Ocean Equity Research

ANCORS at the 20th meeting of the Western and Central Pacific Fisheries Commission

From the 4th to the 8th of December 2023, 26 Member States, Participating Territories, and Cooperating Non-Member states met in Rarotonga, Cook Islands, to discuss the conservation and management of the most valuable tuna fishery in the world. ANCORS was one of the observers alongside NGOs and industry organisations.

The 20th Regular Session of the Western and Central Pacific Fisheries Commission (WCPFC) had a busy agenda, with the key focus being the negotiations for a revised Tropical Tuna Measure (TTM). Due to the different economic interests of the members, discussions referred to trade-offs between the purse seine fisheries targeting skipjack and longline fisheries targeting bigeye and yellowfin tuna. Members reminded each other of the need to ensure a balance between these fisheries with the TTM negotiated as a package deal. After lengthy deliberations, members finalised the revised TTM on Friday night at 3.30 am. In the final TTM, members agreed, inter alia, to reduce purse seine FAD (i.e., fish aggregating device) closures in exchange for an up to 10% increase on existing longline catch limits, the FAD closures within coastal state exclusive economic zones (EEZs) being reduced from 3 to 1.5 months and the high seas FAD closure from 5 months to 2.5 months. The increased catch limit for the longline fishery targeting bigeye tuna (is conditional upon a proportional increase in observer coverage.

Important progress was also made in other areas, most notably on the management of South Pacific Albacore (SPA). Members adopted an interim Target Reference Point for SPA. Target Reference Points identify the desired status level of the target species and are an important component of harvest strategies, a management approach that relies on a pre-agreed framework to make management decisions. Harvest strategies aim to reduce lengthy negotiations by having pre-approved decisions, based on the best available science. Members agreed to a workplan for next year on progressing the work on SPA, including plans for a Science-Management Dialogue.

The Commission adopted important language on climate change, recognising the need for climate change considerations in the work of the Commission and its subsidiary bodies. The importance of this work is critically important for Pacific Island States and territories, which are at the forefront of climate change impacts. Progress was also made on Pacific bluefin tuna and North Pacific albacore. While no progress was made on developing a binding measure on crew labour standards, members committed to adopting a measure at next year’s meeting.

A key aspect of the work of regional fisheries management organisations, such as the WCPFC, is ensuring compliance. At this year’s meeting, a proposal was presented that aimed to address the impact of the imbalance in observer coverage between purse seine and longline vessels. While purse seine vessels require 100% observer coverage, longline vessels currently require only 5%. This uneven distribution of observer coverage results in an uneven assessment of compliance, with purse seine vessels more likely to face non-compliance infringements compared to longline vessels. This proposal called for a sampling mechanism to achieve the same level of coverage in the compliance monitoring reporting for purse seine as for longline vessels. However, the proposal did not address the root of the imbalance (i.e., 5% vs 100%) and members need to do more work to increase the longline observer coverage.  

Due to time constraints and concerns from FFA members that they required further time for preparation, no progress was made on allocation for tropical tuna fisheries, despite proposals by Korea and Japan. Nor was there any progress on establishing hard limits for the high seas purse seine fisheries due to a substantial divergence in views. The proposal to develop an allocation framework and establish hard limits for the high seas was referred to in 2026. Similarly, failure to reach an agreement on transhipment was disappointing with progress now stalled.

Overall, WCPFC20 was a successful meeting with important progress on the TTM and SPA. Compared to other meetings, the dynamics among members changed slightly. For example, the Parties of the Nauru Agreement (PNA) and the South Pacific Group (SPG) focused on different priorities, despite all being members of the Pacific Island Forum Fisheries Agency (FFA) – which has traditionally been known for its cohesiveness. Moreover, participating territories, such as American Samoa, New Caledonia and French Polynesia, were more vocal than usual, particularly on issues of importance to them such as the management of SPA, and the need to avoid a disproportionate burden. These changes could foreshadow longer-term shifts in the dynamics within WCPFC meetings.

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