Illegal fishing in Pacific much lower than 2016 level, says report


    By Giff Johnson

    Effective Pacific fisheries monitoring and surveillance coupled with improved data reporting are among reasons cited by a recently released fisheries study that says the problem of illegal fishing in the Pacific is far less than a 2016 report that estimated losses of over US$600 million a year.

    The new study, by the Australia-based fisheries consulting firm MRAG Asia Pacific, released in late 2021, suggests the problem of illegal, unreported and unregulated (IUU) fishing in the Pacific, while still serious, is not nearly as big as suggested by an earlier report.

    The new report was called “ground-breaking” and “unique” to the Pacific region by Francisco Blaha, the offshore fisheries advisor to the Marshall Islands Marine Resources Authority.

    “Nowhere else, in any ocean basin, there is a body like the Forum Fisheries Agency (FFA) nor the strength of collaboration among coastal states and regional bodies,” said Blaha, who was part of the study team.

    While other oceans talk and mostly blame others on IUU fishing, at FFA we are measuring it…to guide our monitoring, surveillance and control efforts and to adjust our data granularity and collection points to have better and more accurate data for this one.”

    He said the report proved that the assumption that unlicensed fishing is rampant is false. The report showed that misreporting accounts for nearly 90 percent of IUU fishing.

    The earlier report on IUU fishing issued in 2016 estimated that 306,440 tons of tuna annually was involved in IUU fishing. The latest report estimates IUU fishing at a level of 192,186 tons per year. For perspective, this figure represents about 6.5 percent of the total tuna catch in 2019 in the Western and Central Pacific area.

    The new MRAG report described the earlier study as a “first cut” assessment based on “highly uncertain data” with the “estimates kept deliberately broad to account for high levels of uncertainty.” The new report said “changes in the information base” produced the biggest overall changes in volume and value estimates by the new study.

    The earlier report said the over 600,000 tons of IUU fish caught had a value of $616 million. The new study said the lower volume of 192,186 tons has a value of $333 million.

    But these big numbers are not a good indicator of the actual loss to FFA members, the new report said. This is because the full value of the catch is not returned to the islands. Instead, the study estimated the “economic rent” associated with IUU to determine the actual value to FFA members is about $43 million a year, almost three quarters less than the 2016 estimate of $152 million.

    Important takeaways from the new study:

    – Cooperation works. “There is little doubt that the monitoring, control and surveillance (MCS) measures Forum Fisheries Agency members and their partners/regional secretariats have implemented over recent decades have had a profound impact on both the nature and volume of IUU fishing in the region,” the report said. “The relatively low estimates of IUU activity in the FFA region compared to many other parts of the world is practical evidence of the MCS framework’s success.”

    – The purse seine industry is the subject of “very strong MCS” oversight. “In contrast, MCS arrangements in place for the longline sector are weaker with lower observer coverage, a far higher proportion of effort on the high seas, and a higher proportion of the catch transhipped at sea which limits opportunities for port state MCS measures,” the report said, adding greater focus is needed to improve oversight of the longline fishery.

    – Key areas in need of action that the report points to include strengthening monitoring throughout the tuna supply chain to “cross-verify” data, and to improve monitoring and control of tuna transhipment, with a particular focus on the longline industry that conducts a large volume of its transhipment on the high seas without any independent monitoring.