The Pew Charitable Trusts’ Grantly Galland: WCPFC’s tuna plan needs a management strategy evaluation

Published on
October 13, 2020

The Northern Committee of the Western and Central Pacific Fisheries Commission (WCPFC)—a regional fisheries management organization dealing with tuna—met electronically on 8 October. One of the issues on the agenda was a proposal from Japan to increase the catch quota by 20 percent, as allowed by the rules of the interim harvest strategy.

The Pew Charitable Trusts, which holds observer status at the meeting, opposes the proposed increase. One of the main reasons is that the current harvest strategy has not been subjected to a management strategy evaluation (MSE). An editorial published 30 September by Pew urges the fisheries managers to implement a harvest strategy that includes an MSE.

“Harvest strategies” are pre-agreed frameworks for making fisheries management decisions, such as setting quotas. MSE’s are computer simulations that can be run for various management strategies before actually applying them. By modeling many scenarios and conditions, the MSE helps to identify the harvest strategy likely to perform best, regardless of uncertainty, and balance trade-offs amid competing management objectives. SeafoodSource spoke with Grantly Galland, an officer with The Pew Charitable Trusts’ international fisheries team, regarding the role of MSE’s in a harvest strategy.

SeafoodSource: Should the WCPFC have had an MSE from the start of its harvest strategy, or is this tool fairly recent?

Galland: Really it’s a technical issue as much as anything else. The managers at the Northern Committee intended to move towards MSE eventually, but it takes some time to technically develop the models required to simulation-test all of the different pieces of the harvest strategy. They’ve laid out a plan to move towards harvest strategies that would be tested with an MSE and now need to take the step of building the MSE. Unfortunately, they haven’t really progressed on the technical side at all. While it’s always been assumed that MSE would become a big part of the Pacific bluefin tuna harvest strategy, so far they have made very little progress towards making that happen.

We were generally pleased in 2017 when members adopted a rebuilding plan for Pacific bluefin finally after nearly a century of overfishing. And with that rebuilding plan there was a commitment to develop MSE. We certainly wouldn’t have wanted them to wait to implement a rebuilding plan until the MSE was completed, because that could take even up to a couple of years.

SeafoodSource: They have an interim target. They’ve set some goals for 2024, and then they’re going to revise that?

Galland: By 2024, they would like to have the stock back to the historic median – long-term average – of the last several decades, and then either 10 years later, or by 2034, whichever is earlier, they want the stock to be at 20 percent of its historic biomass, which means the stocks are at 20 percent of when fishing started.

Some members would see 2034 as that target automatically, and see that we may be ahead of schedule and may need to almost slow recovery  – which, of course, Pew do[es] not agree with. And other members see that “or 10 years after the historic median” and recognize that there may be an opportunity to get up to that 20 percent of historic biomass before 2034.

SeafoodSource: What would be the next step?

Galland: There’s a few steps that need to be taken. One, there was a commitment for two members to hire staff members to get this underway. That included Japan, which did hire a staff member, and the U.S., who has not yet hired a dedicated staff member to work on this. The members themselves need to come together and start thinking about what their objectives are for the MSE. The first step in the MSE process is to have your management objectives – what are you trying to accomplish with your harvest strategy – because that’s what the MSE can test.

The Northern Committee has, over the last couple of years, indicated a commitment to doing this, and now we haven’t seen the progress at the [International Scientific Committee] – the scientific body in the Northern Pacific that does the assessments of these stocks, and the lead on the MSE as well, to getting that done. There’s no one member that’s holding up the process, but what’s required is a joint recommitment to the process.

SeafoodSource: Is the coronavirus the reason for the delay?

Galland: COVID-19 could a reason that not much has happened … The Northern Committee is usually a weeklong of meetings all day and this year it will be three hours on a Thursday.

As far as other things holding up the process. There is some expense in hiring these folks and getting the right experts in the room. But we’ve learned from other tuna fisheries that it certainly is possible and in the long run is likely to save money, even on the science side, with these fisheries.

I think it’s mostly a case of seeing that the stock is very slowly increasing in size under this current system, and there may just not be an appetite to move to MSE right now. But that would be unfortunate, because MSE-based harvest strategies have so many advantages for managers and for the tuna business.

SeafoodSource: Is the WCPFC particularly slow compared to other regional fishery management organizations?

Galland: I believe [it is] … The Southern bluefin tuna is managed by a harvest strategy that’s based in MSE, and in the Northern Atlantic, it’s managed that way as well. Some other fisheries are being moved that way as well in the Atlantic [Ocean] and Indian Ocean, so at this point the Pacific as a whole is falling behind and that includes the WCPFC.

SeafoodSource: You have said that the future assumptions and projections they are relying on are not science-based. What is it about the International Science Committee’s assessment that is not science-based?

Galland: The Japanese proposal relies on an assumption that the recruitment, which is the number of small fish entering the commercial size, will turn to some very high levels. In 2017 and 2018, the recruitment has been down to historic lows. That is one of the biggest concerns. One of the things that this proposal requires to be successful is the return to high recruitment that really we don’t have any evidence to support.

SeafoodSource: Would the MSE solve this problem?

Galland: The whole advantage of the MSE is that it simulates your future populations based on a whole range of assumptions. For example, recruitment is one of the most important to the science, and the assessments need to choose a single value for recruitment and all of their assessments are based on that one. [The MSE] can do anything the managers want. [They] could say, “Let’s model everything from the lowest recruitment ever measured to the highest recruitment we’ve ever measured at five percent different levels and see how this potential harvest control rule does over that whole range of potential recruitment.”

[The MSE gives managers] an idea of what management strategy does well with high recruitment and also does well with low recruitment.

SeafoodSource: The harvest strategy sets some trigger points or goals –if we have 75 percent confidence that we can reach our target by 2024, we can increase the harvest. If we change that in the middle and say, “Since we don’t have the MSE, we’re not going to do that after all,” does it feel like moving the goalposts in the middle of the game? Does it take away the motivation of the fishing nations to go to the harvest strategy in the first place, that if they reach the target they can get a reward in more fish?

Galland: Relatively small successes in fishing management can lead to medium to long-term problems …  We shouldn’t see miniscule increases in biomass and allow that to be translated into big increases in catch, when we don’t really know how those increases will be reflected in the next stock assessment.  

Photo courtesy of The Pew Charitable Trusts

Contributing Editor reporting from Osaka, Japan

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