Time for WCPFC to heed its skipjack management procedure

June 21, 2023

AuthorDr. Tom Pickerell

Time for WCPFC to heed its skipjack management procedure


David Gershman
Officer, International Fisheries

Next week, decisions affecting the biggest tuna fishery in the world will be front and center again for States that participate in the Western and Central Pacific Fisheries Commission (WCPFC).

A little more than half a year after adopting a management procedure (MP) for skipjack tuna, WCPFC members are getting ready for the first in a series of discussions that should be used to address a critical piece of unfished business, namely to ensure that the newly agreed MP is implemented on the water. The first workshop, to be held virtually June 28-29, will focus on identifying scientific analyses and sharing initial views to advance a discussion on creating hard limits and allocation frameworks for the high seas purse seine fishery, which represented about 14 percent of the days fished in the western and central Pacific’s $2.6 billion purse seine fishery in 2021. It will be followed by a second workshop in October. These two workshops will set the table for the renegotiation of the WCPFC’s tropical tuna conservation and management measure (the latest iteration being CMM 2021-01) at December’s annual meeting. 

What’s critical for WCPFC is to ensure the discussion of allocation adheres to the output of the skipjack management procedure. And there’s no better way to do that than to establish a binding commitment to implement the management procedure. When it was adopted in 2022, the management procedure included all of most important elements to maintain the skipjack stock at a healthy and productive level, except one: WCPFC stopped short of establishing a direct link between the management procedure and the setting of effort and catch in the skipjack pole and line and purse seine fisheries. While the management procedure will calculate allowable catch and effort levels based on model estimates of population size, there is no mandate to apply them on the water. Without this link, some of the chief benefits of a management procedure will go unrealized, including catch level predictability and transparency.

Allocation of fishing rights is an issue vexing other tuna Regional Fisheries Management Organizations and it has been raised as a subject deserving attention from WCPFC members for many years. WCPFC manages the skipjack tuna purse seine fishery by effort control; CMM 2021-01 includes limits on the number of days that a fleet can fish on the high seas, with an exemption to the fleets of Small Island Developing States in recognition of their right to develop their fisheries. Those limits that exist are without prejudice to future decisions and WCPFC has committed to transitioning to a more equitable framework for high seas fishing that includes allocating hard limits among all members and participating territories.

Agreeing to fishing limits that all members can live by is of course necessary for strong and accountable fisheries management. The tasks of developing an allocation framework and management procedure for skipjack should be seen as two sides of the same coin. Having a management procedure in place should facilitate discussions on allocation because the management procedure will define the total amount of fishing activity that can be permitted in any given year. The question that allocation answers is how to divide that up. Answering that question is easier when the total likely fishing level is known, thanks to the MP.

But here is where the danger lies for WCPFC. Allocation opens up a contentious discussion over who gets what and where. Already some members are suggesting proposals that would increase high seas effort from current levels, while others are concerned the management procedure might have to be revisited in light of how the allocation discussion plays out.

As members advocate for their own national interests in the coming months, they should take heed that they all share a common interest in a skipjack fishery that is healthy and sustainable for the long term. The management procedure that was adopted has been found via computer simulation to achieve those objectives. The workshop process offers WCPFC members an opportunity to pick up where they left off last year. They should seize it and renew their commitment to a more transparent, predictable and science-based approach. Then, when members need to make decisions at their December annual meeting, they should agree to insert language into CMM 2021-01 to automatically implement the management procedure, effective January 1, 2024. This will ensure the output of the management procedure is respected, a goal all members should support.

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