Victory for the Pacific as Japan gives way on tuna boat observer safety

In an extraordinary show of strength Pacific island countries forced their bigger global tuna fishery counterparts in the Tuna Commission (WCPFC) to agree on safety measures for their observers on tuna fishing vessels.

Five observers have died or been murdered at sea in the past 6 years while providing regional scientists and compliance officials with the information they need to ensure the sustainability of tuna stocks.

The new measures were nearly lost as Japan refused to join the consensus, despite a week of talks.

As discussions hit barriers late on Friday, members were ready to take an unprecedented move and put the issue to vote. 

Almost all 17 Pacific Forum nations made individual and emotional statements to the plenary session about the risks their citizens face to keep the fishery sustainable.

A final statement by the World Wide Fund for Nature’s Alfred (Bubba) Cook, a personal friend of an observer who lost his life in suspicious circumstances last year, left the room in silence.

Shortly afterwards a call from Tokyo cleared the way for approval of the new measures, which include a clause releasing Japan from having to comply for two years.

“It was a huge accomplishment to get the observer safety measure across the line,” Bubba Cook told journalists shortly after the meeting ended.

“I think that is a huge step symbolically. What they (FFA nations) have equivalently done is performed a ‘haka’ in front of the Distant Water Fishing Nations and they let them know that they are not going to be pushed around on the issues that they think are important to them and I think that’s a very very important symbolic step. “Cook said.

Mr Cook said the decision has more significance than just the win on safety.

“This is about Pacific Islands flexing their muscles and saying this is ours and we are going to protect it,” he said

At a press briefing WCPFC Executive Director Feleti Teo acknowledged the challenges in deliberations and the risk to the future standing of the commission. 

“I think the observer safety discussions could have provided some difficult challenges for the commission and it could have reflected quite negatively on the work that the commission did this week. But it all turned good in the end, “Teo said.

The Pacific Islands Forum Fisheries Agency proposed comprehensive measures to ensure the safety.

 “What was significant about it was that not only do we have a measure that is binding but that it was achieved through a very purposeful and determined pressing of the issue by the FFA member countries to the point of seeking a vote.’ ,” said FFA Director General James Movick.

“I think it was to my recollection probably the first time it has gone to this extent and it achieved the purpose of forcing Japan to take a close look at this issue and ultimately to  withdraw its reservations and allow the nations to go forward,” he added.

WCPFC Chair Rhea Moss-Christian said the outcome on observer safety is extremely important for the commission.

“I think that gave everyone the much-needed motivation and pride that I think this commission needed at this point in time, said Moss-Christian.

FFA Deputy Director General Wez Norris said the text negotiated represents a really good package, especially as a first attempt to really put concrete measures in place that holds CCMs (Co-operating Non-Members and Participating Territories) to account.

The new measures mean that for the first time observers will know that if they get sick or are harassed or intimidated by hostile crew, they have a safety net onshore that will swing into action to help them.

The nation providing observers, the flag state of the boat on which they serve and the coastal state in which they are fishing all have obligations to assist.

“It’s very unfortunate that Japan has an intractable position that basically resulted in  a pretty much blanket exemption from the provisions of the measure,”  Norris said.

He pointed out that there would be instant improvement to the quality of protection that are provided to observers.

The Parties of Nauru Agreement which has also been vocal on the safety of observers welcomed the Commission’s decision to accept the measures proposed.

“I think that’s a big gain for us as FFA members and PNA, said PNA Chief Executive Ludwig Kumoru.

The observers are the eyes and ears of Pacific islands on compliance on the tuna vessels.

There are about 800 Pacific observers serving on tuna vessels.


Rita Narayan