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As he did in 2020, Fatu Tauafiafi caught up with fisheries expert, Mr Stan Crothers in December 2021, to discuss key WCPFC18 outcomes from the perspective of the PNA plus Tokelau bloc (PNA+). Mr Crothers also shared his personal insights on key issues: harvest strategies, MSC certification, climate change, maritime boundaries, compliance monitoring and surveillance, and more as Pacific officials kick start the 2022 tuna negotiations process towards WCPFC19, set for December 2022 in Vietnam.
 

Delegates file in on opening day of the 16th Tuna Commission at the Sir John Guise stadium, Papua New Guinea. Photo: Fatu Tauafiafi.

 

Back in December 2019, Pacific negotiators were on a roll at the 16th meeting of the Western and Central Pacific Fisheries Commission (WCPFC) hosted by Papua New Guinea.

They successfully pushed through a resolution embedding climate change into all the Commission’s conservation and management measures, as well as its other work program areas.

The climate resolution was a historic paradigm shift. A victory result from a Pacific groundswell that started two years prior at WCPFC14 when the bridging measure for the Tropical Tuna was saved from the cusp of collapse. A shift that has benefitted other Pacific priorities such as progressing the albacore measure, the FFA longline strategy, the PNA longline vessel day scheme, maintaining pressure on high seas allocations for Pacific members, fast-tracking harvest strategies, re-negotiating the US Treaty and so forth.

 

Pacific negotiators convene a briefing during one of the plenary breaks at WCPFC16. Photo: Fatu Tauafiafi.

 

2020 just couldn’t come soon enough.

But those exciting prospects were well and truly scuppered by the overnight emergence of the microscopic SARS-Cov-2 virus, armed with the power of an earth-sized asteroid. As the world welcomed 2020, COVID-19 smashed head-first into the globe’s most powerful countries and regions, breaking them, and the world into a million pieces. For every second, every minute for the next 26 months, experts and world leaders grappled with how, or even if they can, piece the pre-pandemic ‘normality’ back together.

Today, as it was in 2020, COVID-19 still dominates the world – the jury still out as to what ‘normality’ may look like. As to when that may happen, the latest word from those in the know is not comforting.

Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, head of the world health organisation told world leaders in January this year that the pandemic is “nowhere near over”. Six weeks later, New Zealand epidemiologist Dr Michael Baker told media COVID-19 would stay a threat to humanity for the foreseeable future although, he noted, “living with the virus on our terms” was possible with tools such as mask-wearing, restrictions and vaccinations to dampen transmission and manage infections.

For the Pacific’s fisheries sector, that 2022 prognosis is not as dire as the agoraphobia felt on 11 March 2020 when COVID-19 was declared a pandemic.

As the world closed borders, markets tanked, air services grounded, and modus operandi shifted to online, the highly anticipated 2020 watershed year for fisheries had turned to one of uncertainty, fear, isolation and the unknown.

But to their credit, Pacific officials, their regional advisors and partners took up the challenge and confidently pivoted to focus on the one fisheries priority that mattered above all others when the Commission met at the end of 2020 – to roll over the Tropical Tuna Measure (TTM). The one move that would maintain the status quo and thereby protect the gains made up to 2019, while exposing the bare minimum to COVID-19. A move that also meant shunting most of the workload to 2021.

The strategy and diligence worked.

At the end of 2020, we spoke to a relieved Stan Crothers, fisheries advisor to Tokelau and the PNA+ to gain insights on how Pacific members fared during the pandemic’s first year.

He summed the Tuna Commission results as a “mixed bag”. And added a tired note that when meetings/negotiations shifted online from April to December, “during that period of time it would be three days, in total, that I wasn’t on a Zoom meeting”.

The 2020 result was better than expected. There was good news: the TTM was rolled over, and the purse-seine and southern longline fisheries were not impacted much. The not so good news: the northern longline fishery; the amount of the Commission work being pushed back to 2021; and the removal of travel restrictions to enable face-to-face meetings was predicted a must if there was to be success at WCPFC18.

Fast forward 12 months to December 2021. At the WCPFC18 meeting, Pacific members showed they have adapted well, albeit with reservations, to the virtual modus operandi. Although travel and face-to-face meetings did not happen, they still managed to negotiate the Commission to pass: a new TTM for the next two years; a second climate change resolution, this time specifically for the TTM; prioritising electronic reporting and electronic monitoring reforms; improvement to the swordfish measure; and an extension to the Charter Notification Scheme.

In essence, the outcomes were just about maintaining the status quo. However, unlike the 2020 results, some of the Commission’s key program areas pushed to 2022 have reached the end of their road. Harvest strategies and Maritime Stewardship Council (MSC) certification – two of the main program areas – need answers in 2022.

So, as we did in 2020, we caught up with Mr Stan Crothers to discuss key WCPFC18 outcomes from the perspective of the PNA plus Tokelau bloc (PNA+). And to share his invaluable insights on key tuna issues: harvest strategies, MSC certification, climate change, maritime boundaries, compliance monitoring and surveillance, and more as Pacific officials restart tuna negotiations prior to WCPFC19 (planned for December 2022 in Vietnam).

 

The following conversation via Zoom took place on 16 December 2021. It has been edited for length and clarity.

Stan Crothers provides fisheries advice to Tokelau as well as the Parties to the Nauru Agreement (PNA) and Pacific Islands Forum Fisheries Agency (FFA).

 

Fatu Tauafiafi: Malo ni Stan. Thanks again for taking the time to talk with us. After another year of COVID-19, congratulations on getting the tropical tuna measure through. Last week we had a media conference with the FFA panel and got their take on how Pacific members fared on their four priorities. As we did last year, can you run us through how PNA plus Tokelau landed after the meeting [WCPFC18, 1-7 Dec 2021]?

Stan Crothers: Thanks for that. Probably the highest priority for the Commission meeting this year was the renegotiation of the tropical tuna conservation and management measure. Pacific countries most affected by the measure are the PNA plus Tokelau (PNA+) and of course the Cook Islands. So, a lot of preparatory work went into renegotiating this measure. In the preceding 12 months, there were many PNA+ meetings followed by several FFA workshops with the view to building a strong Pacific SIDS [Small Island Developing States] consensus on the outcomes we were seeking.

We had some quite aspirational objectives going into the meeting. It’s fair to say that while we didn’t achieve all our objectives for the tropical tuna measure, we’re satisfied with the overall outcome because it maintained the regulatory settings that protect the tuna stocks and are reasonably beneficial for the PNA+. So, from that perspective, we lost little and were able to maintain a satisfactory conservation and management measure.

So that’s why we’re pretty satisfied with the outcome. Of course, we would have liked to have done better. But considering the circumstances of trying to negotiate these very complex measures involving a wide range of competing and conflicting interests, by way of Zoom, we probably did as well as could be reasonably expected. Electronic meeting platforms such as Zoom are great for what you might describe as business-as-usual matters or transactional type discussions and decisions. However, they are a very poor substitute for face-to-face negotiations when attempting to settle complex international agreements.

So, considering the impacts of COVID, the complexity of the issues involved, and the fact we’ve had to do a lot of this electronically – we’re pretty satisfied with the outcome.

But there is one disappointing element that came out of this; one of the SIDS, American Samoa, is suffering. Many of the issues that the purse-seine fleet and processing plant face in American Samoa can only really be addressed by the US government. To be frank, it’s not up to SIDS to fix the problems of one of the wealthiest countries in the world. However, I’m of the view that if the US government could have sat down earlier with the PNA+, something could have been put in motion for American Samoa. I am reasonably confident that we may have been able to reach some compromises. It would not have solved all their problems, but it may have provided some help to American Samoa.

[Editor’s note: At the 2017 Tuna Commission (WCPFC14) Tokelau strongly supported American Samoa’s request for some regulatory relief for their ailing canneries. Tokelau said, “We are hopeful that the specific measures negotiated in CMM2017/01 will contribute to improving the economic viability of these canneries.”]

That aside, I think we were able to maintain the basics of a very good tropical tuna measure. Yep, we are reasonably happy with that.

 

FT: The American Samoa topic takes us to the other key point, one that we talked about last year, about the value of face-to-face meetings.

SC: Yes indeed. I think we have to accept the reality that because we’re not meeting face-to-face, even maintaining the status quo will be the challenge. I think we just have to adjust our expectations that maintaining the status quo should be seen as a success in this environment. We are not going to make major progress on the big issues facing the Commission until we get back to face-to-face negotiations. When you’re dealing with people in person, there develops a greater understanding of the different interests and perspectives at play, solutions to issues are found, and people make compromises so you actually get to consensus decisions a lot quicker.

Further, when using electronic meeting platforms, it’s a lot easier for people to take strong or extreme positions without taking others’ views into account. That type of behaviour makes it more difficult to reach a consensus. I suspect we will need to develop new protocols, processes, operating procedures, et cetera to make the best use of this technology in the future.

 

FT: One of the other things that keeps coming through Stan, is the PNA credited its zone-based management approach as one of the reasons for the healthy state of its stocks. And then there is the Vessel Day Scheme [VDS] as the cornerstone of its world-leading economic performance. For a layperson like myself, can you explain to my level of understanding just what exactly makes it the success that it is?

SC: Well, the PNA Purse Seine and Longline Vessel Day Schemes, implemented under the Palau Arrangement, are successful zone-based management systems in action. The secret to the VDS’s success is the strong collective action of all nine countries that participate. The design of the VDS (essentially a cap-and-trade system), along with effective administration and strong systems support, are also critical success factors.

That’s the reason why the VDS has been amazingly successful. It has made a major contribution to the very healthy state of all the Pacific tropical tuna species and has produced positive economic rents to the governments and people of the PNA+. You know, back in 2010, it was estimated that the PNA governments were earning between US$36 and US$40 million a year from their fisheries resources. In 2020, that was over US$500 million.

And all of that comes down to the VDS and the outstanding people who administer it. It’s both a conservation tool and an economic tool. And it has enabled the owners of the resource to extract the economic rent that others had been taking in the past.

I think there are lessons that can be learnt from the VDS when we come to designing and implementing a management regime for the Southern albacore fishery. In my view, the most important of these lessons is the strong commitment to the collective action framework – that is the foundation of the VDS.

 

FT: Thanks for that. Can you share your thoughts on how the Pacific is doing on issues like climate change, the maritime boundaries and harvest strategies? Also, if you can touch on the CMS [compliance monitoring scheme], as in the FFA media conference last week FFA said they were quite happy with the CMS measure moving forward. But we note there’s a slightly different view from PNA in relation to electronic monitoring and electronic reporting. You able to elaborate on that view?

SC: On the compliance monitoring scheme, that’s the scheme the Commission uses to assess all of its members’ performance against their obligations. A well designed and functioning CMS is critical to the success of the Commission and is strongly supported by all FFA members.

However, FFA, including the PNA, for some time, have had concerns about the soundness of the current CMS. Basically, they believed that it was procedurally unfair and produced unfair outcomes and therefore needed improvement. Back in 2018, there was an agreed Commission work program to address the issues and concerns with the CMS. Unfortunately, maybe because of COVID and other things, those changes have not happened fast enough.

There’s no disagreement between the PNA+ and FFA – and indeed all the Commission members – we all need a CMS – we all need a mechanism to hold each other accountable. No problem with that.

The issue is the PNA+ thinks these reforms should have been completed and they have had enough of being subjected to an unfair process. So the PNA+ took a harder line in the Commission to get the reforms done. The PNA was saying, let’s not have a CMS measure until it’s fixed. Whereas some other members of the FFA wanted to continue using the flawed CMS and slowly improve it. So we all wanted to end up in the same place except the PNA+ wanted to end up there quicker.

Eventually in the Commission, a compromise was reached. We now have a fixed two-year term to reform the scheme. So, while there was a slight difference in approach, the outcome was the same and we ended up in a pretty good place. Another good outcome!

 

FT: Is there a slight difference in the PNA and FFA perspective with regards to observer coverage and/or replacement of observers by electronic monitoring?

SC: No. I do not see there is any difference between the FFA and PNA+ in respect to this matter.

The PNA+ are very strong on maintaining 100% observer coverage on the purse-seine fishery. They see it as of enormous value in collecting independent information that is critically important for science, management and compliance. They also see it as a good source of employment for their nationals as well. It is the sort of employment that pays reasonably well and generally, the working conditions on board are reasonably good compared to that on some longline vessels.

However, for the longline fishery, the PNA+ realise that for logistical and health and safety reasons we are never going to achieve 100% observer coverage. So that’s why in the longline fishery the PNA+ are pushing quite strongly for electronic monitoring. PNA+ Ministers have agreed to a PNA+ longline electronic monitoring programme and several Parties are trialling electronic monitoring right now. Of course, this is in total alignment with the wider, ministerially agreed FFA electronic monitoring policy.

It is fair to say that a lot of research and development work is going on in this space at the present time and as costs come down over the next two to four years, I think we will see 100% coverage and 20% sampling of all longline sets in both the tropical and southern longline fisheries.

So back to your question about differences between the PNA+ and FFA on observer coverage and electronic monitoring: From a policy direction perspective I cannot see any differences. However, you will always have different perspectives about how best to implement policies and I think that diversity of views is healthy at this stage of programme development as we work towards implementing cost-effective electronic monitoring in the long line fisheries.

 

FT: A subject that’s received breathless international coverage recently is the MSC certification – sounds fairly serious if we miss some of the deadlines being talked about?

SC: Yes this is a looming issue. One of the conditions of the Marine Stewardship Council [MSC] certification is that we essentially have to have a form of harvest strategy in place. Particularly a limit reference point, a target reference point and harvest control rules.

The PNA+ are absolutely committed to implementing harvest strategies and have been working very hard towards this outcome at the Commission. Unfortunately, other members haven’t been as committed or cooperative. Sadly we have seen some game playing by some members that has meant we have gone backwards in some areas, such as no longer having an interim target reference point for skipjack.

Progress over the last couple of years, maybe because of COVID, has been very slow indeed. As a result, the Commission is way behind its agreed work programme for implementing harvest strategies.

From my perspective, I think it is going to be a real challenge to develop and implement harvest strategies without first resolving the fundamental allocation problems that face this Commission. Without resolving the allocation problems, we will find it very difficult to align the incentives required to successfully implement harvest strategies and importantly, the management systems to support those strategies.

So this unfortunate situation means that all those people who currently have MSC certificates are starting to express real concern about the slow progress of implementing harvest strategies.

I’m not quite sure where that’s all going to end up. Whether the Marine Stewardship Council recognizes there is a problem and finds a way to give people a bit more space to do the job or, they take a hard-line and revoke certification, I just don’t know.

It would be a very strange outcome if the healthiest tuna fishery in the world – that is not overfished or there is no overfishing taking place and is largely managed by the world’s leading Vessel Day Scheme – is de-certified by MSC.

 

FT: What could happen if, let’s say, the MSC takes a hard-line and revoke the certification. What impact will it have on the PNA fisheries?

SC: I think that would be a very disappointing outcome and I certainly hope that it does not come to that.

It may force the PNA to look at other alternatives. This may include exploring different forms of certifications or it may well be that they have to look at developing their own harvest strategy.

Honestly, I really don’t know what the implications are because up until now, the PNA+ have been 100% focused on working within the Commission, to develop harvest strategies. Over the last 4-5 years the PNA+ have participated in numerous seminars, workshops, et cetera, run by SPC [Secretariat of the Pacific Community]. We would have invested hundreds of thousands of dollars in this developmental work and from the PNA+ perspective, they are ready to work constructively with other Commission members to get this job done.

Right now I don’t know how the PNA+ will respond.

The PNA’s existing certificate expires at the end of 2023. Based on the agreed Commission work plan the PNA+ had assumed that we would have harvest strategies in place by 2023. We actually wanted them in place by 2022 but we’re not going to do that now. So it’s getting pretty tight for us.

 

FT: Guess one of the positives on the PNA side is that you’ve been working at this over the past years and you probably have the capabilities and structures in place ready to roll?

SC: Yes, we’re ready to rock and roll. We’ve made the investment, SPC has been amazing in the support they have provided in this area. They have run capacity-building workshops, and they have worked with individual [PNA+] countries as well as with us collectively.

 

FT: PNA’s advanced preparation must have Tokelau well positioned for whatever happens with harvest strategies or the MSC certification?

SC: Absolutely. As you know, the Tokelau EEZ fishery is currently covered by the PNA Marine Stewardship Council certificate. When Tokelau first joined the VDS we weren’t covered by the MSC certificate. However, when the certificate was renewed about four or five years ago, we had to go through a process where all our fisheries management laws, systems and processes were audited. There were a couple of small things that we had to improve on and we got those done. And now we’re covered as part of the PNA MSC certificate. So when harvest strategies are agreed upon, we, like other VDS participants, will have the management systems in place to effectively implement them. So yes, we’re ready to go.

It’s really important that our [Tokelau] fishery is MSC certified because it actually makes it easier for us to sell our vessel days. Essentially it is a way of adding value to the vessel day products that we sell to our industry customers.

 

FT: We’ve come to the last topic which is climate change. The Commission passed texts to go into the Tropical Tuna Measure [TTM] preamble. What does that mean?

SC: Let us go back a step. Within the FFA membership, Tokelau was one of the members who led the charge on getting some climate change text into the preamble of the TTM. We were actually involved in drafting the language.

Our objective was to send a very big signal to the Commission that they needed to start thinking about the impact of climate change on fisheries, and in particular, the way in which we manage the tropical tuna fishery. We are signalling the need to take a more precautionary approach and to take account of climate change, especially when implementing articles 10 and 30 of the Convention.

We need the stocks to be managed in a way that they are more resilient than they are at present so they can withstand the environmental shocks driven by climate change. We also need a form of climate justice based upon the very simple notion that it is the actions of others who are devaluing our fishing rights.

For us it was a small first step to get the Commission to start thinking more seriously about climate change.

For all Small Island Developing States this is a ‘heart land’ issue. We are resolute in our resolve to manage our fish stocks in ways so they can withstand the inevitable environmental shocks that will be caused by climate change – we need to be more conservative so that the stocks are more resilient.

 

FT: How did Tokelau, the third smallest country [by land area] in the world [behind the Vatican, and Monaco] end up as the one that actually got it in, drove it, and drafted the language?

SC: Because Tokelau is a very low-lying ‘atoll’ country that, based on the current best available scientific information, is going to be devastated by the impacts of climate change. Not only is there a very real risk of losing our whole country, but our unique language and culture are also at risk. Further, our only economic asset that produces positive economic rents, our tuna fisheries, are also being put at serious risk by climate change. If this situation is not a reason to stand up and fight for your rights – indeed very existence – I do not know what is.

Tokelau’s FMA [Fisheries Management Agency] has been talking about climate change impacts of fisheries in the FFA and PNA for the past 6 to 7 years. Initially we got some quite surprising responses such as, “We deal with the management of fisheries. Climate change is dealt with by another department or another CROP [Council of Regional Organizations in the Pacific] agency.” But slowly and surely, people started coming on board, and that has been great.

So on behalf of all FFA members, we ended up drafting some language for the tropical tuna measure text and put it on the table. As you would expect we got feedback from several countries. We took account of their views and kept shepherding it through the Commission decision making process. In this regard, the Tokelau FMA Director, Feleti Tulafono, and the Tokelau Fisheries Advisor, Lesley Gould, did an outstanding job.

That brings us to your second question on maritime boundaries. Yes, getting the maritime boundaries negotiated and deposited with the UN is critically important. Because as sea levels rise, the baseline that measures your 200 miles is either reduced or fades away. I guess the question is if a country has an island and there is a 200 mile EEZ around it, and then the island disappears due to sea-level rise, does that mean you lose your EEZ?

So, the first step in protecting your EEZ from such circumstances is getting those baselines agreed and deposited with the UN. The second step is to clarify under international law that when the baseline changes due to sea-level rise, the coastal state retains management and use rights to that EEZ area. Finally, there needs to be an international agreement around compensation when Territorial Sea and EEZ use rights, such as fisheries, is devalued or lost because of the impacts of climate change. This final piece of the jigsaw is the important climate justice bit.

As an aside, the Tokelau Minister of Fisheries is a very strong advocate of fisheries climate justice and he has made several impassioned interventions at fisheries ministerial meetings.

So, in summary, it is a critical first step to get our act together and get these EEZ boundaries sorted.

For Tokelau, all our EEZ boundaries, except for one, have been negotiated and deposited with the UN. We have a relatively small boundary with Samoa that we are currently in the process of negotiating. Unfortunately, these negotiations have been slowed by COVID and a change of government in Samoa.

 

FT: Well, let’s finish off the same way we did last year. You said that the success of WCPFC18 would depend on air travel, as face-to-face meetings would be crucial. That has been prophetic in many ways. So, looking forward to WCPFC19 set for December 2022, what’s your prediction on how things may turn out?

SC: It’s almost the same prediction. If PNA+, FFA and WCPFC members can start meeting face-to-face, then I think we will start making significant progress on a lot of those issues that have been outstanding for the past three or four years.

I think we can make meaningful progress on harvest strategies, enhancing the CMS, and implementing improved monitoring systems in the longline fisheries. I am confident we can make significant progress under such circumstances because I know the PNA+ have done a lot of the necessary preparatory work.

If we cannot meet face-to-face, then I think the best we can do is maintain what we’ve already achieved over the last, nearly 20 years. The opportunity costs of this pandemic have been very high as we are now a long way from where we planned to be in managing the WCPO fisheries.

So, my prediction is pretty much the same as last year.

 

FT: Great. Do you have any last words on Tokelau? It has done really well during the pandemic and there have been minimal impacts on its fisheries revenue. Any big takeaways from this meeting for Tokelau?

SC: Looking at the meeting outcomes from Tokelau’s perspective, it has been reasonably successful.

I am particularly proud of the constructive efforts made by the Tokelau delegation.

Tokelau took on quite a significant role in the meeting with both the FMA Director, Feleti Tulafono, and our new Fisheries Advisor, Lesley Gould, speaking extensively – mainly on behalf of the PNA+ but also for the FFA and in advocating Tokelau’s position. So, Tokelau did its fair share of the ‘heavy lifting’ at the meeting and was able to strategically position itself as one of the key players in the Commission’s business.

Secondly, I thought that our efforts on climate change were great. You know, taking a lead on the climate change language in the tropical tuna measure is symbolically very important to us, as it is to all SIDS.

And thirdly, we were able to maintain the regulatory environment that enables us to maintain the tropical tuna stocks at very healthy and sustainable levels, while continuing to generate reasonable economic rents. There was a real risk to the sustainability of the tuna stocks and the loss of significant government fisheries revenues.

You know, this has been an interesting couple of years for the people of Tokelau – because of COVID the people have been shut off from the rest of the world. And that’s been very difficult for the FMA. The agency has had to participate in these international fisheries meetings by way of Zoom or other electronic meeting platforms. As you know the FMA is very small, has got people that are located on three separate islands and their advisors are based in New Zealand. This has meant just getting the Tokelau position together has been a lot more challenging than normal.

So when we take all of that into account, what was achieved at the 2021 Commission meeting was a very good outcome for us. But let us not forget, as I said before, the only downside was that we were not able to do more for our friends to the south in American Samoa.

 

FT: Hey, thanks so much, Stan. Look forward to doing the same in 12 months’ time. Take care, and sorry about your breakfast. I think it’s gone quite cold.

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