Bluewater Magazine Issue 124

Many of the tuna and billfish species important to Australia’s anglers occur over large areas of ocean and are targeted by the commercial fleets of many nations. This makes international cooperation between these countries vital.

Achieving strong, sustainable fisheries in Australian waters is a complex endeavour that relies on comprehensive monitoring and data collection, scientific research, strong regulations, stewardship, and cooperation and compliance by anglers and commercial fishers. Central to this are the independent surveillance programs that monitor the compliance of commercial fleets with fisheries rules, both in national waters and on the high seas.

Australia’s commercial tuna longline fisheries have among the strongest monitoring and compliance systems in the world, but the monitoring systems for international longline fleets, particularly on the high seas, outside of Australia’s jurisdiction pose big risks to stock sustainability. Given the migratory nature of these species, unreliable data can have flow-on implications for the availability of tuna and billfish to Australia’s game fishing anglers.

Unknown numbers

Two of the biggest threats include highly-organised and elusive illegal fishing by unlicensed longline boats, and illegal fishing by licensed longline boats that under-report, misreport and/or do not report catch. As scientific assessments of tuna and billfish population health rely heavily on fisheries catch and biological data, if a large proportion of fish are being taken without being recorded, managers could think the stocks are healthy when they are not, and fail to take action in time.

Australia continues to work closely with Pacific island countries to promote monitoring and surveillance to crack down on these illegal activities in the Pacific, including through cooperative arrangements such as the Niue Treaty Subsidiary Agreement.

Australian support

At the forefront of more recent endeavours is Australia’s funding of two new King Air200 surveillance planes, operated by the Pacific Islands Forum Fisheries Agency based in Honiara, Solomon Islands. The aircraft are fitted with high-tech sensor, avionics and communications technologies capable of detecting fishing vessels over a very broad range of ocean.

The new aerial assets are part of the Australian-funded Pacific Maritime Security Program (PMSP). They are coordinated by Forum Fisheries Agency Secretariat and will work in conjunction with patrol boats coordinated by the Pacific Island Countries to combat illegal maritime threats.

Another initiative under the PMSP is the funding of a fleet of high tech, 40-metre long Guardian-class ocean patrol vessels to replace the old patrol boats owned and run by Pacific island countries. The new vessels are equipped with the latest detection and seafaring technology, have a significantly greater operating range, and use updated satellite communications systems. The first of these vessels was delivered to the Papua New Guinea government in late 2018 and another 12 countries are due to receive vessels in the next few years, representing a massive boost to the protection of tuna and billfish stocks in the region.

Enhanced monitoring for all

Another key initiative that AFMA, the broader Australian Government and our Pacific island country partners are working on is to drive the roll-out of electronic logbook reporting and electronic monitoring, or EM, (a system of video cameras) on tuna longline fleets in the region.

Strong momentum is building for the implementation of EM in domestic longline fisheries across the region, and it is of critical importance to see this happen on high seas fleets as well.

In contrast to regional purse seine fisheries, which have 100 per cent human observer coverage, most of the large distant-water tuna longline fleets in the Pacific Ocean have very low observer coverage, especially on the high seas. In addition to limited space, working conditions on many of these boats have proven to be difficult and unsafe for human observers.

Australia implemented EM on 100 per cent of boats in its domestic Eastern Tuna and Billfish Fishery in 2015. Since then, eight Pacific island nations have implemented or are trialling EM in their fleets, which is driving the development of regional standards to support consistent monitoring of vessel activities via EM.

Widespread support

The Federated States of Micronesia has committed to having EM installed on all tuna longline boats operating in its Exclusive Economic Zone by 2023. Some other nations are on a similar path, with the Solomon Islands publicly committing to have EM across its longline fleet. Fiji have undergone a number of comprehensive trials and will soon have EM on 50 longline vessels, with the goal of eventually covering all vessels.

Pacific nations are also seeing EM implementation on longline boats as a way to improve the safety of fisheries monitoring activities at sea (including of human observers), and as a way to enable independent monitoring to occur in areas where it is currently low.

These initiatives all strive towards maintaining healthy and sustainable tuna and billfish stocks, a goal that is so important to regional, artisanal, commercial and recreational fisheries alike.

View the article printed in issue 138 of Bluewater Magazine.