As part of efforts to stem the spread of the coronavirus, many regional fisheries management organizations (RFMOs), which are collectively responsible for the rules governing more than 130 international fisheries, have suspended requirements for observers on board fishing and transshipment vessels.
This is a necessary choice – people’s health and safety should be any industry’s primary concerns, and it’s difficult to maintain social distancing on a vessel – but it will significantly reduce the reporting of catch data for the world’s commercial fishing fleets, reducing fishery managers’ knowledge of what’s going on out at sea. And without accurate, independently collected data on the quantity and species of fish caught and on bycatch – animals such as sharks, turtles and rays that are caught unintentionally – managers will lack the information they need to set rules intended to ensure sustainable fishing and safeguard vulnerable wildlife. Removing observers also opens the door to increased illegal, unreported and unregulated fishing, which could further undermine the recovery and resilience of many important fish stocks globally.
Impacts seen around the globe
The waters of the Western and Central Pacific Fisheries Commission (WCPFC) are home to the world’s largest tuna fishery, putting much at stake when it comes to management. Prior to the pandemic, 100 per cent observer coverage had been required on all purse seiners, the vessels that capture fish by encircling schools with enormous nets. Observers have been critical to increasing accuracy of catch data in this fishery. For example, last year, observer reports revealed that tuna species such as bigeye and yellowfin were being incorrectly logged as skipjack, a healthier stock, which led scientists to apply a statistical correction to better estimate catch.
However, WCPFC requires only 5 per cent observer coverage on longline vessels – a fishing method that results in high levels of bycatch of vulnerable species such as sharks – despite the fact that nearly half of the world’s longline tuna fishing takes place in the western and central Pacific. Because of that low requirement, data collection and validation in this fishery were already poor and now, because of the pandemic, are suffering further.
This concern is not unique to WCPFC. In response to the pandemic, the Inter-American Tropical Tuna Commission suspended its requirement for independent observers on purse seine vessels, even those that often encircle dolphins along with tuna. At the International Commission for the Conservation of Atlantic Tunas (ICCAT), bluefin tuna ranches – pens in Mediterranean waters where wild bluefin are fattened for up to two years to improve marketability – are also able to keep operating without observers. Given that illegal activity has been associated with these ranches in the past, the decision by ICCAT to allow operations to continue, unobserved, is a risky one.
Electronic monitoring is a proven solution
One answer to all of these sudden drops in human observation is electronic monitoring (EM). Through a combination of cameras, computers, GPS and gear sensors on vessels, EM systems provide data to help managers, scientists and vessel owners effectively manage fisheries. Trials have also shown that EM systems increase compliance and improve reporting, and can be a valuable complement to human observers.
My colleagues have written before about the need to modernize fisheries management and bring observer coverage into the 21st century. And Pew, along with 18 other nongovernmental organizations, has signed a letter urging RFMOs to take pragmatic steps to increase their use of existing and new technologies, such as EM, as a replacement for human observers during the pandemic, and as a complement to them after it is safe to get observers back on vessels. Such moves would help ensure compliance with existing rules and provide some reassurance to the market of the legality of its global seafood supply. Electronic monitoring offers RFMO managers a path forward to improve oversight of the valuable fisheries they manage.
The pandemic has highlighted the need for more modern approaches that ensure fishery management bodies are equipped to deal with shocks to the system. Rather than allowing oversight and management of international fisheries to erode as a result of COVID-19, RFMOs should take this opportunity to embrace technological solutions that will help ensure a reliable, legal and sustainable supply of seafood into the future.
Amanda Nickson directs Pew’s work to reform international fisheries.