High Seas Closures in the Western Tropical Pacific: A Step Forward for MPAs in International Waters

MPA News

On 1 January of this year, in a move to protect the world's last large stocks of tuna from overfishing, a 4.5 million-km2 area in the western tropical Pacific Ocean was closed to purse seine fishing. The vast closure, in which limited longlining will still be allowed, was designated by the eight nations that are Parties to the Nauru Agreement (PNA), a subregional agreement for managing tuna. The PNA nations control 25% of the world's tuna supply and comprise the Federated States of Micronesia, Kiribati, Marshall Islands, Nauru, Palau, Papua New Guinea, Solomon Islands, and Tuvalu.

To put the massive closure in perspective: it is seven times the size of France, and 13 times the size of the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park. Furthermore, it adds to 1.2 million km2 of existing closed areas that took effect under the Nauru Agreement in January 2010 (MPA News 11:1). The closures are accompanied by a suite of other management measures put in place by PNA nations, including 100% observer coverage on purse seine vessels and a trading scheme to limit the number of days that vessels spend catching tuna (www.pnatuna.com).

What may be most remarkable about the purse seine closure, however, is that it is on the high seas, in waters beyond any of the PNA countries' national jurisdictions. (The previous smaller closures are also on the high seas.) To control fishing effort outside of their jurisdictions, the PNA nations have amended the fishing contracts they sign with foreign fleets. In order to remain eligible to fish within national waters directly controlled by the islands, the fleets must agree to refrain from fishing in certain international waters, including the new purse seine closure.

Nonetheless, the system is not without its challenges. By treaty, for example, the US purse seine fleet is technically exempt from the closures unless it agrees to abide by them. (This is the South Pacific Tuna Treaty, under which the US government provides foreign aid to 14 Pacific island nations and in return gains access for its 40-vessel fleet to the region's waters.) Two years ago the US chose to side with the PNA nations on closure of the smaller high seas pockets; it has not indicated whether it will honor the larger purse seine closure. And enforcing such an enormous protected area in general is a clear concern for fisheries managers. Below, MPA News discusses these challenges with PNA Director Transform Aqorau.

How is it that some closures apply to the US fleet while others do not?

Transform Aqorau: One of the elements of the South Pacific Tuna Treaty is that the island states cannot apply laws that are inconsistent with the treaty, and closures to which the US does not agree would be considered inconsistent.

The current, smaller pocket closures apply to US vessels because they were adopted by the Western and Central Pacific Fisheries Commission (WCPFC), the regional fisheries management organization whose coverage area encompasses the PNA region and beyond. The US is a member of the WCPFC and decisions by the Commission are generally made by consensus, so adoption of the pocket closures indicated they would apply to the US. The new purse seine closure will not apply to US vessels unless also adopted by the WCPFC [which did not approve it at a Commission meeting in December 2010], or if the South Pacific Tuna Treaty with the US is amended or terminated. The US has not said it will support the purse seine closure, nor has it said it will not support such a closure.

Does the PNA have plans eventually to ban longlining from the Eastern High Seas area, too?

Aqorau: At this point in time the PNA have not considered closing off the high seas to longline fishing. However, PNA have developed a zone-based measure for the longline vessels, which is being trialed this year and will become fully operational next year. Taking additional steps will depend on what the science informs us this year and the status of bigeye and yellowfin tuna.

What measures is PNA using to enforce its high seas closures against unlicensed vessels that are not carrying observers or vessel monitoring systems?

Aqorau: Enforcement against unlicensed vessels is a region-wide, WCPFC-based concern. Only Contracting Parties and Co-operating Non-Parties should have access to the fish stocks subject to the WCPF Convention.

Do you consider the PNA high seas closures to be permanent?

Aqorau: This should depend on the state of the resources and what the science tells us. At this juncture, the high seas areas as far as the PNA is concerned are closed unless otherwise decided by the PNA and the Commission. My personal view is that they should remain closed and kept as such by the international community.

For more information:

Transform Aqorau, Parties to the Nauru Agreement, Majuro, Marshall Islands. E-mail: transform [at] pnatuna.com