May 26, 2015

Q&A with John Virdin: Fishing for a Sustainable Future

Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions
Q&A with John Virdin: Fishing for a Sustainable Future

John Virdin, director of the Ocean and Coastal Policy Program at Duke University’s Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions, was recently a panelist on a World Bank Panel in Sydney, Australia, focused on the sustainability of fisheries in the Pacific. He reflects on some of the discussion in the May Praxis Discussion Series below.

How can governments and private industry in the Pacific work together to ensure the sustainability of fisheries?

Governments in the Pacific Islands are working to better manage tuna fisheries to ensure catches are sustainable, the rules of the game are clear, and industry risk is reduced. Since 2009, the eight Pacific Island countries who are Parties to the Nauru Agreement, as well as Tokelau, have introduced what is essentially like a cap-and-trade scheme for purse seine tuna fishing in their waters. With this approach, the countries set a cap on the total amount of fishing that the best available science tells them is sustainable. Applied to that cap is a set number of fishing days, also called “vessel days.” These vessel days are allocated between the countries based upon an agreed formula. The countries sell the days to companies—with an agreed benchmark price. Because access to the resource is a fixed, common currency between the countries, it becomes a more valuable commodity that the countries have been able to charge more for. Hence, the price of a fishing vessel day has climbed from $1,500 in 2010 to $8,000 this year, and revenues to Pacific Island countries have more than tripled, all while the system reinforces a hard cap on fishing activity that enhances the sustainability and health of the resource.

Are there other ways Pacific Island countries can capture a greater share of the revenue earned from fish captured in their waters?

While the vessel day scheme has been a good step forward in sustainably managing the purse seine tuna fishery in Pacific Island waters, there is still room to further improve it. Countries will need to continue to tighten monitoring and surveillance of the fishery, and likely move to a system that manages the fishery by output (the amount of fish caught per vessel), rather than inputs (the number of days a vessel fishes). The former is much more precise than the latter, since technology improvements can allow one vessel to catch a lot more fish in a day than another, and that’s hard to capture in the current system. Continuing to strengthen the management system will only increase the value of access and thus the share of the revenues that the countries earn, even given the great progress to date.

And is regional cooperation between nations the best way forward?

In the case of the Western and Central Pacific Ocean tuna fisheries, it’s the only way forward. The stocks of tuna in this part of the ocean move between different countries, so that no one country can manage the fishing activity that affects the stock. To safeguard the health of this valuable asset and the benefits it can provide, countries have to work together.

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Virdin is available for comment by contacting Erin McKenzie, erin.mckenzie@duke.edu or 919.613.3652.

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