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Back to basics in offshore fisheries management

Tuesday 25 June 2024 | Written by Supplied | Published in Opinion

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Back to basics in offshore fisheries management
The Port of Papeete where the 80 domestic longliners offload 100 per cent of their catch in French Polynesia is many, many times bigger than the Port of Avatiu. SUPPLIED/24062410

I have read with great interest the debate on offshore tuna fisheries in the Cook Islands News, and like any topic discussed in any newspaper, the discussion is limited by print space, writes Barbara Hanchard.

Opinion columns and responding letters are concerned with theories of “resident” stocks of yellowfin tuna in the north and south of the Cook Islands, the attribution of low abundance of yellowfin in the south to purse seine fishing over a period of six years, purported overfishing in the north, the value of tuna to the economy of the Cook Islands, and urgings to look to French Polynesia and New Zealand for lessons in how to develop domestic tuna fishing. Oh, and a little bit of finger pointing and blaming the Ministry of Marine Resources (MMR).

“Holding out hope for younger and better qualified fisheries scientists to explain things” to those who form opinions with little understanding of all variables in play, is probably wasted hope for any outcome they expect. Although, I think that suggestion was just meant to be an insult. Combating misinformation, or correcting misconceptions often requires significantly more energy than it takes to produce that information which lacks critical thinking and reliable sources of information dissemination in the first place.

Whichever side of the debate you sit, the bottom line for any reasonable logical argument in these matters is “best available science”. On one hand, you have those that will take limited data sets and other short term selective information to support what they strongly believe and then, there are the regional resources invested to understand the status of the “highly migratory” fish stocks in the region beginning with data first collected in the 1950s by the Pacific Community (SPC) for its member Pacific Islands countries and territories. Over time, better climatic and oceanographic data sets are being overlaid with catch data to make better predictions of not only, abundance but also the distribution of the tuna stocks in the western and central Pacific.

Whichever camp you sit in, the basic premise is that you are dealing with is a marine resource that lives in an environment out of sight for the most part, and which is subject to a complex array of variables. Unlike, counting trees in a forest, we can’t really do the same with fish. So it’s horrifying to see commentary which calculates that if 10 per cent of the juvenile yellowfin purse seine catch in the north headed south, it would result in 4200 adult fish for artisanal fisheries to catch in the south. These kinds of unqualified comments only create public hysteria.

While we are going back to basics, there is a common misconception that marine resources, or fish, are in fact “our fish”. I hear it frequently. Countries do not “own” the fish inside their exclusive economic zone (EEZ), but they do have the sovereign rights to explore, exploit, conserve and manage marine resources within the zone as accorded to them as parties to the Law of the Sea. I’m pretty sure the suggestion to join zones with neighbouring French Polynesia will go down like a lead balloon with them. But I can see them clapping their hands in glee at the suggestion of a Cook Islands EEZ 10 year no-take MPA (marine protected area), one of the more moronic suggestions expressed.

The Cook Islands has licensed foreign fishing vessels in their zone for many years, mainly purse seine in the surface fishery for skipjack and longliners targeting albacore and other tuna and tuna related species. There might have even been a Canadian troll vessel with an exploratory license back in the 1980s, if I recall correctly. Yup! that’s how old I am. The Cook Islands is party to the South Pacific Tuna Treaty with the US that provides US purse seine vessels access to EEZs since 1987. So there is a decent amount of historical catch data for the Cook Islands zone without having to whip up a frenzy from six years of purse seine data from just one fleet, and very little mention of other contributing fishing effort, nor a real understanding of what climatic conditions are doing to abundance and distribution of migratory species.

Almost, as long as foreign fishing vessels have been licensed in the Cook Islands, the Cook Island Government, through MMR have maintained a fishing aggregate devices (FADs) programme country wide to support the artisanal catch of neritic tunas, as well as low or no cost ice and machines to support what is a comparably small number of artisanal boats. So when you are comparing catches with French Polynesia, you need to appreciate that there are an estimated 360 artisanal coastal “poti marara” contributing to landed catches there for the local market, as well as lagoon and reef fishers in an EEZ (5,030,000 km2), more than twice the size of the Cook Islands’ (1,830,000 km2) and with vastly different land-to-sea geography. French Polynesia has five archipelagoes, 188 islands and atolls with their associated bathymetry and marine ecosystems supporting neritic tunas. The differing scale of fleets and zone size and geography between the neighbouring countries does not seem to have been appreciated in the context of the debate on different levels of catch between two zones and the impacts of El Nino-Southern Oscillation cycles.

So why hasn’t the Cook Islands successfully established locally based commercial tuna operations to supply tuna for domestic consumption or export profits, beyond the one decent sized joint venture longliner in the 1990s and the current two or three domestic Cook Island flagged vessels? Some of this is really common sense. There really is no reasonable sized fishing port or shore facilities here, and there is probably never going to be. The Port of Papeete where the 80 domestic longliners offload 100 per cent of their catch in French Polynesia is many, many times bigger than the Port of Avatiu. Up to 80 per cent of the tuna caught in French Polynesia is consumed locally by a population (2021 census - 279,890) that also significantly outstrips that of the Cook Islands (15,342).

Infrastructure limitations are not the only consideration that needs to be taken into account when making comparisons. While they have not licensed foreign fishing vessels since 2020, the fishing industry in French Polynesia is complex and heavily subsidised by local tax law for cheaper fuel, ice, VAT exemptions on fishing equipment and air freight costs for the 20 per cent of their longline catch that actually gets exported (94 per cent to US and 4 – 5 per cent of ULT (ultra-low temperature) frozen loins to France). There are also French investment subsidised tax incentives for locally built fishing vessels that include 70 per cent of the cost of construction as a ‘tax investment incentive’. So, for the two new locally-built ULT 22 metre longliners, investors only needed to come up with 30 per cent of the construction costs. Infrastructure upgrades at the fishing port are all paid for by taxes and 0 per cent French Agency development loans.

Stock abundance aside, could the Cook Islands improve the level of tuna landed for local and tourist consumption, to a degree probably, but you would need to rethink the arbitrary 50-mile commercial fishing moratorium imposed by the Marae Moana Act, find willing investors, provide heavy subsidies and put some really smart economic investment strategists to work, one of which I am not.

Coming full circle, back to the views, that there are yellowfin ‘resident’ stocks (remains in quotation marks as I don’t ever recall a tuna scientist ever referring to tuna stocks as being resident), and that purse seine fishing effort in the northern Cooks has ‘collapsed’ the yellowfin stocks in the south, again with the hysterics. I would suggest that you would need to apply the same scientific scrutiny to those arguments, that are being suggested as lacking in the views quoted as being made by MMR, or from those people that have commented so far, who have had long careers in offshore fisheries management.

  • Barbara Hanchard is semi-retired from a 30-year career in regional offshore fisheries policy. She holds a Master’s degree in Ocean Resource Management from the University of Tasmania and the Australian Maritime College. Her fisheries career commenced at the Ministry of Marine Resources and includes 16 years at the Pacific Islands Forum Fisheries Agency in the Solomon Islands with a coordinating role in the negotiation of the Western and Central Pacific Fisheries Convention.