PNA members confirm: Vessel Day Scheme is here to stay

A Pacific island fisheries bloc has unanimously decided to maintain a management system that has increased revenue to the islands by over 500 percent in the past six years.

Despite criticism by countries outside of this western and central Pacific fishery of a management system used to regulate the tuna industry, fisheries officials from the Parties to the Nauru Agreement (PNA) agreed at their annual meeting in Kiribati last week to recommend to their fisheries ministers that the system be maintained.

This decision followed review at the annual meeting of an independent study of the PNA’s Vessel Day Scheme (VDS), which manages a multi-tuna fishery by controlling fishing effort.

The independent review by Toroa Strategy Limited of New Zealand compared the effort-based VDS to a quota limit system and concluded: “The VDS is a fully functioning fisheries management regime without peer for its class of fishery…There is no clear benefit from changing the VDS from a Day scheme to a catch scheme now or in the near future.”

“No one in the PNA is asking to change the VDS,” said PNA Chief Executive Dr. Transform Aqorau. “It is coming from countries outside of PNA. The VDS is not something we are going to give away. This is a system with a value of US$450 million annually — why would we replace it with something we don’t know?”

PNA controls waters where 50 percent of the global supply of skipjack tuna is caught. Its members are Papua New Guinea, Solomon Islands, Tuvalu, Kiribati, Marshall Islands, Nauru, Federated States of Micronesia and Palau. Tokelau is not a full member, but has joined PNA in enforcing the VDS in its fishery.

The independent review of the VDS provided to the PNA annual meeting last week made note of recent debate in the region over the merits of effort and quota systems, observing that a “detailed examination of this issue has been pre-empted by the (Pacific Islands) Forum and an associated announcement from New Zealand Prime Minister John Key in September 2015,” in which Key stated “Pacific leaders have endorsed ‘A Roadmap for Sustainable Pacific Fisheries’ which promotes a move toward a catch-based management system for tuna by 2025.”

These statements, said the review, put the cart before the horse.

“The Forum leaders and the New Zealand government have therefore precipitately endorsed a ‘solution’ to a ‘problem’ that has not been clearly identified by either the Review or PNA,” said the independent review, which praised the VDS as “a fully functioning fisheries management regime without peer for its class of fishery.”

After detailing pros and cons of both effort and quota limit systems, the independent review said: “There is no evidence that, for practical purposes, the present sustainability performance of the VDS is inferior to the quota management system given the nature and current state of the tuna fishery.”

The current total catch level in PNA waters “is sustainable” and the management system in place “provides a simple and robust compliance framework for the fleet,” said the review. “The purse seine VDS is a very successful fisheries management regime by any real world standard.”

The message to other countries in and outside the region from the PNA annual meeting is straightforward, said Dr. Aqorau: “Learn to respect different legal arrangements that govern different fisheries. Only the parties to the Palau Arrangement (which established the terms of the VDS) have authority to change the VDS. The Pacific Islands Forum and the Forum Fisheries Agency have no legal authority to change the VDS. By the same token PNA has no authority for other fisheries systems that have their own governance arrangements.”

Dr. Aqorau said the VDS is “an instrument that creates self-reliance for PNA members and means they do not need to rely on donor aid.” Since full implementation of the VDS in 2010, fisheries revenues to PNA nations have risen from US$60 million to an estimated US$400 million last year.

The VDS is an integrated management system that is tied to a fisheries information management system that provides detailed catch data from both vessels and independent fisheries observers on board purse seine vessels. “This integrated system allows us to know how much fish is being caught and where it is being caught,” said Dr. Aqorau. This robust data collection, which is now largely electronic, has been developed by PNA members as an essential foundation of VDS management of the PNA fishery, he said.

“Everyone in PNA is supportive of the VDS,” said Dr. Aqorau. “The recommendation from the annual meeting to PNA fisheries ministers is to stick with the VDS.”

A resolution endorsed unanimously at last week’s meeting in Kiribati stated, in part: “The VDS constitutes best practices on fishery management and development in the Pacific Region and across the globe