Abuse at sea – “we were paid nothing at all”. One of a series of testimonies by abused fishermen. Video: Greenpeace
Transhipment – the process of transferring fish at sea from a smaller fishing vessel to a larger storage vessel – has been linked to overfishing, and calls have been made for a Pacific-wide ban. Asia-Pacific Journalism reports.
Report – By Michael Neilson
Pressure is mounting to outlaw Pacific region transhipments – a practice linked to overfishing – after Nauru’s decision to impose a ban in its waters.
This decision follows Greenpeace’s discovery of the Taiwanese longliner Shuen De Ching No. 888, which the environmental organisation claims had been fishing without permission near Nauru’s waters for two months.
Along with an illegal amount of shark fins, Greenpeace said the logbook also showed an implausibly low catch of five tonnes, suggesting the vessel had been transferring undocumented fish to another ship.
Greenpeace’s Rainbow Warrior III has been traveling throughout the Pacific over the past few months, monitoring the tuna industry.
Speaking from the ship before the discovery, senior oceans campaigner Karli Thomas told Pacific Scoop that Greenpeace was pushing for a regional ban on transhipments to be on the agenda at the Western Central Pacific Fisheries Commission meeting in December.
“The tuna fisheries in the region are out of control, and particularly the longline sector.
“[Transhipment] is giving fishing vessels the ability to stay at sea almost indefinitely, and some of these fleets are fishing only on the high seas.”
She said the Pacific Island nations are losing out: both their fishermen, as tuna stocks are plundered, and on jobs and income as the vessels bypass their ports.
Greenpeace are also concerned with the ability to monitor human rights violations.
“Their crew can’t get off, so if they are in a situation of exploitation they don’t have the chance to get away,” said Thomas.
Too many boats
“There are too many boats chasing too few fish,” said Bubba Cook, western central Pacific tuna manager for the World Wildlife Fund (WWF).
“Big eye tuna down is down to 16 percent of unfished levels, and yellowfin down to 20 percent. Skipjack and albacore stocks are still salvageable but we need to act now,” said Cook.
There are currently almost 3500 longliners and 300 purse seiners operating in the WCPFC waters.
Charles Hufflett, chairman of the Nelson-based Solander group, which has had an associate longline fishing company in Fiji since 1981, said while the number of vessels and amount of fish being caught is increasing, the catch per ship is falling.
“You’ve only got to go to Suva harbour and see 130 vessels anchored off there, all quite new. It’s just over capacity.”
Regional transhipment ban
There is currently a ban on transhipments for purse-seiners in the high-seas, in the Western Central Pacific Fisheries Commission (WCPFC) area, but longliners are excluded.
Nauru joins the Marshall Islands and Tuvalu, which also have total bans on transhipment in their exclusive economic zones (EEZs).
Papua New Guinea, Micronesia, Vanuatu and Samoa all have bans on foreign vessels only, New Zealand and Tokelau prohibit the practice “with exceptions”, and the Cook Islands, Fiji, Kiribati and the Solomon Islands allow the practice with government authorisation.
Thomas said this showed there was awareness it was a damaging practice and there needed to be a regional agreement to stop vessels from finding loopholes.
Cook said that although a ban on transhipments, and high-seas fishing, were the “simplest solutions”, they were politically difficult.
“The WCPFC is a consensus-based decision-making body, and you only need one country to object, then nothing happens.
“When you have countries that are so heavily dependent on transhipment, like many of the Asian states, you’ll never get them to agree to a full ban.”
Cook said more resources were needed to go into properly monitoring transhipments.
“We need to make sure observers have the tools they need and the protection they need to do their job on 100 percent of the transhipments, both on the receiving vessel and on the delivering vessel.”
This view is consistent with that of New Zealand’s Ministry for Primary Industries.
In a statement to Pacific Scoop, a spokesperson said such issues would not get consensus from the WCPFC, as it would be shut down by distant water fishing nations, whose fleets would be impacted on economically
“To build consensus around better management of these issues, New Zealand is working on clearly defined limits for fishing on the high seas, strengthening of current rules for transhipment, and better management of and research into the impact of FADs.”
Hufflett said only those nations that wanted more ships to use their ports were pushing for a regional ban, and that it would not solve the problem of overfishing.
Hufflett said transhipment makes economic sense for some vessels, although his company did not perform the practice.
“If you want to catch fish the most economic way, such as a purse seiner 10 days away from American Samoa, it is ridiculous to say it should go back and forth, when it could just tranship on the high sea with observers and proper control.”
Hufflett said with video-monitoring systems (VMS) and proper observers, transhipping should not be an issue.
He was more concerned with the highly subsidised foreign fleets that local fishermen could not compete with.
Fix at the market
Hufflett said the market could address overfishing, by certifying the fish and certifying the buyers.
He said this could be done with proper catch-documentation and restrictions on importers, so they only imported properly documented fish.
The Marine Stewardship Council (MSC) certification system, of which Solander is a member, follows a similar procedure.
Instead of focusing purely on the methods used to catch fish, they ensure the fish are coming from sustainable sources, analyse the impacts the catch methods have on their particular marine eco-system, and that the fish can be traced back to those sources.
“Our chain of custody standard looks at traceability to ensure no illegal or unregulated fish, or non-certified seafood is mixed or substituted with MSC certified seafood,” said MSC regional director of Asia Pacific, Patrick Caleo.
Caleo said awareness about buying traceable, sustainably caught seafood is growing, and so too economic opportunities for the fishing industry.
Michael Neilson is a Postgraduate Diploma in Communication Studies student journalist at AUT University.