human observers complement one another. There’s a lot of things EM can’t do, until we get to the point that we’ve got robots. So there’s always going to be a need for human observers in the short- to medium-term, and EM systems are able to collect at least some of the data that human observers would have collected – in, for example, a boat where an extra person on board is just not really viable.

EM systems can also be used to take some of the workload. Sometimes on these vessels, the observer can’t be everywhere all the time. But an EM system – a well-designed one – basically can be everywhere all the time. So, it’s possible to have, on a single vessel, an EM system and a human observer, being able to get the most data coverage possible. And then, in other cases where you’ve got conditions that aren’t conducive to having observers on board, you can have an EM system that’s still collecting a large amount of the data for you. So that fills a lot of the holes in the data collection program. The scientists have to estimate a lot of data. If an EM system were up and running everywhere, the amount of data that needs to be estimated would be much lower.

On transshippers and purse-seiners, I don’t think that the priority is as high. At the moment, transshippers have observers on board. The observers don’t currently send reports to the [WCPFC] Secretariat, which is a problem in itself, but at least there is an observer there. Similarly, with the purse seiners, there are already observers onboard.

SeafoodSource: Pew has said it wants see minimum standards established for electronic monitoring. Is there any dispute about what those standards should look like?

Holmes: There is a group within the WCPFC that’s been working on developing minimum standards, and subsequent to that will be a conservation management measure (CMM) that dictates how electronic monitoring would work. That group met in the last six weeks [but] they weren’t able to agree at this point on some stuff. So what we’re hoping is, next year, that group will be able to finalize its standards. What that would do is set the minimum level that any electronic monitoring program within any nation would have to meet in order to satisfy WCPFC requirements.

There are a number of countries that already have electronic monitoring, [such as] Australia, New Caledonia, and Fiji. Yet, there is no minimum standard agreed across the whole commission area. So, once that is finalized, as long as those various country programs meet those minimum standards, then the data collected within those programs can be submitted to the Secretariat and accepted. At the moment, the data that’s collected by electronic monitoring isn’t officially accepted, because under the observer program, it only references humans.

SeafoodSource: In regard to the development of the Management Strategy Evaluations (or MSEs, a component of a harvest strategy that models strategies under various scenarios), has there been any delay due to COVID-19?

Holmes: Not really. There is progress that is being made on all the MSEs for all the various stocks, that would have been made whether COVID happened or not. The indication is certainly that everybody, because of COVID, just wants to put everything on hold and wait for the world to go back to normal again and then proceed as if it never happened – which essentially delays by a year or two, depending on how quickly we get back to normal. But as of today, I don’t think the MSEs have been held up by COVID.

The thing what’s really likely to hold the process up going forward is the lack of a formalized dialogue group between the scientists and the managers. There is a bit of a disconnect in communication between the two. When I was saying the process has moved forward to-date, that’s because the scientists have had work and they’ve been going on and doing what they can. But they’re very quickly coming to a point where they need input from the managers, as to how to tune the system, what things to consider, what are various people’s priorities, and so on. And for the last two years, they haven’t been able to agree on it, for various reasons, such as the timing of the meeting. I’m hopeful that this year, because it is coming to the crunch time, where it is going to start slowing things down, that they will be able to agree to formalize a group.

SeafoodSource: Does striped marlin (Kajikia audax) have a harvest strategy now?

Holmes: Striped marlin is essentially a bycatch species. It’s not targeted, so it’s a slightly different approach that’s needed from species that are targeted. The U.S. has put forward a proposal to try and improve the status of striped marlin, because the stock status isn’t great. Because at the meeting this year with COVID everything’s being cut down, there will be a little bit of discussion on this, but it’ll be more of an introduction to this proposal, and they’ll be some negotiations over the next 12 months to hopefully lock it in in 2021. We [at Pew] are generally supportive of that proposal. There is going to be some sticking points with the Pacific countries, [especially] with the Forum Fisheries Agency, because of [differences in approaches toward] flag state versus coastal state management. But if they have some decent dialogue between them, I’m sure they’ll be able to work out a compromise.

SeafoodSource: How has the FFA approached the negotiations?

Holmes: They’ve been pushing for a number of years now the rights of coastal states to manage fisheries in their waters and not by the flag of the vessel that’s fishing them. The current version of the striped marlin proposal is more focused on a flag state as opposed to a coastal state management approach, which is going to clash with the FFA.

SeafoodSource: What strategies are there to manage bycatch so that the WPCFC doesn’t have to shut down targeted fisheries?

Holmes: Speaking generally, you can do gear restrictions [or] area closures around particular hotspots for a bycatch species that’s a bottleneck, [or] you can have no-retention measures. So even if they’re getting caught, if they’ve got good survival rates, then no-retention measures are very good. There are a range of measures that can be used. It’s a “horses for courses” kind of approach.

SeafoodSource: Is it correct that for vessels involved in transshipment, onboard observers compile reports that there’s no requirement that those be submitted to the WCPFC?

Holmes: That’s right. There’s been calls for a number of years to ban high-seas transshipment. Countries that use high-seas transshipment quite a lot, like Japan, will frequently say, “There is no problem with transshipment, because we have observers on-board.” And that’s a valid argument – there’s observers on-board their transshipping vessels. But there’s very few, if any, of those observers that actually submit a report to the Secretariat. So one of the things that we’re calling for that’s very simple to do is that all observers submit something to the Secretariat. At the moment, there’s not a form that they fill in. But even in an ad-hoc way, if observers are to submit something to the Secretariat, that’s more useful than submitting nothing.

SeafoodSource: And you’d like to share that data with other RFMOs?

Holmes: Yes The RFMOs all overlap with other RFMOs, and at the moment, the dialogue between the RFMOs is a little bit restricted. [But] it’s opening up. There is progressively more and more information flowing between them. But if you were going to be a nefarious captain, and you wanted to get fish into the black market, using that lack of data exchange is a pathway to do so. So the more data exchange there is between the various RFMOs that interact, the harder it becomes for [illegal, unreported and unregulated] fish to enter the market.

Photo courtesy of The Pew Charitable Trusts

Contributing Editor reporting from Osaka, Japan

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