Marshall Islands Correspondent

A Marshall Islands Marine Resources Authority fisheries enforcement officer monitors the offloading of tuna in Majuro for processing at the Pan Pacific Foods tuna loining plant.
Photo by Hillary Hosia

MAJURO — While tuna fishing in the western Pacific remains steady, the COVID-19 pandemic has resulted in revenue declines and a temporary halt to verification of catches — the latter a critical element in monitoring and managing an industry that is valued at $6 billion annually.

“The pandemic has had a significant impact on the work of Forum Fisheries Agency member countries, particularly around monitoring, control and surveillance,” said Manu Tupou-Roosen, director general of the FFA.

“For example, it is now extremely difficult to place observers on-board fishing vessels, due to travel restrictions and health and safety concerns, and requirements for fishing vessels to carry observers have been suspended.”

Revenues for the nine participating islands in the Parties to the Nauru Agreement are expected to be down by as much as 25% in 2020. 

This follows growth of PNA revenue from purse seine fishing from $60 million in 2019 to $493 million in 2020. This reflects PNA’s full implementation of its “vessel day scheme” which governs purse seine fishing in the region. To give an idea of the revenue impact, in the Marshall Islands revenue generated by the VDS and fishing rights amounted to just $1.1 million in 2010. In 2019, it topped $30 million for the first time.

A combination of purse seine companies fishing outside PNA’s 200-mile exclusive economic zones and challenges posed by border closures and quarantine requirements for tuna transshipment have reduced PNA revenues this year.

Since the early 2010s, Majuro developed into the world’s busiest tuna transshipment port. In 2018 and 2019 it averaged 37 purse seine vessel transshipments per month. This year, through September, it is averaging just 14 a month, a 60% decline. This is mainly the result of strict Covid-19 entry requirements for fishing vessels that have led the industry to transship in other ports with less stringent requirements.

Most islands depend on a combination of fisheries and tourism revenue to fund national budgets, but the coronavirus pandemic has largely halted tourism. 

“With global tourism effectively shut down due to Covid-19, the income derived from tuna is even more critical for Pacific economies,” said Graham Pilling, the deputy director of the SPC for the Oceanic Fisheries Program.

Majuro has been the world’s busiest tuna transshipment port for the past seven years. But COVID-19 quarantine requirements for fishing vessels has caused a 60% decline in transshipment operations in 2020.
Photo by Giff Johnson

The most important consideration for the region is that scientists who conduct ongoing stock assessments report that all tunas are currently being fished at sustainable levels. “The western and central Pacific is the only area in the world where tunas are sustainably harvested,” said Simon Nicol, the Pacific Community’s principle fisheries scientist who oversees stock assessments in the region.

One activity not heavily impacted by COVID-19 is SPC’s tuna tagging work, which has been ongoing for more than three decades and provides scientists with a wealth of knowledge about tuna in the region.

“Without the information from tagging, we wouldn’t be in a position to be confident that bigeye tuna is being sustainably harvested. Tagging data is fundamental in assessing the skipjack population. Without it, the assessment would be highly uncertain.”

In early October, SPC wrapped up a seven-week tuna tagging voyage, tagging more than 6,000 tuna in the central Pacific, mostly in Kiribati waters.

Nicol said this recent tuna tagging effort was of even more importance than usual because COVID-19 border closures have forced a halt to the use of independent fisheries observers on all purse seine and some longline vessels fishing in the region, reducing the flow of data that scientists use for stock assessments. Because of the volume of tuna caught annually and the value to industry and the islands, credible stock assessments are essential to ensuring fishing rules and harvest limits can be made based on solid information, he said.

Fisheries revenue for the Marshall Islands was forecast earlier this year by the Graduate School USA to dive by as much as $4 million in 2020 because of COVID-19’s impact on the movement of fishing vessels in the region. But the losses could be higher for a sector that now underwrites more than 10% of the national budget of the Marshall Islands.

The outlook for the tuna-rich PNA nations is for a revenue reduction extending into 2021. The good news is that the fish remain healthy and island fisheries officials expect revenue levels to rebound as the pandemic eases. mbj