Feature Story

Fishing for the future: Transforming management of tuna fisheries in the Pacific

October 26, 2016

Boats in the Caspian Sea
"But fishing is also the foundation of livelihoods and employment for the majority of people living on islands in this region. "

“I have been involved in the fisheries sector in one capacity or another all my working life. So I have had a long period over which to observe and experience, from different perspectives, the issues that affect the fisheries sector in the Western and Central Pacific. The story I have to tell is one of ‘David and Goliath’ in the fisheries world – it is a story of transformational change in fisheries management, involving Pacific Small Island Developing States (SIDS), and the wider powers of global fisheries operators.

The waters of the Western and Central Pacific hold the most important tuna fishing grounds in the world, providing about 60 percent of global supply. But fishing is also the foundation of livelihoods and employment for the majority of people living on islands in this region. Tuna represents a critical source of revenue and is one of the few commercially viable natural resources these Pacific island states can use to buoy up their economies and create jobs. In the mid-nineties, with no legally-binding framework to govern co-operation on tuna fishing between countries, or local and global operators, there were serious management deficiencies across the range of the fish stock, including in the high seas beyond national jurisdictions. Over-exploitation of the fishery resource was threatening the ecological integrity of the large marine ecosystem that supports these fish stocks, with serious implications for the well-being of the region’s people and the global community.

In 1997, the Pacific SIDS Strategic Action Program (prepared with support of UNDP and the GEF), identified key challenges facing the tuna fishery. These included weaknesses in national and regional level fisheries management and governance, and a lack of information available to senior decision-makers to help them understand the root causes of unsustainable actions, and respond to them appropriately. There was also a critical need to cement a role for Pacific SIDS in tuna management and to empower them in their negotiations with larger nations, many of whom were politically far more influential.

This gave rise to a series of GEF-funded Pacific Oceanic Fisheries Management projects that were supported by UNDP and implemented by the Forum Fisheries Agency (FFA) and the Pacific Community (SPC). These projects worked to facilitate negotiations for, and signing of, the Western and Central Pacific Fisheries (WCPF) Convention and the subsequent establishment and operation of the WCPF Commission. This provided the legal and institutional foundation for improving fisheries management. The projects provided advice and support to these processes, almost certainly bringing the Convention into operation far sooner and faster than would otherwise have been possible. At the same time, the projects worked to strengthen fisheries governance at national and regional levels, building the confidence and capacity of the Pacific SIDS to contribute to the negotiations and implement the Convention. Stakeholder participation was really high, and existing institutions, such as the Forum Fisheries Agency, were fully integrated into the process, enhancing their capacity to contribute to improved management and decision-making into the future.

As a result of the projects, conservation and management of transboundary oceanic fishery resources has been profoundly improved. Through the Parties to the ‘Nauru Agreement’ (PNA), a purse-seine vessel day-scheme has been implemented, which sets limits on numbers of vessels and fishing days. This has resulted in more sustainable catch volumes and – through an auction mechanism for vessel days – has generated as much as US$ 400 million (in 2015) for the eight PNA member countries. The Project supported the introduction of the world’s largest on-board Observer programme (including 100 percent coverage on tropical purse-seine vessels), which has contributed to achieving more responsible and sustainable harvesting, and has generated significant employment. The introduction of a satellite-based vessel-tracking program has helped strengthen enforcement and compliance, and improved scientific understanding assists with monitoring tuna (and other) stocks, and supports more informed decision-making.

The Food and Agriculture Organization has partnered with the GEF and UNDP in supporting a third phase of this work, which is implemented by FFA. We are building on earlier successes and supporting Pacific SIDS with implementation and enforcement of regional and sub-regional arrangements for the conservation and management of transboundary oceanic fisheries. We have come a long way, but there is still much to do. Having started my fisheries journey on a lobster boat, I find it tremendously exciting to be working with highly efficient technical processes and dynamic agencies to conserve an economic resource of global value and contribute to global food security and a more sustainable future for Pacific Islanders.”

HUGH WALTON  is employed by the Pacific Islands Forum Fisheries Agency (FFA) as Chief Technical Advisor and Project Coordinator of the Pacific Islands Oceanic Fisheries Management Project (supported jointly by the GEF, UNDP and FAO). Since 1978, he has worked in the fisheries sector in the West and Central Pacific in many capacities, with first-hand experience working on different kinds of fishing vessels. He has held numerous positions as a fisheries researcher, trainer and technical adviser and for four years was head of the New Zealand School of Fisheries. He worked as a Fisheries Development Adviser and as a Fisheries Policy Specialist, before taking up his current position in 2015.

The waters of the Western and Central Pacific provide the majority of the world’s tuna harvest, as well as other important fish stocks. These highly migratory fish are capable of swimming large distances across national maritime boundaries. Persistent overfishing, resulting from weak regional governance and management of fish stocks, places this globally significant fishery at risk, with serious negative impacts on Pacific Small Island Developing States.

Between 1998 and the present, UNDP has provided support to Pacific Island states, the Forum Fisheries Agency and the Pacific Community, through a series of GEF-funded projects to address weaknesses in national and regional level fisheries management, promote cooperation and empower small islands to engage on a more equal footing with larger states and distant water fishing nations. These projects have set in motion processes and strategies for bringing into force and implementing the Western and Central Pacific Fisheries Convention. With additional support from the Food and Agriculture Organisation, the work continues, with emphasis shifting to implementation of conservation and management measures, giving   specific protection to threatened species and key habitats.

This story was originally published in "Voices of Impact: Speaking for the Global Commons" by UNDP in 2016.