Thursday, June 7, 2012

Fishing it up

The state of Nauru reef fisheries.

Before going into reef fisheries let's consider tuna for a minute. There are plenty of skipjack tuna in Nauru waters. Oceangoing fishing vessels catch around 50,000 tonnes a year here - a catch which the best scientific minds of the Pacific reckon is fully sustainable - and the income from which contributes in a major way to the Nauru economy.

It's not just foreign consumers and the Nauru government budget that benefits from this healthy tuna resource. Small boats and canoes fishing in the blue water just outside the Nauru reef can bring in plenty of tuna on a good day.

But talk to Nauru fishermen about the fish on the Nauru reef and they turn pessimistic. "Things were better in the old days", they will say."We used to be able to catch big coral trout and groupers, but nowadays we hardly see them. We used to catch plenty of lobsters. We used to see giant clams".

And unlike some other Pacific Islands, which put the blame on tourists or climate change, Nauru fishermen are clearsighted about where the problem lies. Too many people fishing in too small an area.

What is the answer? Again, if you ask fishermen, the reply is usually "the Government needs to do something about it".

The trouble is, Governments in most Pacific Island countries have problems finding enough money to manage reef fisheries - even reef fisheries which are in much better shape than Nauru's - when that money is urgently needed for national priorities in health, education and public instrastructure.

Why is this? Why do Pacific Islands have one of the best-managed joint tuna fisheries in the world when some of them are struggling with their own reef fisheries?

Pacific Island Governments are able to effectively manage tuna fisheries for three main reasons:

  • there are only 3 or 4 tuna species to look after (depending on the area) and we already know a lot about their biology;
  • the vast majority of tuna is caught by oceangoing vessels which are used to providing comprehensive catch reports, being monitored by independent observers (paid for by the boats themselves), with satellite position locators switched on at all times;
  • governments work together: there is a high level of inter-Pacific Island cooperation to control these fisheries, expressed through organisations such as the Nauru Agreement, the Forum Fisheries Agency and the Oceanic Fisheries Programme of the Secretariat of the Pacific Community

But for reef fisheries covering hundreds of species, involving large numbers of small boats or divers, most of whom are not accustomed or not able to report to government every time they land a catch of fish, with few incentives for regional cooperation, and with little known about the biology and sustainable levels of fishing for most of these species and, of course, no hope of full "cost recovery" from the fishermen to finance government management, things are much more difficult.

However, despite these region-wide constraints, many Pacific Islands' reef fisheries are in better shape than Nauru's because of fisheries management traditions.

In some islands this may be manifested through strong community ownership of exclusive rights to fish, or to control the activities of others on specific areas of reef. In others there are age-old understandings within the community about what kind of fish it is proper to catch in what season, or in what area, or with what kind of fishing gear, coupled with occasional bans on all fishing for a time in certain areas.

In short, these reef fisheries are in better shape because Government does not have the entire responsibility of sustaining these highly diverse, diffuse coastal fisheries, and can rely upon local communities themselves to play a part in looking after their own reef areas. The areas where they have traditionally exercised custodial responsibility.

Nauru used to have such systems, but the various trials and tribulations of the 20th century have caused these traditions to all but disappear. And where there are no longer many traditional understandings to fall back on, it is a risk for anyone who decides to restrict their own fishing when they know there is a good chance that their neighbour will not do the same thing. Especially when food is needed for the family table and paid employment is scarce.

So what is to be done for Nauru's reef fisheries? The answer most likely lies in government-community collaboration, or "co-management". Government develops the regulatory framework, provides scientifically-valid information and advice, and some initial help to communities in getting things up and running, whilst communities themselves take charge of many of the day-to-day decisions about how best to restore reef fisheries to sustainable levels of production.

This plan is already in action. The Nauru Fisheries and Marine Resources Authority has been holding consultations to help communities design management plans for local fisheries, and is currently developing a legal framework for Cabinet consideration, which could allow communities to take part in decisions about their own fisheries or to discuss with other communities and help decide how fisheries which cover more than one district should be managed. The last piece of the puzzle - the government advisory service on reef fishery resources - is now beginning to take shape.

Being Yeeting and Deirdre Brogan from the Secretariat of the Pacific Community are currently in Nauru helping NFMRA staff to design an artisanal fisheries survey programme, and provide training in operating the programme - survey and measuring techniques, fish identification, and entering, analysing and reporting the information collected.

SPC's Being Yeeting works with Nauru fisheries staff

Nauru fishermen are in for an interesting time, if being interrogated by NFMRA staff every time they land their catch can be called interesting. But it is all in a good cause, and at least the information is being compiled for them instead of needing to be written down and sent in to the regulatory authority by the fishermen themselves, as happens in most other countries.

NFMRA has had an artisanal (small-scale fisheries) data-collection activity running for some years, but it has concentrated on the local boat-based tuna catch to help fulfil Nauru's international reporting obligations. This is the first time the system has been systematically expanded to cover as many small-scale fisheries as possible, including reef-gleaning, spear-fishing and night-fishing, and with enough coverage to get reasonably accurate results.

As well as helping NFMRA develop its regular reef fisheries monitoring and community fisheries information service, this work will contribute to Nauru's efforts to monitor the effects of climate change - by identifying changes in reef fish populations and species composition that might be correlated with climate trends - and it will also help pinpoint the fish and invertebrates that are most in need of concentrated attention by communities, and identify the areas that might make the best Marine Protected Areas. MPAs have recently been demonstrated to provide greater benefits - in terms of the juvenile fish they contribute to surrounding fishable areas - than the problems they cause by displacing fishermen into those surrounding areas - something that was previously in doubt.

It will even help to make Nauru's Gross Domestic Product estimates more accurate, by providing regular and more reliable figures on how much fish is landed in Nauru by Nauruans, and what contribution this may have to the local economy.

Deirdre and Being have both been working for SPC for several years, and between them have a vast fund of Pacific Island fisheries experience.

Deirdre, from Ireland, previously worked with observer data-collection programmes aboard fishing vessels, and was the first female observer to work aboard tuna boats in the Pacific Islands region. Although her work is now more land-based, she spends much of her time travelling from country to country helping Pacific Island governments improve their national tuna fishery monitoring.

Being, from Kiribati, has been working on the coastal fisheries side, and has also been just about everywhere. Previously, he concentrated specifically on helping Pacific Island governments and communities in the management of live reef food fish and aquarium fish export industries, but is now covering the entire range of reef fisheries.

So what else can NFMRA do to help Nauru communities from fishing themselves out of reef fish? Nearshore Fish Aggregation Devices are one of the Authority's other tools. FADs help fishermen to target more abundant oceanic fish and still bring home a catch whilst relieving pressure on the vulnerable reef- and bottom-dwelling fish.

Also, NFMRA has applied for an extension of the AusAID-funded Fisheries Management Institutional Strengthening Project (FM-ISP), which has been helping NFMRA for 3 years to improve its management of the industrial tuna fishery - in particular consolidating the crucial foreign exchange revenue that foreign fishing on Nauru's rich tuna resources generate for the national economy. This revenue has achieved a major and sustainable increase during the lifetime of the project, and now is time to turn attention to Nauru's beleaguered reef fisheries.

If approved, the FM-ISP extension will help NFMRA to achieve a similar quantum leap in the protection and management of coastal fisheries. If implemented with care, this protection should eventually result in an increase in reef fishery production, by restoring areas to full productivity. Once a fish resource becomes overfished, increasing the fishing pressure reduces the catch, since the breeding stock becomes too small to replenish the biomass. It may seem paradoxical, but reducing the total amount of fishing, or setting areas aside for total protection, should actually increase the total catch.

This only works for severely overfished resources of course. Reducing fishing on a resource that is not overfished can only reduce the catch. It is NFMRA's job, with the assistance of SPC, to determine which reef resources are in fact severely overfished, and where community and government effort will do the most good, without costing more than the country can afford.

These reef fisheries may not generate millions of dollars for the Nauru economy, but they provide a good part of the nutritional protein that is the bedrock of Nauru's continuing food security.

And, as most Nauruans will admit, they taste better than tuna and other ocean surface fish. We may be able to continue living off abundant sustainable tuna resources, but it will be sad day when we have tasted our last blue-line snapper or black trevally.

Saturday, March 31, 2012

Nauru repeats call for High Seas Pockets to be closed to distant-water longlining

At the 8th Meeting of the Western and Central Pacific Fisheries Commission this week the Nauru delegation tabled a draft Conservation and Management Measure that sought to prevent fishing by distant water longliners in the high seas enclaves  (areas of international waters that are completely enclosed by Pacific Island Exclusive Economic Zones and already prohibited to purse-seine fishing)

Charleston Deiye, CEO of the Nauru Fisheries and Marine Resources Authority introduced the draft measure, pointing out to the assembled national delegations that this was a very simple proposal with two main objectives: improved conservation of bigeye tuna, and better control of illegal, unregulated and unreported (IUU) fishing.

He drew the attention of the commission to the latest WCPFC Science Committee report which had suggested that spatial closures extending to longline fisheries as well as purse-seine fisheries would produce positive effects on the biomass of bigeye tuna, provided that this effort was not transferred elsewhere.

Mr Deiye pointed out that many longline vessels operating in the high seas pockets are obviously not abiding by commission rules, and could be considered "IUU". He said “the control of fishing on the high seas is the core business of the commission, but if the members of the Commission do not grant it the capacity to curb or even warn adjacent coastal States about high seas violations, the Commission cannot perform its main function. Unless the Commission is allowed greater control of fishing on the high seas, the only effective way of limiting the impact of distant water longliners on the bigeye stock is to prevent their activities in these areas entirely”.

He asked the Commission to consider either approving a stand-alone conservation and management measure (CMM) to enact this prohibition, or to incorporate a high seas pockets longline ban into the comprehensive new CMM on tropical tunas that was under discussion.

Unfortunately by the end of the week, the Commission membership had agreed to neither. And far from implementing a restriction on distant-water longliners to match the restriction on purse-seiners that has been in place for the last three years, the Commission had actually opened up the far western high seas pocket to a number of purse-seiners. In terms of removing excess fishing mortality on bigeye tuna, this was a step backwards rather than a move forwards.

“It is like 2007 all over again”, said Mr Deiye. In 2007 the Parties to the Nauru Agreement (PNA) came to the Commission meeting in Guam asking distant water fishing nations to agree on measures to halt overfishing of bigeye tuna. However, the Commission members failed to agree to any measures, and it was left to the PNA to take unilateral action in their own waters – a 3 month FAD closure, a prohibition on fishing in high seas pockets, 100% observer coverage and full tuna catch retention. The PNA island states were aided by the fact that their combined waters cover most of the range of the western Pacific purse-seine fishery. Consequently, at the 2008 meeting, the Commission was presented with a “fait accompli”, and it was but a small further step to agree to similar measures extending over the whole commission area, given that the PNA measures already covered most of the purse-seine fishery.

Longlining may be more difficult to control. As Mr Deiye explained, “longliners are smaller than purse-seiners, their catch is more valuable, and there are a lot of vessels operating entirely on the high seas without needing to access national waters. The purse-seiners need to access our waters to make a living, but the longliners can afford to sit outside our borders and cream off the bigeye and yellowfin tuna that we are conserving by restricting the purse-seine fisheries within our EEZs.

The Parties to the Nauru Agreement can take some action to manage longliners – indeed the PNA Longline Vessel Days Scheme, which caps longline effort in PNA waters, is planned to come into effect on January 1st 2013. Unfortunately, without the Commission taking compatible action on the high seas, the PNA longline measures are unlikely to be as effective as the EEZ-dependent purse-seine measures were in 2008.

“We hope the Commission membership gets the message before the next meeting in December” said Mr Deiye. “I don’t see why coastal state waters should continue to bear most of the conservation burden for western Pacific tuna fisheries.”

Is he aware that the longline catch of bigeye appears to have reduced over the last three years? "Yes", said Mr Deiye, "but it is interesting that the amount of time spent fishing by longliners has actually increased, according to electronic vessel monitoring systems. A lot of these boats fish exclusively on the high seas, and very few of them have observers aboard. How accurate is their catch reporting I wonder? How much of this fish gets recorded? And how much of it is taken away by fish carriers after high seas transhipments which have not been authorised by the Commission?"