NADI, Fiji — A lot was said over the past five days in the conference rooms and hallways of the Sheraton Fiji Resort, during kokoda lunches poolside and lobster dinners at the nearby marina.
But all that talk didn’t amount to much.
The Western and Central Pacific Fisheries Commission wrapped up its annual meeting Friday as it often has in the past, with many of its international members and nonprofit advocates frustrated by the slow progress made on pressing issues like tuna overfishing and overall accountability on the high seas.
Some left shaking their heads in dismay. Others departed with a tired indifference. A few flew home before the commission adjourned.
But some action was taken amid signs that the commission may become more functional under the leadership of Chair Rhea Moss-Christian.
Overall, she said she was “extremely pleased” with the commission’s progress.
“In comparison to prior years we were able to have a lot more focused discussions on some real critical issues, especially related to tuna management overall,” she said.
“What happened this week is really setting the new tone for how the commission addresses any stocks in critical condition or in an overfished state.”
In the hours leading up to the end of the meeting, tensions mounted over a measure to improve observer safety aboard fishing vessels. It’s been a longstanding concern given the reports of abuse, harassment and even a few deaths at sea as these individuals independently monitor fishing activities aboard commercial tuna boats.
The U.S. was tasked last year with coming up with a draft proposal, which it did. A small working group spent hours revising it this week, working late into Thursday night to come up with a measure that all the member nations could agree to.
But as Friday wore on, it became clear that Japan was not on board. In only the second time in the commission’s history, members decided a matter should be put to a vote. Business is normally done by reaching a unanimous consensus.
Observer safety has been a longstanding concern given the reports of abuse, harassment and even a few deaths at sea.
Moss-Christian, in her second year as chair, set a time of 6:10 p.m. to hold the vote. The move worked, as the Japanese delegation changed course and announced that it would go along with the measure without needing to call a vote.
The measure actually gives Japan an exemption, because the Japanese delegation says it has domestic laws that may interfere with its ability to implement it. But the measure also requires Japan to detail the impediments to implementation along with what steps it is taking to overcome them.
At least two fisheries observers from Papua New Guinea were reportedly killed at sea last year, and an American observer went missing while working on a Panamanian-flagged fishing vessel 500 miles off the coast of Peru.
The commission’s measure lays out the rules for fishing vessels to follow should an observer die, go missing or fall overboard, such as ceasing all activity and immediately alerting authorities and nearby vessels. It also empowers the observers to order the vessel back to port in the case of intimidation or harassment.
Moss-Christian called it an “extremely important outcome” that happened after an “immense amount of work.”
As Bubba Cook of the World Wildlife Fund said, “You would think that with issues of human health and safety that it would be a given.”
He, along with representatives from The Pew Charitable Trusts, Greenpeace and other organizations, were happy about the passage of the observer safety measure.
But they were disappointed in the lack of progress in other areas, such as measures to conserve sharks, rays and seabirds.
Incremental gains were made in some areas, such as a ban on the transshipment of tuna in an eastern pocket of the high seas. There had been hopes for a total ban on ship-to-ship transfers in international waters because of the difficulty this practice creates in tracking how much tuna is caught and where it’s going.
“There were some wins, some stalls and no real losses,” said Michael Tosatto, Pacific Islands regional administrator of the National Marine Fisheries Service.
He was one of roughly 45 members of the U.S. delegation, which was the largest this year.
“We need more time to work out the complex issues between many nations,” Tosatto added.
Some members of the commission had wanted to establish target reference points for South Pacific albacore tuna and take action on a number of other matters that non-governmental organizations have been pushing for years.
The usual politics were at play this week. The so-called distant-water nations of Japan, China and the United States, among others, had their own interests in mind as Pacific island nations, even those united in blocs like the Parties to the Nauru Agreement and Forum Fisheries Agency, clamored for action.
But with many on the receiving end of foreign aid from the wealthier countries, their bargaining power was often limited to access to their waters. That can only go so far given how much of the skipjack, bigeye, yellowfin, bluefin and albacore tuna is caught in international waters.
Still, Ludwig Kumoru, chief executive officer of the Parties to the Nauru Agreement, said Friday that the observer safety measure was a real win, as were the steps to develop harvest control strategies and management measures that are expected to lead to improved long-term management of the tuna fishery.
The harvest control strategies, which the commission’s executive director, Feleti Teo, advocated for from the beginning, amount to pre-agreed upon measures to be enacted should a fish stock drop below an unsustainable level.
Teo said he was “reasonably happy” with what the commission accomplished this week but that a very full year of work lies ahead.
The Parties to the Nauru Agreement and numerous nonprofits were disappointed that recommendations for rebuilding northern Pacific bluefin tuna stocks were not offered by the Northern Committee, which the commission had specifically established to address.
But the commission did force the committee to reconvene and laid out clearer expectations for it to come back with.
Pew was among the nonprofits pushing the bluefin issue throughout the week — in person and on social media. Tweet after tweet highlighted how Pacific bluefin stocks are down to 2.6 percent of historical levels.
Pew, Greenpeace and the World Wildlife Fund have called for a two-year moratorium on commercial fishing for Pacific bluefin as a result of the commission’s inaction.
Much of the commission’s meeting this year, its 13th conference since forming by treaty, involved laying the groundwork for 2017.
Intense negotiations are anticipated next December over the limits that need to be set for bigeye tuna.
The current three-year measure expires at the end of 2017. The commission’s member nations have been agreeing to gradual cuts in the amount of tuna they are allowed to catch.
For the U.S. longline industry, which is almost entirely based in Honolulu, the limit was roughly 3,500 tons of bigeye this year. However, the U.S. has increased that amount in recent years through quota-sharing agreements with its territories.
Read the observer measure below.