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Illegal, unreported, and unregulated (IUU) fishing of tuna in the Pacific has declined significantly in recent years. But sustained surveillance, control, and monitoring efforts are required to curtail this murky trade.
Allan Rahari has just emerged from the Regional Fisheries Surveillance Centre in Honiara. The Pacific Islands Forum Fisheries Agency’s (FFA) Director, Fisheries Operations, sees the high-tech centre adorned with screens displaying satellite images of the Pacific, as a crucial piece of infrastructure in the fight against IUU across the Pacific.

“As we speak now, there are regional operations underway,” he tells TunaPacific. 

“It involves bringing together different players within the region, particularly colleagues from fisheries, from the police and maritime, from the navy within member countries, coming together to work together towards combating IUU fishing,” he adds.

It’s a massive undertaking spanning millions of kilometres of ocean, thousands of vessels, and dozens of fish processing plants. But the efforts aimed at maintaining the sustainability of the key tuna fisheries in the Western and Central Pacific appear to be working.

Trending in the right direction
The last major study looking at IUU activity in the region was published in 2021 and showed major progress since the inaugural study in 2016. It found that the estimated total volume of tuna product harvested or transhipped in the Pacific involving IUU activity during 2017-19, was 192,186 tonnes, worth around US$333 million.

That was down from 306,440 tonnes, worth US$616 million in the previous period studied, from 2010 – 2015. Rahari says a key factor was improving information informing the study’s estimates.

“The 2016 study was a very first step trying to quantify IUU in the Pacific tuna fisheries,” he says.

“In the 2021 study, we learned from the 2016 study and looked at including a lot more data to support it. So it helped to clarify some of the assumptions that were made in the 2016 study.”

But monitoring, control, and surveillance (MCS) cooperation between the FFA’s 17 members has clearly also had a big impact on IUU, helping reduce the volume of fish by an estimated one-third. While illegal fishing fleets roaming the ocean and raiding island nations’ exclusive economic zones grab most of the headlines, illegal and unlicensed fishing was estimated to account for just 5% of the total in the 2021 report.

“The majority of the IUU estimates continue to be dominated by authorised or licensed fleets,” Rahari explains. 

“So these are the vessels that are licensed by our members. They are mainly engaged in what we call unreported fishing.”

A key finding of the 2021 report was that while the purse seine fishery – where fishing boats deploy a large wall of netting around an entire area or school of fish, was subject to strong MCS arrangements, the same couldn’t be said for longline fishing.
High seas effort needed
Both methods are used to catch tuna, with longline fishing occurring to a greater degree on the high seas, where vessels often tranship catch, with limited monitoring in place.

“The study highlighted the need for those stronger MCS arrangements that are within our members’ exclusive economic zones (EEZs) to be mirrored on the high seas as well,” Rahari says.

“The high seas is always a problematic area for our members, given that there are a lot of high seas areas and pockets that are adjacent to our members exclusive economic zones.” 

The  Western Central Pacific Fisheries Commission is progressing with measures to improve high-seas MCS operations. Efforts across the Pacific in this area were disrupted by the pandemic. Observers returned to fishing boats at the start of the year after a lengthy absence, with observation data starting to flow again.

Rahari describes observers as the “eyes and ears” of MCS operations.  

“They play a critical role in ensuring that there is compliance,” he says. 

“But at the same time, the observers are also there to collect scientific data to support stock assessments.”

Better observer coverage, particularly on vessels operating on the high seas, will help tackle unreported tuna catch. However the Pacific tuna fishery covers a vast body of water, and the FFA’s members have limited resources to police it. That’s where technology is increasingly coming into the picture.

As well as receiving catch data and observer reports from all over the Pacific, the Regional Fisheries Surveillance Centre also coordinates its own surveillance efforts. It has access to two aircraft, which FFA members can request use of for surveillance operations. 

Remote sensing data from satellites observing the Pacific is also giving the FFA a fuller picture of fishing activity. A key activity of the centre is offering analysis of members’ fisheries data to help them better target MCS efforts. Rahari says the centre’s staff also gather evidence packs that can be used in court cases taken against operators undertaking IUU activities.

Wider use of electronic reporting and monitoring, as well as better catch documentation is required to further whittle down the volume of tuna lost to IUU activities.

“There is a review underway of the WCPFC transshipment measures, so we are pushing some of our views through that process so that we strengthen it,” says Rahari. 

The role of technology
“But there’s also the need for ongoing monitoring and analysis of key risks, particularly through real-time analysis of key risks and trends, and also the need for systematic collection and understanding of MCS data that’s used to support our work.” 

Rahari sees the role of those engaged in MCS activities as analogous to the job a plumber does. A leaking tap will require a different tool than a burst pipe. In fisheries monitoring, control and surveillance, the FFA and its partners are drawing on an increasingly diverse range of tools – from observer data to satellite imagery and analysis of catch statistics.

Artificial intelligence is set to be one of those tools that will be drawn on to generate insights from fishing data to identify risks and trends, and help to better target MCS efforts. But training staff in the region to make the most of AI is an issue that will need to be addressed.

“The challenge really for us, the membership, and the secretariat is to continue to stay abreast of the evolving nature of technology, because technology can move really fast,” says Rahari. 

“And so if you’re not abreast of it, sometimes you can be left behind.”

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