Noumea New Caldonia – Evidence given by Pacific Island fisheries observers has helped secure judgements against the owners, operators and fishing masters of six tuna purse seiners, with heavy fines imposed – over USD 1.5 million in total.
All of the boats had been accused of fishing on fish aggregating devices (FADs) during the FAD ban in 2009, a measure put in place across the region to reduce catches of small bigeye tuna. Several vessels were also charged with placing FADs during the closure, and setting their nets on whales.
The observers gave evidence in two long-running court cases brought by the US authorities, who enforce regulations on their own fleet fishing in Pacific Island waters, under the Western and Central Pacific Fisheries Convention Implementation Act and the Marine Mammal Protection Act.
An official of the Enforcement Section of NOAA (the US National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration) paid tribute to the six Pacific Islanders.
‘The observers were the heart of the cases and did a terrific job. The judge’s decision demonstrates that he found the observers credible, trustworthy and persuasive,’ said Alexa Cole, the section’s deputy chief.
[ Pacific Island fisheries observer at work on a purse seiner]
The observers (from Solomon Islands, Marshall Islands and Federated States of Micronesia) were called to testify in Honolulu in early 2012. All six had been placed onboard the vessels by the Forum Fisheries Agency (FFA), and had been trained by staff of the Secretariat of the Pacific Community (SPC).
An observer training officer from SPC informed the court about the training that observers receive, and the Pacific Island regional observer standards that they have to meet. An economist from FFA was also called to testify about the value of tuna catches – an important factor in setting the penalties.
Observers are trained to collect scientific information on fishing operations and catches, as well as to report any illegal fishing activities.
SPC and FFA have been supporting the development of national observer programmes in their Pacific Island member countries for many years, and some 700 observers are now deployed. Purse-seine vessels fishing in the region must carry an observer at all times. Observer training is currently supported by a number of development partners – the European Union, New Zealand, Australia and Japan – but most other costs of the observer programme are recovered from the fishing industry.