The ban comes in the wake of the Rainbow Warrior III discovering Taiwanese longliner Shuen De Ching No 888 operating illegally in its waters, including offloading its catch to a mothership and keeping incomplete records of its catch.
The practice of transhipping allows longliner vessels to stay out on the high seas without coming to port for long periods at a time by transferring their catch to other ships.
This results in the “laundering” of fish, making it difficult to identify where the tuna was caught and where the fish is consumed and allows overfishing to occur.
Being at sea for long periods also allows the vessels to evade regulations checks as vessels use the high seas pocket to use unapproved fishing methods and carry out questionable human rights practices.
“For them they’re just sitting there like a facility and all they do is fish all year round,” says longtime Greenpeace campaigner Lagi Toribau on the Rainbow Warrior.
“The Pacific Islands are losing out on potential economic returns, but also in a lot of cases we don’t even know how much fish is being taken out and that affects the assessment of the overall fish stock.”
Fish stock status
Not knowing the status of the fish stock has significant implications as scientists and policymakers depend on the information reported by boats.
Secretariat of the Pacific Community (SPC) estimates show that the Western and Central Pacific Ocean tuna catch is worth between US$4 billion to US$5 billion.
Federated States of Micronesia, Papua New Guinea, Samoa and Vanuatu have banned the practice for foreign fishing vessels.
New Zealand and Tokelau have banned the practice “with exceptions”, whereas Fiji, the Solomon Islands, Kiribati and the Cook Islands allow the practice with government authorisation.
Toribau said Greenpeace was pleased Nauru had taken such a strong stance against transhipping and the environmental organisation hoped that other Pacific Island countries would follow in their footsteps.
“If the countries that ban foreign vessels only decide to ban it altogether, then we would almost have a majority of Pacific Island countries that border the high seas which are in the middle of the countries’ national waters.
“If that happens, we can start eliminating vessels that are choosing to just be high seas and force them to have a licence with a Pacific Island country,” said Toribau.
Samoa adopts a laissez-faire approach as it does not deem fish caught outside Samoan waters as contributors to the economy such as revenue generated by fees collected from boarding and inspections conducted on the vessels.
Samoa’s Ministry of Agriculture and Fisheries Assistant Chief Executive Officer Joyce Samuelu Ah Leong said the regulations in their country only allowed transhipping in their designated port, under strict regulations set by the Western Central Pacific Fishing Commission (WCPFC).
Ah Leong said since these vessels did not fish in Samoan waters, they did not catch “Samoan fish” and do not impact on the domestic fishing industry.
“Our regulations are very clear and we do have good relationships with foreign fishing companies wanting to tranship in our port,” said Ah Leong.
Other Pacific Island fleets are feeling the pinch due to the declining South Pacific albacore fish stock.
According to Greenpeace, hundreds of workers were laid off in Fiji and only one vessel in the Tongan fleet continues to fish.
The Pacific Island nations are small in land area but comprise vast ocean states, thus most of their natural resources are underwater.
According to the WCPFC, six major fishing powers account for 70 percent of the region’s total tuna catch – Indonesia, Japan, Philippines, South Korea, Taiwan and the United States. Only 20 percent is caught by Pacific Island fleets.
In an effort to reclaim some of these profits, PNG Minister for Fisheries and Marine Resources Mao Zeming recently announced at the Pacific Islands Forum that from 2016 all tuna caught in archipelagic waters must be processed in Papua New Guinea as a condition of licence for access to fish in Papua New Guinea waters.
Effectively, vessels that are not linked to processing plants will not be given fishing days in the archipelagic waters, and processing plants will receive more fishing days the more fish they process.
“For too long there is so much leakage of raw materials in the region that is flooding the markets in Asia and Latin America pushing the prices of raw materials down,” he said.
Mao said the problem was that both foreign and local fleets harvest the resources and take them away to other countries to be processed.
Lack of political will
While requiring the fish caught in archipelagic waters to be processed in Papua New Guinea may improve the local economy, questions of unethical fishing practices like transhipping and overfishing still need to be addressed.
Toribau said that the current level of overfishing will cause the stock of bigeye and yellowfin stock to drop.
“We expect that at this time there will be less vessels, but we see that people are building bigger vessels, more efficient boats, and that does not match with the situation and the status of the fishery,” said Toribau.
“There isn’t a shortage of awareness, warnings, or scientific advice. Where we’re stuck is the political will, as the governments are defending the interests of the industry.”
Toribau added that New Zealand had a critical role to play in taking a stand against transhipping as it had a major political role in the region and was heavily involved in Pacific Islands fisheries.
“This is an opportunity for New Zealand to show leadership and stand in solidarity with other Pacific nations.”
Failing that, Toribau sees the last resort for action being a change of consumer habits to send price signals to the market.
“It’s about time consumers start demanding for sustainable tuna as knowing there is a market for it is the only reason the industry is surviving,” said Toribau.