Press Release

10 March 2021

“While WCPFC has existing CMMs on observer safety we consider there is further work that can be done to ensure observers are adequately protected.”

London. UK. Calls for action on the welfare of crew and fisheries observers at the latest Western and Central Pacific Fisheries Commission (WCPFC) meeting could see new, commission-level action to advance human rights protections.

The WCPFC, a Regional Fisheries Management Organisation established by the Convention for the Conservation and Management of Highly Migratory Fish Stocks in the Western and Central Pacific Ocean, met virtually in December (WCPFC17) with Indonesia submitting a draft conservation and management measure (CMM) on labour standards for crew on fishing vessels. CMM provisions are mandatory, so its adoption could lead to a stronger stance being taken by the more than 30 State and Territory members of the WCPFC than is mandated by its existing, non-binding Resolution on the issue adopted in 2018.

In introducing the draft CMM, Trian Yunanda, Indonesia’s Director of Fish Resources Management, stated that issues such as forced labour were often connected to other types of wrongdoing and the over-exploitation of resource by modern fishing fleets.

The existing Resolution called on flag States to ensure fair working conditions on board fishing vessels, for example, ensuring fair terms of employment set out in a written contract in a language that is understood by the employee, decent and regular remuneration and appropriate insurance.  It encourages flag States to ensure decent working and living conditions, including sufficient fresh water and food, operational safety protection and medical care, and acceptable standards of sanitary hygiene. It also supports the right of crew members to disembark and to be repatriated if entitled to do so.

The new draft CMM adds to this by mandating immediate State and manning agent action to secure the personal safety of crew members in distress and calls for an official investigation should a crew member be killed, assaulted or intimidated.

Many states were supportive, but China, while sympathetic, noted the complexity of labour issues and indicated that domestic legislation along with the already existing rules established by the International Maritime Organisation and the International Labour Organisation should be used to resolve issues.

Indonesia’s draft CMM counters by noting the effort that WCPFC members have made in improving the conditions and welfare of fisheries observers as justification for commission-level action on crew members.

China proposed a one-year independent study of the issues, and Indonesia and New Zealand now lead an “inter-sessional process” to take the discussion further. At WCPFC 17, New Zealand expressed its commitment to improving crew safety and signalled its intention to work with WCPFC members towards a binding Conservation and Management Measure (CMM) on the issue.

A spokesperson for New Zealand’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs & Trade said New Zealand appreciates the draft text that Indonesia submitted to WCPFC17 as an important first step. “We consider that it is both appropriate and essential for WCPFC to make progress in this area. New Zealand is concerned about the reports of human rights abuse aboard fishing vessels in the region.”

Reaching consensus between the members of WCPFC is always a complex process, said the spokesperson. “However, WCPFC has agreed on a number of measures in the past, and we see this as being something of utmost importance.”

The inter-sessional work will be supported by the 17-member Pacific Islands Forum Fisheries Agency (FFA), to take the discussion further. The FFA was established to help countries sustainably manage the fishery resources that fall within their 200-mile Exclusive Economic Zones (EEZs). It’s 17 members are Australia, Cook Islands, Federated States of Micronesia, Fiji, Kiribati, Marshall Islands, Nauru, New Zealand, Niue, Palau, Papua New Guinea, Samoa, Solomon Islands, Tokelau, Tonga, Tuvalu and Vanuatu.

A CMM on labour standards for crew is strongly supported by the FFA, says Director General, Dr Manu Tupou-Roosen. “Taking this action through the Commission will ultimately ensure that vessels fishing on the high seas will be required to adhere to a set of labour standards for fishing crew that will address the issues of mistreatment of crew and forced labour that have been highlighted in recent years. FFA Members are also moving forward with the implementation of minimum standards for the treatment of crew as part of the minimum terms and conditions for access to their EEZs.”

She says the major challenge in enacting a CMM on labour standards will be, in the first instance, to ensure that all member States share an understanding of the important role the Commission can play in addressing human rights abuses. “We hope the consultation process agreed by the Commission at its 2020 meeting will provide a way forward. A further challenge will be monitoring and enforcing any agreed standards, as this is an area that is relatively new for fisheries officials.

“FFA Members view the issue of labour standards for crew on fishing vessels as an important step in demonstrating that not only is the Western and Central Pacific tuna fishery biologically sustainable, but also socially responsible. It is the right thing to do.”

Parties to the Nauru Agreement

Maurice Brownjohn, Commercial Manager for the Parties to the Nauru Agreement (PNA), said the proposal aims to get broader support for what the PNA is already doing to protect crewmembers and what the WCPFC should be doing to ensure the same high standard for other fisheries. The PNA is made up of eight nations (the Federated States of Micronesia, Kiribati, Marshall Islands, Nauru, Palau, Papua New Guinea, Solomon Islands and Tuvalu), and it manages approximately 50 percent of global skipjack tuna stocks.

Indonesia’s draft CMM notes increasing global attention to cases of poor labour conditions and breaches of fundamental human rights on board fishing vessels. However, Brownjohn is concerned about how some potential cases of human rights abuse are treated by the media and some NGOs. “Human rights should be non-negotiable,” he says, but not all deaths that occur in such an inherently dangerous industry are the result of abuse and should not be interpreted as such.

Regarding the potential for trafficking of crew members, he says the PNA’s use of vessel management systems means that all at-sea contacts between vessels are monitored, even in cases where a vessel’s AIS is turned off. Additionally, new onboard COVID monitoring and reporting enables shore-based tracking of individual seafarers.

Unique risks for fisheries observers

Human Rights at Sea (HRAS), which has Observer status at the WCPFC, submitted a draft CMM on labour standards for fisheries observers at WCPFC17, noting the need it sees for a separate CMM from that for crew members due to the distinctive role of fisheries observers onboard fishing vessels. The NGO was motivated by what it sees as a lack of transparency in reporting of incidents, lack of availability of comprehensive employment contracts, lack of access to professional insurance provisions, ongoing concern for the level of coastal State engagement in investigations and the apparent lack of enforcement follow-up.

The WCPFC’s existing CMM on the protection of WCPFC Regional Observer Programme Observers is accompanied by Agreed Minimum Standards and Guidelines of the Regional Observer Programme. These Standards made it mandatory from 2017 to provide fisheries observers with an approved two-way communication satellite device that is independent of the vessel communications systems. The standards also include a protocol for the debriefing of fisheries observers as another avenue for reporting critical incidents.

In addition to this, the draft CMM submitted by HRAS mandates a range of actions should an incident occur, including immediate notification of families if a fisheries observer dies or goes missing. It also calls for the establishment of a WCPFC working group responsible for the management of incidences of human and labour rights’ abuses. WCPFC members are to identify and prosecute all violations of national and international laws relating to the unlawful treatment of fisheries observers onboard fishing vessels landing fish in their ports or operating in their waters. Public reporting of all prosecutions could alleviate any perceptions of impunity in the industry.

New Zealand

The spokesperson for New Zealand’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs & Trade said New Zealand welcomes the HRAS model CMM on observer safety as a useful contribution to WCPFC work in this area. “While WCPFC has existing CMMs on observer safety we consider there is further work that can be done to ensure observers are adequately protected.” New Zealand agrees fully with the principle that “human rights apply at sea as they do on land,” the founding principle for HRAS.


Bubba Cook, Western and Central Pacific Tuna Programme Manager for the WCPFC Observer NGO World Wide Fund for Nature, also supports the development further protections for fisheries observers. “If the existing CMM was enough, we wouldn’t still be having dead observers.” He said that most WCPFC members feel an obligation to protect the human rights of both crew and fisheries observers. “For observers, we’ve already accepted the mission,” he says. “It’s important to recognise that crew and observers are all working at sea in difficult conditions. They are subject to some of the same pressures.”

The main challenge for advancing human rights protections at the moment is the impact the pandemic is having on the ability of member States to have a conversation on the issues, says Cook. WCPFC17 was held virtually, and there were communication problems as a result of the limited bandwidth available in some regions.

As for the potential for organisations outside the region to advance the cause, he says: “To quote a colloquial phrase, all politics is local. We have to start locally, but the reality is that the global conversation that is happening now in the United Nations is the result of those in the region continuing to highlight serious concerns. It all builds to a bigger scene globally that we need to have better oversight of our oceans. We need to have better protections in place for those who are working to ensure that we have the right information in order to manage our resources. I think we’re seeing some positive momentum, and it starts at a national level and extends up to regional and then global levels.”

Kiribati perspectives 

Fisheries consultant Tim Adams was a member of the Kiribati delegation at WCPFC17. He says WCPFC-level action is important because it can make rules that are binding on non-FFA flag fishing vessels on the high seas, and this is where the most egregious incidents seem to occur. “The main challenge is rooted in private sector profitability – particularly with high seas long-trip longliners,” he says.

“Longlining is not highly profitable, and many longliners operate at a loss for long periods, hoping to recuperate by hitting a lucky streak or being in the right place at the right phase of a climatic cycle like El Nino. Most have to cut corners to survive or get operating subsidies. On the high seas, they don’t have to pay licence fees, and it is very difficult to get observers aboard longliners at the best of times, let alone for a year on the high seas.

“The only long-term answer is for total longline fishing effort across the tropical Pacific to be capped, to maintain stocks and keep catch rates up, and all remaining vessels will have at least a chance to be profitable and to be able to afford higher standards. Both Australia and New Zealand put most of their domestic fisheries through this process several decades ago. It just takes a lot longer on the high seas where multiple sovereign authorities need to agree.”

Adams believes the immediate way forward lies not just with binding rules but with getting more scrutiny and observation of the worst-offending sections of the tuna fisheries. “Electronic monitoring, that is onboard video cameras, is probably the most likely prospect for making some substantive progress at this stage.”


Undercurrent News Feature: 9 March 2021


Programme Manager, Elizabeth Mavropoulou: