Dr. Transform Aqorau address: 15th INFOFISH WORLD TUNA TRADE CONFERENCE

Dr. Transform Agorau Photo source: National News Bureau of Thailand online

The 15th INFOFISH WORLD TUNA TRADE CONFERENCE is currently underway in Bangkok, Thailand from 28th to 30th May, 2018.  The theme of the conference is ” Braving Challenges: Towards a Traceable and Sustainable Tuna Industry” The Chair for this year’s conference is Dr. Transform Aqorau.  Below is the full extract of Dr. Aqorau’s keynote address;

Distinguished ladies and gentlemen, Honourable Ministers and Delegates, I am honoured to be your chair for the 15th INFOFISH World Tuna Trade Conference and Exhibition and in this capacity, I wish to warmly welcome you to the beautiful city of Bangkok and look forward to very fruitful and productive meetings and presentations over the next three days. It is especially humbling to be bestowed this privilege as the first Pacific Islander to Chair this very important Conference, and in this regard, I also extend warm greetings from my fellow Pacific Islanders.


The importance of the tuna industry and its interconnectedness with the global community is brought home to me all the time. I grew up with Okinawan fishers who were billeted in our villages when we had the largest pole-and-line fishery in the south-west Pacific region in the 1970s. Today, I am woken up each morning at around 4 am by the sounds of the bus taking workers to the cannery at Noro, the tuna capital of Solomon Islands. Living along the way to the cannery gives me a sense of realism about the global connections that is brought to bear by the tuna resources. It is challenging operating in an isolated, high cost region of Solomon Islands, but these realties also drive home the need for proper traceability and sustainability of the catch and industry. It is only appropriate that the theme for this year’s Conference is based around “braving the challenges: towards a traceable and sustainable tuna industry”


The challenges that the industry and fishery has faced over the past few years have been well publicized in the international media in the last 12 months. In terms of stock management, we are all apprised about the status of the yellowfin stocks in the Eastern Pacific and the Indian Ocean, and their implications for the industry. A viable industry is dependent on healthy fish stocks and the challenges that the industry has to face when their quota for one stock is reached when they still have fishing opportunities for other tuna stocks must present the industry with complex issues to deal with.

There have been some successful stories with the bigeye stocks in the Western and Central Pacific (WCPO) showing signs of recovery although it is not clear if those are the result of prudent fisheries management alone or more impacted by simply changes to the structure of the assessment. Today all 4 tuna stocks the WCPO are in the green.


Developments in communications technology have improved traceability in the fishery, but there is still a lot more that needs to be done. It is easy to develop systems for larger more industrial fisheries, but there is a significant proportion of the fishery that finds its way to international markets that are still difficult to document because of the vastness of the coastal zone and complexities of the supply chains where they operate and largely because these are just simple fishers whose only interest is to earn a living from what they catch. This is going to be the challenge going forward in developing traceability for the different kinds of tuna fisheries in the various communities around the world.


That is why this particular Conference is important to hear about the most recent technological developments. The Industry is not just a spectator in these innovative developments, but it can play a pivotal role in helping to promote traceability in the fishery, and work with the markets so that consumers know where and how the tuna on their plates are sourced. We are fortunate that we have before us at least 45 experts and practitioners in various aspects of the industry who over the next 3 days will provide us with information to allow us to take stock of the industry and fishery. We may not always agree with each other over the directions of where certain aspects of the fishery and industry are going, but the Conference provides a healthy environment against which these differences may be debated.


This is the only opportunity where representatives from governments, the fishing industry, traders, processors, retailers, brands, shipping industry, the technology and communication sector, regional fisheries management organizations (RFMOs), non-government organizations (NGOs) and academia come together to hash out differences of views about the way the global tuna resources should be managed; to hear about the latest technological developments. I would urge you to make the most of the opportunity that only presents itself every two-years for it behoves us as responsible custodians and stewards of the resource to find ways to improve on the management and health of the world’s tuna stocks, to work with each other whatever our differences may be to find solutions to our common challenges. This is a global industry and we have a particular responsibility to the peoples of the world to ensure the sustainability of the stocks. I can attest to this particular call as I have close relatives, and indeed my whole community is dependent on this industry.


Ensuring the health of the stocks are critical, and in this respect, we will have presentations from representatives of our tuna regional fisheries management organizations (tRFMOs) on global tuna supply trends and sustainability. We will be hearing about the status of stocks and the efforts that are being made to improve on their management; the progress towards the development of robust decision-making processes through harvest strategies (HS) and harvest control rules (HCR). All of these are necessary components of a well-managed fishery which the industry can contribute to. Indeed, it is often said that the Industry are well placed to inform us about the status of the stocks and the opportunity that presents itself at this Conference is to find ways in which this interface between the industry, science and the innovations in communications technology may better inform us about the status of stocks. We now have available the technology in my region that will allow scientists to provide us with stock assessment in near real time, but we also need the support of the industry to ensure that this information is provided in near-real time, otherwise we will always be trying to manage stocks with anecdotal evidence and data from years before


We will also be hearing about what is happening with the industry and how they are investing in programmes to improve the management of the tuna resources. We cannot leave this to governments alone and the industry has a big role to play in accelerating tuna sustainability whether it is through fishery improvement programmes, MSC Certification, and investments in technology to combat IUU fishing and even in supporting the UN targeted sustainable development goals (SDG). The management of this global industry and fishery must be done as a partnership as no one is large enough to tackle all the problems that impinge on the fishery on their own.


We cannot ignore the trends and developments that are occurring in the global and regional tuna trade and markets. In this regard, we have experts and practitioners who will be talking to us about the latest market updates in largest consumer markets in Europe and the United States and the emerging but significantly growing markets in the Middle East and Latin America. There are changes that are taking place as a result of new trade arrangements and it is important that the industry is kept apprised of these changes; after all they cannot trade successfully if they are not abreast of these developments in the trade agreements. Of particular interest to a number of the industry here present is the implications of Brexit and how this will impact the global tuna industry.  Equally concerning is the erosion of EU market preferences by new free trade agreements in the global economy


Ultimately, the global tuna trade is impacted by market access and access issues and the behavior of consumers is increasingly influencing the way the Industry deals not only with sustainability issues but social accountability issues as well. We will hear presentations about what is being done across a number of areas to improve on market access both in the longline and purse seine fishery.  Market access is being driven increasingly by demands for tuna to consumers, via “clean” supply chains. The demand in this direction is for “clean” tuna to come from well managed fisheries that is traceable back to legally and regulatory compliant and socially responsible vessels. The industry and markets can be a real game changer to effectuate these changes and there is a real opportunity to do this going forward. Boats that cut corners and evade these high standards, and provide unsafe conditions for their workers, who do not respect the human rights and minimum fair labour conditions should not have their products sold in the international tuna markets; in fact, they should not be allowed to fish at all. In this competitive market, brand owners and retailers cannot afford to have questionable tuna products sold in the markets to expose their reputation and trust placed on them by consumers in their brand.  At the same time there is an increasing growth in self-certified schemes, free school programmes, and a range of other unvalidated claims being used in some markets which is disconcerting.


It is only appropriate that the session that follows on from these discussions pertain to sustainability, environment and eco-labelling as these reflect the endeavours that are being made by industry to “stay ahead with sustainability”. These issues are also interfaced with challenges that the industry now faces with the global ghost gear campaign which highlights the problems with abandoned fishing gear. The industry cannot afford to simply ignore these issues and must take a proactive role in investing time and resources into them. Even if they are going to increase the cost of doing business ensuring a truly “blue” industry that not only incorporates good business practice, but also the highest environmental and social standards will be a clear demonstration of the commitment of the industry to a sustainable fishery. Attaching sustainability and social responsibility attributes to a product is often seen as the only way to secure a supply contract especially in the mature markets.


Underpinning the progress in the management, traceability and sustainability of the stocks are innovations in communications technology and therefore it is only appropriate that the last session explores the interlinkages between stock sustainability, traceability and innovation and how the Industry can help propel these innovative developments. These range from improving observer coverage by investing in electronic monitoring, new innovations in technology including the new grounds being made by blockchain technology in the seafood supply chain. The role that the shipping industry plays in the global tuna industry cannot be underestimated and we will be hearing from them about digital innovations and future shipping Trends, and ship-to-shore connectivity for sustainable fishing. Technology is certainly driving change, but we have to be careful to ensure that it is technology that is “fit for purpose”. I am a great admirer of these technological innovations and developments, but we cannot simply embrace them for their own sake. It is too easy to be overwhelmed by technology, they must be validated otherwise we get rubbish in = rubbsish out.   They must be appropriate to the respective management arrangements under which the respective stocks are managed.


The Conference will conclude by a presentation on the single most important issue confronting humanity, and that is climate change and its impact on the tuna resources. The Industry and all us gathered here cannot ignore the impacts of climate change and we must understand it more. The Industry has an opportunity and also particular responsibility towards addressing the issue. We are already doing it with the high standards of environmental accountability and responsibility principles that are being applied to the fishery, but not enough is being done. More has to be done.


In encouraging open and frank dialogue over the course of the next 3 days, I wish to pose a number of questions that should inform the thinking of industry going forward.


What is the Industry doing about its carbon footprints and its impact on climate change? This is not an issue that the Industry and Governments can ignore because climate change and its impacts affect everyone. We cannot simply leave this responsibility to the International Maritime Organization (IMO), but here is a real opportunity for the Industry to work with the IMO and other groups to develop innovative ways to reduce its carbon footprint to the environment. There are similar challenges about the amount of plastic and marine debris that is polluting the oceans and once again these cannot be left to Governments alone to tackle. The tuna industry and especially those that have fishing vessels can take the lead to join the efforts to save the oceans. There is a broad responsibility that belies fishing and that is if the health of the oceans are not maintained then there cannot be a sustainable fishery. There is a inextricable link that connects the tuna industry not just to the tuna resources but also to the marine ecosystem as well.


How should FADs be managed? There is this pervasive view that FADs are bad for fishing and for the environment. This is not necessarily true and often the reports on the impacts that find themselves in the media are exaggerated to generate emotions about the impacts of FADS, but the Industry cannot afford to ignore these and the investments that the International Seafood Sustainability Foundation (ISSF) have been making on the biodegradable FAD materials and non-entangling FADs, and the investments by the PNA on FAD tracking and monitoring are to be commended.  Fishery managers and scientists recognize that FADs are an increasingly important aspect of tuna fisheries and there is such a as good FAD management, which can only start with the registration of FADs; an initiative that has already been underway in the Western and Central Pacific through the auspices of the PNA. However, there has to be better co-operation between the Industry and the Regulators to ensure that there is more effective management of FADs. The current tools to impose FAD closures are a blunt instrument with adverse impacts on supply and price but clearly well managed FADs should be capable of sustainability and environmental objectives.


How can Industry contribute to the effectiveness of tRFMOs?  There is no doubt that industry can do more to further sustainability both from the biological and social perspective, but good tuna fishery management can only come from functional tRFMOs and sadly there is a perception out there that view RFMOs as dysfunctional – mainly due to the demands of consensus and the “lowest common denominator” principle that effectively rules. This is a serious weakness in that tRFMOs are largely driven by Governments and if they are to have the efficacy desired of them, their nomenclature and constituting legal instruments will have to be changed so that it is more inclusive. The nature of international law and the subjects of international law are also changing and this should be reflected by the constituting instruments of tRFMOs which should include membership by the different stakeholders in the fishery. Granted the role that regional groupings have played in ensuring the effectiveness of some tRFMOs is pivotal, but with a migratory resource and significant high seas areas it needs a more global management of high seas and thus how well the tuna stocks are managed globally will depend on the effectiveness of the tRFMOs.


Have global tuna stocks reached their carry capacity? From my point of view, the era of ever increasing tuna catches is clearly drawing to a close in most tRFMOs and that implies a tightening market and more pressure on healthy stocks. We have seen, and will continue to see consolidation, one of which aims is to simplify supply chains. The growing demand for sustainably and socially responsibly caught tuna will drive the need for much more transparent supply chains but the broader challenge facing the Industry is that there is unlikely to be any further growth on the fishery overall. We are probably seeing the plateauing of the growth in the tuna fishery with the possibility that the resources may well have reached their carrying capacity. Attempts to extract more, even on “healthy stocks will increase the risk of getting it wrong.


How well can we manage sustainability of the stocks under the water? Ensuring the sustainability of the stocks under the water is everyone’s responsibility and the Industry can play a pivotal role across a number of spectrums. This calls for greater interface between Industry, Governments, NGOs, technology companies and the markets all combining to support good fisheries management.  Together, they can drive change to see the adoption of target reference points (TRPs) and Harvest Control Rules (HCRs) which are necessary building blocks for a robust tuna management system.


How can we better address the challenges above the water? This is the perennial challenge that faces the Industry and the fishery, but it also presents some of the greatest opportunities. I have throughout my statement alluded to the need for reforms to tRFMOs, as ultimately the management of the tuna resources are impacted by the quality of the relationships between the different actors, be they vessel operators, coastal States, flag States, processors and retailer. We cannot help the fact that we are interconnected and how we deal with each is important, not least of all is the underlying need to be cognizant of the differences that separate us but to build on the common factors that enjoin us.


How well are we addressing IUU fishing? We are only too aware of the economic costs of IUU fishing and the need for Industry and Government and others to do more to address IUU fishing. Market states are increasingly playing a more active role in ensuring that the tuna landed in their ports are caught legally. There are also new international instruments that have been developed to address IUU fishing namely the FAO Port State Management Measures Agreement, and the industry and Governments can work together to address IUU fishing. The good guys cannot be undermined by those who flout the system and therefore it is the best interest of everyone that everyone fishes by the same rules. But a reality is that the ever-increasing costs of compliance must be commensurate with the benefits gained, there will be a time where we must accept it as it is, or unfairly burden those who comply.


As your Chair I intend that this Conference will be productive and that you will be able to leave here having made some progress in improving our understanding and commitment towards addressing the challenges facing the fishery. The world is watching you and many of these challenges are within your grasp to resolve.

I wish you all the best and a productive and fruitful 15th World Tuna Conference.

Thank you.

Dr. Transform Aqorau is an international Fisheries Law Consultant. CEO of iTuna Intel, Adjunct Fellow School of Government, Development and International Affairs (University of the South Pacific, Fiji) and Visiting Fellow Australian National Center for Oceans, Resources and Security (University of Wollongong, Australia). He is based in Rakutu/Noro, New Georgia Island, Western Province, Solomon Islands.