Annual South Pacific fisheries meeting nets bottom trawling controversy

Annual South Pacific fisheries meeting nets bottom trawling controversy
  • The annual conference of the South Pacific Regional Fisheries Management Organisation (SPRFMO), an intergovernmental body, took place in Manta, Ecuador, between Jan. 29 and Feb. 2.
  • SPRFMO, which manages fisheries across the vast international waters of the South Pacific Ocean, made key decisions on bottom trawling, labor rights, observation of squid-fishing vessels and transshipment at sea, a practice that can obscure the origin of illegally caught seafood.
  • In what was perhaps the most controversial outcome of the meeting, delegates failed to adopt a proposal to complete the implementation of rules passed last year that would have limited bottom trawling of vulnerable marine ecosystems, such as coral communities.

When the body that manages fisheries across the vast international waters of the South Pacific Ocean met earlier this month, it made key decisions on bottom trawling, labor rights, observation of squid-fishing vessels, and transshipment at sea, a practice that can obscure the origin of illegally caught seafood.

The annual conference of the South Pacific Regional Fisheries Management Organisation (SPRFMO), an intergovernmental body, took place in Manta, Ecuador, between Jan. 29 and Feb. 2. In what was perhaps the most controversial outcome of the meeting, delegates failed to adopt a proposal to complete the implementation of bottom trawling rules passed in 2023. Those rules stated that, within fisheries management areas, 70% of taxa indicating the presence of vulnerable marine ecosystems (VMEs), such as certain corals and sponges, must be set aside for protection. Implementing the rules would have reduced the areas open to bottom trawling, a destructive fishing practice that involves dragging heavy gear along the seabed. Five of the nine fisheries management areas in SPRFMO waters would have had such reductions.

Aotearoa New Zealand, nearly the only country to trawl the South Pacific high seas, together with the Faroe Islands, blocked the implementation of the rules. Generally, proposals at SPRMFO must pass by consensus, so it takes only one delegation to block a measure. The result is that the rules adopted last year remain in place, but weakened, because a central piece — the 70% rule — hasn’t been implemented.

Map shows the area under the convention of the South Pacific Regional Fisheries Management Organisation (SPRFMO). Image courtesy of SPRFMO.
Map shows the area under the convention of the South Pacific Regional Fisheries Management Organisation (SPRFMO). Image courtesy of SPRFMO.

Oceans campaigners criticized New Zealand’s government for pushing industry interests over marine protection, particularly since it was the country that introduced the rules in the first place last year.

“New Zealand’s belligerent stance of prioritising vested industry interest over international cooperation has made it embarrassing to be a New Zealanderi this past week,” Karli Thomas, a coordinator at Deep Sea Conservation Coalition (DSCC), an umbrella group of NGOs, who attended the conference in Manta, said in a press release.

After championing last year’s rules change, New Zealand had a national election in October and the agency overseeing oceans and fisheries came under new leadership. Shane Jones, the new minister for oceans and fisheries, said the office needs more time to assess the incoming system.

“We are working to understand the implications of the proposed changes to management boundaries,” Jones said in an emailed statement to Mongabay. “As a new government we were not able to fully examine the proposal and come to a position on the complexities of spatial protection and bottom trawling on the high seas. As a result, we are currently seeking a delay in the proposal until the 2025 SPRFMO Meeting, this would allow us to receive further advice and develop a position on the changes.”

Thomas and other oceans campaigners said New Zealand was abdicating responsibility to international commitments.

“This is not how multilateralism works,” Thomas told Mongabay. “You don’t just throw your toys out of the pram because you have a new government.”

Trawling activity in the South Pacific high seas has been relatively low in recent years, with just a handful of New Zealand-flagged trawlers working, occasionally accompanied by a single Australian-flagged trawler, most recently in 2019. In fact, in the most recently completed fishing year, 2022-2023, no New Zealand trawlers operated in the high seas.

High Seas Fisheries Group, a New Zealand fishing industry lobby, blames the decrease in trawling on previous SPRFMO conservation measures, saying they’ve gone too far. The group opposes the 70% rule and presented its concerns about SPRFMO to Jones, the oceans and fisheries minister, according to a paper it submitted to SPRFMO.

Jones is a member of the New Zealand First party who described himself as a “pro-industry politician” to local media. He said in the statement that the low level of trawling was one reason the government was “comfortable seeking a delay to take the time necessary to come to the right decision to ensure sustainable fishing can continue while meeting the need to preserve the marine environment.”

Oceans campaigners such as Thomas have in recent years been calling for a complete ban on bottom trawling on seamounts — biodiverse features that host many VMEs and, historically, many trawlers — in the South Pacific high seas. In fact, last year conservationists expressed disappointment with the 70% rule, arguing there was no science to suggest the destruction of 30% of VMEs was acceptable and that allowing it would violate international law. But the measure included language that would allow the percentage of protected VMEs to increase from 70% in the future; conservationists argue it should be 100%.

This year, New Zealand brought forth an industry-friendly proposal, which went before SPRFMO’s Scientific Committee last year, to carry over any unused quota of orange roughy (Hoplostethus atlanticus), a deepwater fish and the main target of trawlers in the South Pacific high seas, for up to two years. The measure, which the DSCC opposed, failed to pass.

In a key development, SPRFMO countries passed stricter rules governing transshipment, the transfer of catch from one vessel to another. When transshipment happens at sea, it can mask catch origins and enable fishers to circumvent fishing regulations. The new SPRFMO measure requires that an observer be on board any vessel receiving such a transfer for improved transparency and data accuracy.

“Improving the collection of data and monitoring of transshipments helps close the door to an area of potential IUU fishing,” Dave Gershman, an international fisheries conservation officer at the Ocean Foundation, a Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit, told Mongabay in an email, referring to illegal, unreported and unregulated fishing.

SPRFMO also made a first step toward developing labor protections for vessel crew, adopting a proposal to establish “minimum standards” on safety, pay and conditions. To date, few regional fisheries management organizations (RFMOs), of which there are around 17 globally, have dealt with labor rights, but the issue is gaining prominence. In October, The New Yorker published a much-read article detailing forced labor and other human rights violations in the fishing industry, including on squid fishing vessels near South America, many of which operate in SPRFMO’s regulatory area.

Map shows the movement of Asian-flagged squid-fishing fleets near South America, which has been consistent each year since 2017, according to Artisonal, a fisheries consultancy based in Peru. Larger circles indicate more vessels and likely fishing activity. Much of the fishing to the west of South America falls within SPRFMO's regulatory area. At the recent SPRFMO meeting, delegates agreed to increase observer coverage on squid-fishing vessels to cover 10% of fishing days. In a separate measure, they instituted minimum labor protections on fishing vessels, following recent revelations about labor and human rights abuses on squid-fishing vessels near South America. Image courtesy of Artisonal.
Map shows the movement of Asian-flagged squid-fishing fleets near South America, which has been consistent each year since 2017, according to Artisonal, a fisheries consultancy based in Peru. Larger circles indicate more vessels and likely fishing activity. Much of the fishing to the west of South America falls within SPRFMO’s regulatory area. At the recent SPRFMO meeting, delegates agreed to increase observer coverage on squid-fishing vessels to cover 10% of fishing days. In a separate measure, they instituted minimum labor protections on fishing vessels, following recent revelations about labor and human rights abuses on squid-fishing vessels near South America. Image courtesy of Artisonal.

Bubba Cook, a program manager at WWF-New Zealand, told Mongabay in an email that exposés on “rampant human rights and labour abuses” were “forcing the RFMOs to take meaningful steps to address the issue.”

Cook focuses on a different RFMO that governs fishing in the western and central Pacific Ocean and didn’t attend the SPRFMO meeting, but he said the proposal that just passed appeared to be weak, with no consequences for violations, and he hoped the measure’s three sponsors — New Zealand, Australia and the U.S. — intend to push for further reforms.

“‘[The proposal] amounts to a big nothingburger,” he said. “In effect, SPRFMO has enacted a non-binding resolution, not a binding CMM [conservation and management measure], which is hardly any better than the status quo.”

The environmental impact of squid fishing was addressed in a different measure: SPRFMO parties agreed to increase fishery observer coverage of the jumbo flying squid (Dosidicus gigas) fishery to 10% of fishing days. Fishery observers monitor and collect catch data and help ensure compliance with fisheries rules.

Raiana McKinney, a senior associate on international fisheries at Pew Charitable Trusts, a Washington, D.C.-based think tank, told Mongabay in an emailed statement that this was a good step, but the requirement should be 20%, which some countries were pushing for. She also said increased observer coverage needs to be coupled with better electronic monitoring, which can include onboard cameras, sensors and e-logbooks. SPRFMO parties passed a measure that creates a working group to look into improving electronic monitoring.

Map shows the outline of a marine protected area proposed by Chile at last week's SPRFMO conference in Manta, Ecuador. Underwater mountain ranges in the area make it rich in biodiversity. Last week, SPRFMO delegations asked the Scientific Committee to study the possibility of closing fishing in the area. Image courtesy of SPRFMO.
Map shows the outline of a marine protected area proposed by Chile at last week’s SPRFMO conference in Manta, Ecuador. Underwater mountain ranges in the area make it rich in biodiversity. Last week, SPRFMO delegations asked the Scientific Committee to study the possibility of closing fishing in the area. Image courtesy of SPRFMO.

Chile proposed that an offshore area to the west of Peru and Chile be closed to fishing. The area, comprising Salas y Gómez Ridge and Nazca Ridge, contains underwater mountain ranges rich with marine biodiversity. The proposal, which NGO members from Oceana and Coral Reefs of the High Seas Coalition supported, was sent to the SPRFMO Scientific Committee for consideration.

Finally, Ecuador, the host nation, made and then withdrew a proposal to require NGO observers to pay a fee to participate in future SPRFMO conferences. While some RFMOs do have observer fees, observers at the SPRFMO conference expressed concern that the fees would negatively affect transparency and accessibility for small, underfunded civil society groups.

“Any discussion of fees should ensure the money goes to defray the expenses of the host country in providing for the meeting and ensure that smaller organizations with less funding or based in coastal States are not disenfranchised from participating,” Gershman of the Ocean Foundation said.

Banner image: An orange roughy (Hoplostethus atlanticus), a species that can live 200 years and is commonly fished by New Zealand trawlers. Image by NOAA Photo Library via Flickr (CC BY 2.0).

Critics push for more transparency at RFMOs that govern high seas fishing

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