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NADI, Fiji — A dozen Asian men wearing blue lanyards sat crowded around a table in the lobby of the Sheraton Fiji Resort, speaking intensely during a break in the 13th annual Western and Central Pacific Fisheries Commission meeting.
A few Americans conversed around a nearby corner as small groups of Pacific islanders talked over tea outside a conference room that’s been filled each day this week with a few hundred government officials, scientists and others from around the world — all with their matching blue lanyards.
The commission’s meeting opened Monday and wraps up Friday, but the real action is happening in these sidebar discussions.
It’s where delegations from more than two dozen countries — plus nonprofits with their own agendas — negotiate conservation measures and strategize ways to ensure future Pacific tuna policies benefit their respective interests.
That can mean money for the big industry players, but for others it’s about improving transparency in the process and making the fisheries sustainable by setting quota limits, eliminating bycatch and upping the amount of independent observers aboard the boats.
It’s a complex process with intricate layers, and it can result in little if any progress. That suits some of those reaping the profits of overfished bluefin and bigeye tuna, but frustrates others who watch their proposals get rejected year after year.
Julio Morón Ayala, one of three members of the European Union’s delegation, saw its transparency proposal shot down for a fourth straight year. The measure would have revealed more about access agreements.
He said all his delegation wants is a level playing field — a sentiment shared by other members of the commission.
“You need the political will to do that,” Ayala said. “But here the major driver is the economic interests of the fishery. I can understand that, but it needs to be commensurate with sustainability.”
Pacific island nations have formed alliances to leverage control over their waters, which Japan, China, the United States, South Korea and others are eager to access.
Tuna is a multi-billion-dollar industry that feeds millions of people worldwide, boosts local economies and serves as the livelihood for thousands of families.
Rhea Moss-Christian, the commission’s chair, encouraged the members in her opening remarks to value “small steps” toward progress.
“The stakes get higher every year if positions remain entrenched,” she said, urging the members to abandon an “all-or-nothing mentality” that has stalled the commission’s work in the past.
Her view, shared by many, reflects the reality of how difficult it is to find areas of agreement among such diverse interests.
But that’s a problem when the commission is tasked with taking decisive action to rebuild stocks of bigeye and bluefin tuna that have dropped below the level that scientists deem sustainable.
“The pace is glacial,” said Eric Kingma, staff member of the Western Pacific Regional Fishery Management Council, or Wespac.
The council, which has jurisdiction over 1.5 million square miles of ocean, is one of eight regional fishery management councils that recommend measures, approved by the U.S. secretary of commerce, to manage fisheries and protect habitat.
Wespac also sent its chair, Edwin Ebisui, to this week’s meeting, along with members McGrew Rice, a commercial fisherman, and Michael Goto, who runs the Honolulu fish auction. Former Chair Sean Martin, an influential member of Hawaii’s $100 million longline industry, is also attending.
“It’s like a mini-United Nations. There are so many divergent interests.” — Phil Roberts, managing director of global tuna supplier Tri Marine,
Kingma underscored how international relationships are at play at these commission meetings. The discussion on the surface may be about fish, but the debate could be more about historical ties, pending agreements on unrelated issues and leverage for other matters.
“It’s really complex when you get into the political relationships,” he said.
For Phil Roberts, managing director of Tri Marine, a global tuna supplier, the pace is slow and getting slower. He’s been at all 13 commission meetings and involved in the process since it began more than 20 years ago.
“It’s like a mini-United Nations,” he said. “There are so many divergent interests. You have China and the U.S. on the one hand and micro states like Tuvalu on the other — and everything in between.”
Tri Marine comes to the commission’s meetings largely because of the opportunity to access government leaders from around the region.
“It’s become a useful meeting for reasons unrelated to its original purpose,” Roberts said. “The foreground has become the background.”
The commission established a Northern Committee to address the overfishing of bluefin tuna, since mostly Japanese fleets and others in the northern Pacific target the species. Just one of these fish, which can weigh up to 1,000 pounds, can fetch hundreds of thousands of dollars.
The target reference point for tuna is 20 percent of historical levels, said Feleti Teo, the commission’s executive director. Bigeye has fallen to 16 percent and Pacific bluefin has plummeted to less than 3 percent worldwide.
The Northern Committee came back without a solid plan to end the overfishing and rebuild the stocks. This prompted the commission this week to take the unprecedented step of ordering it to reconvene.
“We are witnessing a continuing trend of the WCPFC to heavily water down or simply defer measures to address declining tuna stocks and (we) cannot continue to just kick the can down the road when thousands of livelihoods are at stake,” said Bubba Cook of the World Wildlife Fund.
“The situation with the Pacific bluefin stock is analogous to a gas tank running on empty — the red light on the dashboard is flashing and we need to act now and fast to fill up the tank or we will find ourselves stranded with no options.”
Representatives of the Parties to the Nauru Agreement, a bloc of eight Pacific island nations, were similarly astounded.
“Bluefin tuna is fished on the high seas by distant water nations and they are the ones refusing to fix a problem they have caused,” said Ludwig Kumoru, CEO of the coalition. “Their refusal to take action in this fishery also highlights the challenge we have in gaining support for conservation management measures on the high seas.”
Similar scenarios are playing out with other issues before the commission. Still, there remains hope that some small steps may be taken to improve fishing boat observer coverage and overall accountability of vessels operating on the high seas.
Teo is pushing for a harvest management plan, a first for the commission. It would change the old way of “reacting to a crisis,” as in the case of the bluefin, and replace it with a proactive plan.
This would involve the commission’s members agreeing ahead of time on what conservation and management measures to take should stocks fall below certain levels.
Teo said this would “remove the politics” and eliminate the need to negotiate after-the-fact.
“Scientists are telling managers what needs to be done but there is no political will,” he said.
But this plan, like other commission efforts, is expected to take years and some members see it as likely impossible. They say part of the problem lies in the commission operating by consensus and the ability of one or two countries to shut things down.
“It doesn’t take much effort for someone to disagree and nothing goes through,” Numoru said.
He sees the commission’s work as “everybody’s business,” given how popular tuna is as a source of food worldwide.
“Everyone should be concerned,” he said. “I am really hoping that something is going to be done, that we’re not going to end up with the same old way we’ve done things here.”
There has been some progress this week, including the U.S. signing a six-year agreement with 16 Pacific island nations.
The treaty dictates U.S. tuna fleets’ access to their waters and the price for purse seiners to fish in them for tuna that’s mostly used for canning — not the fish Hawaii’s longliners target for fresh sashimi.
Under the South Pacific Tuna Treaty, U.S. purse seiners can choose how many days they want to fish, but it will cost $12,500 per fishing day.
The U.S. sent one of its largest delegations to date with about 45 members, which amounts to nearly 10 percent of the more than 500 people attending the commission’s meeting.
Michael Tosatto, Pacific Islands regional administrator of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s fisheries service, said the U.S. sent more members this year in part because of the treaty signing.
Pacific Islands Forum Fisheries Agency Director General James Movick said he remains optimistic that the commission will make “some small progress” this week.
His agency is based in the Solomon Islands and represents 17 Pacific island members.
“This is all par for the course for us in fisheries,” Movick said. “Sometimes you just have to hope like heck and keep plugging away in the working groups.”