Update – scope extension for the PNA Western and Central Pacific fishery on bigeye and FAD sets

July 15, 2022

The independent adjudicator (IA) has published his decisions on the scope extension for the PNA Western and Central Pacific fishery on bigeye and FAD sets; 13 out of the 15 objections were dismissed which included overturning arguments against FADs, which means this fishery could likely soon include FAD sets. However, the IA stated that scores for harvest control rules (HCRs) pertaining to the bigeye stock management and habitat strategy cannot be justified, which means it cannot obtain MSC certification at this stage.

Objection submitted by the Coalition for Transparent Tuna Fisheries (CTTF) includes concerns on the CAB’s scores for several indicators including the FAD fishery’s impact on sharks and bycatch as well as the lack of HCRs and harvest strategy. All parties have been in an adjudication phase early this year and a hearing took place in Dubai and online from 4 to 6 April 2022.

The fact that PNA failed to add bigeye to the MSC scheme is not what was expected considering that at the same time the objection and adjudication processes were taking place, several other fisheries in the same catching area such as Tri Marine, OPAGAC, and US Pacific Tuna Group received their MSC logos, which all included bigeye and FADs. Early this month, FCF collaborating with Nauru Authorities, was the 11th WCPO FAD set fishery to gain certification, which also got bigeye catch certified as sustainable.

HCRS FOR BIGEYE

In the July 12 document, John McKendrick, the IA, remanded two scores by the CAB – HCRs, especially concerning the bigeye stock (PI 1.2.2), and habit strategy (PI 2.4.2). The assessor gave a passing grade of 60 for HCRs. The IA pointed to the WCPFC’s work plan for conservation measures for tuna species, and even though the RFMO has a strategy for managing the bigeye stock, it is clear that there is no measure or WCPFC decision that HCRs will be in place before this tuna stock declines below the biomass’ maximum sustainable yield.

“The CAB’s score of 60 cannot be justified. It is simply incorrect,” ruled McKendrick in terms of HCRs. This effectively bars certification of the bigeye catch by seiners within the PNA region.

FAD SCOPE EXTENTION

The adjudicator gave a comprehensive report on his deliberations. He listed the fifteen separate grounds of objections from opposing parties and dismissed 13 of them, including the impact of drifting FADs (dFADs) on endangered threatened and protected (ETP) species outcome, management, and information (PI 2.3.1, P.3.2.2, and PI 2.3.3).

He said that the overall thrust of CTTF’s case was that dFAds were causing significant harm across the marine environment, and the seiners in PNA waters were not using biodegradable and non-entangling dFADs. All this, in the Coalition’s view, contributed to high levels of ghost fishing and this combination had a particularly deadly effect on silky sharks. CTTF argued that on ETP species outcome, management, and information the scores of 60 could not be justified. The IA said that much of the evidence presented by the objector was focused on the wider Pacific and not on the Unit of Assessment (UoA) in the PNA EEZs.

“I have little hesitation in finding that dFAds contribute to silky shark and turtle mortality, however, the issue is whether the direct effects of the Unit of Assessment are highly likely to not hinder recovery of silky sharks, turtles, or other ETP species. The CAB have carefully considered this issue and assigned differing scores for differing ETP species,” reads the document. He concluded that “known direct effects of UoA are highly likely to not hinder the recovery of ETP species and the scores are therefore justified.”

He also tossed out several other opposing arguments. Under compliance and enforcement (PI3.2.3), the CAB had scored the PNA fishery 100. CTTF said that there was deliberate abandonment of FADs taking place in this fishery but McKendrick explained that placing FADs in the water for commercial fishing does not constitute deliberate dumping of these devices by the PNA or “that it contravenes any of the international conventions which deal with pollution.”

CTTF argued that PNA had no strategy to minimize the environmental impacts of FADs and that there was no evidence of work plans or time frames for implementing a transition to non-entangling FADs and biodegradable devices. The IA reacted that he was not satisfied with the CAB’s report and views expressed in the FDR and there seems to be an inconsistency in PNA’s compliance with respective measures regarding this MSC indicator. He said the CAB should further investigate this issue and reevaluate the grade. This makes it unclear if FAD fishing is now considered MSC certified or not.

The IA also pointed out the objector presented the Human Rights at Sea report entitled “Fisheries Observer Deaths at Sea, Human Rights and the Role and Responsibilities of Fisheries Organizations as part of the evidence. Although this paper presents serious concerns about labor abuses of observers working at sea on commercial fisheries, there is no evidence to suggest that the PNA fishery has a “significant problem with compliance and enforcement.”

He concluded that the final draft report has been remanded and expressed his regret for his delayed decision “caused by the complexity of the issues, the quantity of reading required to determine the issues, and other professional demands.”

Now the ball is in the CAB’s court for the next step but the PNA fishery has been mostly vindicated. At the same time, the question arises of how most of the 11 WCPO purse seiner MSC certifications could pass on bigeye and all of them on FADs, whereas most of their data and compliance are based on the same management measures as PNA, and are basically stacked upon the world’s largest MSC tuna certification.

IMPACT ON OTHER MSC-CERTIFIED FISHERIES

The PNA tuna fishery was the first in the world to be certified for free school skipjack and yellowfin back in 2011. It has around 150 tuna vessels under its MSC certification in the WCPO and many of these also fall under separate certifications such as Tri Marine, FCF, and Dongwon. But now the adjudicator has ruled that the CAB’s positive score over HRCs, especially pertaining to bigeye “is simply incorrect”. Last July, even the MSC warned that 22 WCPO-certified fisheries are in danger of being suspended as there is no harvest strategy and HCRs in place.

It is astonishing that purse seiners operating under the PNA certification will not be considered to be fishing sustainably on bigeye, but under the other certifications these very same vessels in the same PNA waters are considered fully sustainable and MSC approved. There are 11 certified purse seine fisheries in the WCPO, already five hold the blue logo for bigeye — the US Pacific Tuna Group, Nauru skipjack, yellowfin, bigeye fishery, PNG FIA, OPAGAC, and Micronesia tuna fishery. The others such as Tri Marine, WPSTA WCPO fishery, and Solomon Islands are all undergoing assessment for bigeye.

It is essential to note that according to the 2020 assessment of bigeye by the SPC, the WCPO stock is fished below the maximum sustainable yield and the biomass of the population indicates that it is not overfished. However, there are no HCRs but the WCPFC has plans for management procedures in its mixed-fisheries framework for skipjack, yellowfin, bigeye, and South Pacific albacore. On this basis, CABs have certified the other five MSC certifications to be fully sustainable on bigeye.

The unavoidable question arises, given the adjudicator glaringly highlighted that the current WCPFC conservation measures are insufficient to help the bigeye stock, should it not also affect the other fisheries which have achieved the sustainable certification for Thunnus obesus? Because this is where the MSC harmonization rule kicks in.

On its website, the MSC states this about overlapping fisheries. “Those that target the same stocks, operate within the same management frameworks and impact the same habitats and species – should receive consistent scores and conditions of certification. When overlapping fisheries are assessed, they must go through a harmonization process to make sure scores and conditions have been consistently applied by assessors.”

However, the MSC itself explained that there is ambiguity around how assessors should coordinate the harmonization process. This has led to uncertainty, and delays in assessments and surveillance audits.

There are now discussions about what step the MSC should take in this situation. Should it give a blanket statement saying that bigeye for other WCPO certifications should be remanded and fisheries in assessments cannot continue with the process for this tuna stock? And what precedent would that set for other gears such as longliners catching bigeye?

An MSC spokesperson said that outcome of the scope extension assessment will have no immediate effect on other certified fisheries as decisions by IAs are not precedent setting. “The MSC is reviewing the Independent Adjudicator’s decision to understand how our Standard has been interpreted by those involved in this assessment and to understand any wider impacts of this decision.”

The spokesperson pointed out that “this outcome demonstrates the checks and balances in place to ensure the rigor of MSC certification within the dynamic and complex context of fisheries management. International agreement on harvest strategies is one of the biggest challenges facing tuna fisheries globally. ”The entire tuna sector will be watching closely what the final reasoning and the consequences of this rather controversial ruling against PNA bigeye will be for all current WCPO certifications, and how this will be explained to the retail trade and the public.

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