Research and training supports observers

Official observers are a crucial part of the monitoring and compliance work that occurs in the Western and Central Pacific Ocean (WCPO) to hold fishers accountable for their operations. The Western and Central Pacific Ocean is the largest tuna fishery on the planet, and the network of regional observers that work here is likewise the largest in the world. Western and Central Pacific Fisheries Commission (WCPFC) records state that there are 820 observers from the Pacific Island countries and territories (PICTs), and another 800 from elsewhere. Usually, between 300 and 400 are at sea at any one time, but onboard work has been suspended since the beginning of the COVID-19 lockdowns.

The WCPFC, the Oceanic Fisheries Monitoring section of the Pacific Community (SPC) and the Pacific Islands Forum Fisheries Agency (FFA) developed the Regional Observer Programme and a single set of standards for observers working in the Western and Central Pacific Ocean (WCPO) from an idea in 2007 of introducing a competency-based qualification. The organisations also developed standards for observer accreditation among the PICTs: the Pacific Islands Regional Fisheries Observer (PIRFO) standards qualification. It is based on the PIRFO training framework developed by the Pacific Islands Forum Fisheries Agency (FFA) and SPC.

Training and accreditation of observers through PIRFO

The current PIRFO set of standards is the only regional standard qualification for observers in the world. It forms the basis for all the national observer programs in the region.

The training covers two parts. The first part is for generic skills (e.g. safety, emergency response, communication, first aid, firefighting) for all personnel on fishing vessels. The second part focuses on the specific skills relating to observer reporting and monitoring.

There has been a massive increase in the demand for observers, debriefers and observer trainers with the rapid growth of tuna fishing in the WCPO and following the decision of the WCPFC that every purse-seine vessel must carry an observer on board.

New standards have been developed for electronic reporting and monitoring, and certification of Marine Stewardship Council chain of custody. The program also includes training to be an observer debriefer, an observer debriefer trainer and an observer program manager.

SPC runs training courses to improve monitoring of tuna fisheries

The SPC’s Oceanic Fisheries Programme supports capacity development in two areas related to observers’ work:

Electronic monitoring and reporting becoming the norm

Increasingly, Pacific Islands observers are equipped with tablets and satellite communication devices. Tablets enable them to collect and transmit monitoring data as they are captured, and make reporting easier to complete and easier to harmonise between island nations.

Satellite communication devices mean that they don’t have to rely on the vessel’s communication system. This is particularly important when they suspect that illegal, unreported or unregulated (IUU) fishing is occurring.

Pacific Island Observer with tablet and satellite communications device Photo: FFA
The well-equipped observer now carries a tablet and satellite communication device, so they can work independently of the vessel’s communications systems. Photo: FFA.
Electronic monitoring can complement the work that observers do, particularly on purse-seine vessels, although it also supplements observation on the 5% of longline fishing vessels that carry observers.

SPC’s Neville Smith describes some basic differences in observation work on these two types of vessels, and explains some benefits and limitations of electronic monitoring (2.28 mins).

SPC researchers have been trialling electronic reporting with observers and captains of fishing vessels. The research is part of OFMP2.

Electronic reporting using mobile devices is a more efficient way of recording and reporting data than using paper forms. SPC’s trainer in data analysis, Andrew Hunt, talks about the advantages of electronic reporting. He says that people have instant access to data, that it helps combat illegal fishing and misreporting of catch, and reduces the number of failures in data collection (41 secs).

Building understanding of illegal, unreported and unregulated fishing in the WCPO

FFA is a world leader in work against IUU fishing. FFA members have been collaborating for more than a decade on developing a regional approach.

A 2017 report prepared for the FFA describes the status of illegal, unreported and unregulated (IUU) fishing in the Western and Central Pacific Ocean. The report, Baseline study and performance indicators for the Pacific Islands Oceanic Fisheries Management Program 2, notes that:

  • There has been much effort to combat IUU fishing at national, sub-regional and regional levels. It seems to have been effective in achieving its goal, and has contributed to relatively low estimates of IUU fishing in some categories.
  • A study indicates that much uncertainty still exists about IUU fishing in some categories. More work is needed to offer stronger incentives for voluntary compliance, to reinforce deterrents to non-compliance, and to improve monitoring through the supply chain.
  • FFA members are considering the implications of the study for their operations.
  • To gain access to the European Union market, the EU requires only that products are caught legally by the flag state. If the European Commission believes that a country does not meet EU regulations, it discusses the matter with the country and issues a caution. The country is expected to improve its legal and management frameworks to address IUU fishing. Fiji, Vanuatu, Papua New Guinea, Solomon Islands, and Tuvalu have all been issued with cautions. They are working to address gaps.

FFA has commissioned two reports into quantifying how much IUU fishing is occurring, and how it might be minimised. The focus is on helping fishers to comply with fishing rules that aim at maintaining tuna populations in healthy numbers and maintaining a healthy ocean environment that can continue to support tuna and other food fish. The first study showed that the biggest problem in the WCPO is unreported fishing activity. This includes misreporting and underreporting. The second study, to be published in 2021, focuses on ways in which FFA can improve its monitoring, control and surveillance strategy to minimise IUU fishing.

An official inspector prepares to board a vessel in Rabaul, as part of compliance, monitoring and surveillance. Photo credit: Francisco Blaha.
An official inspector prepares to board a vessel in Rabaul, as a standard part of monitoring, control and surveillance. Photo: Francisco Blaha.