PACIFIC diplomacy at its best – that’s the only way to describe the Western Pacific Fisheries Commission’s recent road trip of Asia which poses the largest combined threat to regional fish stocks.
The Chinese and Taiwanese fleets by their sheer size and state fuel subsidies have a distinct advantage over Pacific nations on the high seas and in exclusive economic zones in the region.
Thailand and the Philippines, with their low processing costs, are stripping the Pacific of the ability to can and export tuna to the world.
And then there is illegal fishing by boats flying Asian flags or operating under a Small Island Developing States flag for large multinational corporations.
Papua New Guinea estimates that the illegal fishing costs an estimated $USD23.5 billion a year in losses to local industry.
Not content to sit and wait for possible fireworks at the WCPFC 12th Regular Session this week, new Commission Executive Director, Feleti Teo, has visited Japan, China, Korea and Taiwan before the talks.
“The benefit of talking to those members and stakeholders is that we will be able to fashion the agenda on what we ascertained were the key objectives and expectations of the members,” Teo said a day before the opening of the meeting.
At previous commission meetings, the non-Pacific big fishing nations have surprised the tuna stock-owners with last-minute proposals, refusal to engage on critical issues or rejection of conservation methods.
China, Korea, Japan and – to a lesser extent – Taiwan have enormous political influence in the region with direct lines to capitals and heads of state throughout the Pacific.
At the WCPFC they have in the past cast doubt on scientific evidence related to stock levels, blamed each other for over-fishing or used the excuse of the need to consult with their capitals in order to stall discussions on critical issues.
Teo’s strategy appears to be to visit the proverbial Elephant even before it enters the room.
“The idea is that we don’t want to wait for the annual meeting to be surprised by priorities or positions that we were not aware of,” Teo said.
“Our strategy has been to increase engagement with our partners and various stakeholders including the industry and observers. We’ve also held consultations at the margin of our (pre-conference) meetings.
“The objective of talking to our members in advance … is to be able to engage and determine the expectations and priorities of our membership coming into this meeting.”
By taking discussions and a high level Commission team to the Asian capitals, Teo has satisfied the time-honoured gesture in that region of allowing the more powerful player to gain face.
But at the same time he has put the WCPFC firmly on the front foot, reducing the possibility of disruptions to the Bali talks by attempting to address them in advance.
The road trip has also allowed the Commission to draw up an agenda which will address issues of critical concern to the bigger, more powerful players in Pacific fisheries.
Of course not all of Asia’s concerns can be addressed on the side lines, but forewarned is forearmed and Teo will have a slight advantage over his predecessors – a clear view of the challenges and respect from the delegations.
Traditionally, one of the major stumbling blocks has been conservation of the four major species of commercial importance to the Pacific.
Over the last 10 years while Commission members talked Bigeye Tuna has fallen below the acceptable 20 per cent of pre-fishing levels.
Every nation represented at the talks knows that scientists have warned that Bigeye fishery – now at 16pc of pre-fishing levels – is in a critical state.
Apart from the conservation of Bigeye, Skipjack, Yellowfin and Southern Albacore tuna, the 600 delegates will also address increasing concern over the depletion of shark stocks – mainly the Silky and Oceanic White Tip species.
These are often caught by long line boats who target the species with special hooks but use the excuse that the sharks are not their intended catch.
This issue will surface again over the coming week.
Teo recognises the complexities of conservation and is confident of a positive outcome in Bali.
“All our member are united under the banner that stocks need to be conserved and sustainably managed,” Teo said.
“It’s just that how to do it is the challenge and countries obviously have different economic considerations and pressures. I’m hopeful that given time we will be able to achieve that objective.”
Another hurdle will be general compliance by fleets with the various measures put in place by the commission including catch limits, surveillance and closure of specific areas of ocean.
Teo said some countries were initially concerned with the WCPFC’s Compliance Monitoring Scheme.
“It took a lot of convincing for nations to be assessed in a public forum in front of the total membership of the commission but I think they are starting to get used to that,” he said.
“The idea is obviously not to name and shame those that do not comply,” he said.
Instead: “The underlying objective is to identify the reasons why countries are unable to comply and provide them with the necessary resource of information to enable them to comply with those measures.
“It’s not to anyone’s advantage not to have management measures followed through and implemented.”
An item of particular concern to the industry has been the treatment, conditions and – in some cases – deaths of fisheries observers on boats in the Pacific Ocean.
The issue will be discussed this year for the first time as a specific agenda item. It’s not a comfortable topic, particularly for operators of smaller boats on which quarters are cramped and privacy is non-existent.
“(Observers) are subjected to very trying working conditions out there on foreign boats – some of them up to three months, four months,” Teo said.
“We hope the Commission will be able to come out with a very strong outcome on observer safety. Observers are quite critical in the work that we do they are the source of our information and data they are our ears and eyes out there on the sea collecting information and data that is relevant to the work that we do.”
Originally from Tuvalu, Teo is a lawyer by training and served as Attorney-General of his country before holding leadership positions in several regional organisations including the Pacific Islands Forum Secretariat.
The WCPFC 12th Regular Session will be opened today by the Indonesian Fisheries Minister, Susi Pudjiastuti.
From NETANI RIKA in Bali