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Expert: Fisheries management 101 works in Marshall Islands

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MAJURO — Port management and control of the multi-billion dollar tuna industry in the Pacific islands is most effectively developed through hands-on trial and error rather than waiting for consultants, workshops and international agreements to be in place, said a New Zealand government-supported fisheries advisor working in the Marshall Islands.

 “You need to start, and to learn by doing — and for that you do not need to sign any high-level document,” said Francisco Blaha, the Offshore Fisheries Advisor at the Marshall Islands Marine Resources Authority. His position is supported by the New Zealand Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade.

Blaha said this approach is paying dividends in the Marshall Islands and putting fishing companies on notice that local fisheries enforcement officers are effectively monitoring their fishing activities in this western Pacific nation’s 700,000 square mile exclusive economic zone. A demonstration of this is a S. Korean fishing vessel being charged recently with illegal fishing based on work by fisheries enforcement officers in Majuro.

Regional fisheries management organizations in the Pacific and Indian oceans as well as the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization and the Forum Fisheries Agency have produced or are developing “port state measures,” he said.

 “Yet, operationally, for a country, the whole point of port state measures  is to avoid the use of its ports for the unloading of fish caught in illegal, unreported and unregulated fishing operations by vessels both foreign and domestic,” said Blaha.

Marshall Islands Marine Resources Authority port state control fisheries officer Beau Bigler crosschecks ship documentation during the arriving vessel intelligence analysis for a purse seiner intending to gain authorization to transship its catch of tuna in Majuro. This is done for vessels intending to use port Majuro. Photo by Francisco Blaha.

 “One does not need to read every word in a document with a lawyer’s loupe or sign agreements to start operations,” he said. “You just start working it out in your own time and at your own pace. There is no need to have all the papers lined up and all the standard operation procedures written before you start doing something.”

Blaha notes that “doing something” may entail fisheries authorities changing the way the port operations are conducted. Training by doing takes time, resources need to be mobilized, and routines need to be created — work that he says has been ongoing over the past two years at the Marshall Islands Marine Resources Authority or MIMRA.

 “Many aspects of the day-to-day work cannot be foreseen by doing a one-week workshop, attending some meetings, and expecting all things to be right,” Blaha said, adding that anyone working in compliance has learned that there is only one thing worse than not signing a piece of paper: it is to sign it and then not be able to comply with it.

Everyone understands the importance of signing on to international commitments, he said. But small countries blessed with good natural ports have a limited human and financial resources to take on the increasingly big and sophisticated job of controlling vessels.

Marshall Islands Marine Resources Authority port state control boarding purse seiner. Photo by Francisco Blaha.

Blaha points out that many port states in the western and central Pacific region inspect more vessels from distant water fishing nations than the vessel’s own flag state authorities do. Such is the case in Majuro, which over the past five years has become the world’s busiest tuna transshipment port.

The key for the Marshall Islands fisheries department has been launching port state management as a routine activity for entry of all fishing vessels. The recent charges brought in the High Court in Majuro against a South Korean longline vessel for fishing in Marshall Islands waters without a valid license is an example of “best port state management practices,” said Blaha.

 “MIMRA’s port state management strategy focuses on intelligence analysis around the identity, licensing and operations of arriving vessels before they are authorized to use the port,” said Blaha.

The operations part requires local fisheries officers to analyze the ship’s movement before it enters port. This is done by looking at its vessel monitoring system or VMS track, which is an on-board device that communicates the vessel’s position to fisheries management authorities on a 24/7 basis.

But, said Blaha, while VMS may give you a good indication of what happened at a time and place, sometimes it does not suffice as evidence. “When fisheries officers board, the officer needs to know what to look for and where to find it, so they can collect definitive evidence that cannot be disputed,” said Blaha, who has been working with local fisheries officers to develop their capacity in this area.

There is a wealth of information from captain’s logbooks and onboard GPS plotters to temperature records and buoy-recovery marks, Blaha said. “The active conduct of the boarding officers shows the captains that they know their job,” he said. “In most cases, captains accept this, and accept the charges (of illegal fishing) to cut their losses.”

Blaha said in the case of the recently charged South Korean longline vessel Oryong 721, Fisheries Officer Beau Bigler identified the offense during the maneuvering analyses that are part of the routine intelligence report prepared for every vessel intending to enter Majuro. “He took notes on time and place, and once on board went straight to the bridge and collected evidence from documentation written and instruments operated by the captain, making the evidence really hard to dispute,” he said.

 “The charging of the vessels is a total win for the port state management team in MIMRA,” he added. “It is one you get by understanding how different fishing vessels operate, and what and where information is recorded and stored on board.

 “Add to that the dedication of competent officers, and we have port state management that works and produces results without having to sign — for now — any big documents. Simple as that.”

November 2020 pssnewsletter

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