After two years of online meetings, the 19th annual Regular Session of the Western and Central Pacific Fisheries Commission (WCPFC19) was held from the 28 November to 3 December in Danang, Vietnam. The Australian National Centre for Ocean Resources and Security (ANCORS) has observer status at the WCPFC, allowing us to attend this meeting and see first-hand the collective decision-making process regarding the management of tuna and tuna-like species in the Western and Central Pacific Ocean (WCPO).
With 60% of the global tuna supply coming from the WCPO, the WCPFC has the important task of sustainably managing and conserving these species. Currently, the four main target species – yellowfin, bigeye, skipjack, and South Pacific albacore – are in a healthy state and no overfishing is occurring. Despite this, it is important that members continue to strengthen the management of these fish stocks to ensure their long-term sustainability.
“Don’t skip skipjack” – with this message from NGO observers emblazoned on t-shirts, members worked hard during the week to achieve consensus on a management procedure (MP) as part of a harvest strategy for skipjack tuna. This was an important step towards enhanced management for this economically important species. An MP is a preapproved management action in response to changes in a fishery. One of the big advantages of having MPs in place is that the fishery is managed under a long-term strategy and does not rely on ad-hoc and reactive decisions.
Additionally, members agreed to amend CMM 2014-06 on establishing a harvest strategy for key fisheries and stocks in the WCPO. The amendment notes that, independent of timelines in the Commission’s harvest strategy workplan, members will develop harvest control rules for yellowfin, bigeye, skipjack and South Pacific albacore before the stocks start to decline below the levels capable of producing maximum sustainable yield. Harvest control rules are a key element of an MP. While a skipjack MP was adopted at this meeting, MPs for the other three species have not yet been adopted.
WCPFC members also made important progress in the protection of bycatch species. After difficult discussions, a revised CMM for sharks was adopted, based on a proposal put forward by the United States and Canada. The revised CMM strengthens bycatch minimisation and safe release practice. For example, the amended measure prohibits the use of wire traces as branch lines or leaders by longline vessels between 20 degrees N and 20 degrees S. Banning wire leaders decreases the bycatch and mortality of sharks. As an alternative, fishers may use nylon monofilament leaders, which sharks can bite through and escape. Fishers are also required to release sharks as soon as possible to reduce stress and to increase survival rates.
Besides discussions around MPs and sharks, members stressed the importance of considering climate change. To progress work on climate change and the potential impact on fish stocks and coastal member states, members agreed to have a standing agenda item on climate change at meetings of the Commission and its subsidiary bodies. Another important topic is the WCPFC’s work on crew labour standards. All members reiterated their support for, and commitment to, ongoing work to develop a binding CMM on crew labour standards.
However, on a few issues members were not able to reach a consensus, notably one on proposed revisions to CMM2009-03 on southwest Pacific swordfish. The proposal aimed to include components such as catch limits for fleets both targeting swordfish and those that take swordfish as bycatch and a sub-regional zone-based management approach. Although work on this measure has been ongoing since WCPFC16 in 2019, members were not able to agree.
Although some proposals did not succeed, the meeting scored some important wins for the region’s fisheries and for the small island developing states of the Pacific Islands Forum Fisheries Agency (FFA).. The outcomes document is normally posted on the WPCFC website in around April the following year. On a final note, it is also important to highlight the very effective leadership of the outgoing Chair, Ms Jung-re Riley Kim, the outgoing Executive Director of the WCPFC Secretariat, Mr Feleti Teo, and the appointment of a new Chair, Dr Josie Tamate, and a new Executive Director, Ms Rhea Moss-Christian. In addition to the Director General of the FFA and the Director of the Office of the Parties to the Nauru Agreement, the appointments of Dr Tamate and Ms Moss-Christian have established a strong female regional leadership team in the fisheries of the WCPO. – As Ms Kim remarked in closing, “the boys need to catch up”.