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Historical background of the SPC Coastal Fisheries Programme

SPC has been involved in the Pacific Islands fisheries sector since the first South Pacific Commission technical meeting on fisheries in 1952 defined specific areas requiring regional attention. At the time that the SPC was set up, there were no dedicated fisheries services in existence in the SPC work area. There was thus little information on which to base fisheries development projects either nationally or regionally, and the main reason for SPC becoming involved in the fisheries sector was apparently to compile this information. In keeping with SPC's focus at the time, this was mainly research in support of fisheries development, but quickly diversified into assisting development directly.

The most visible result of SPC's fisheries work in those early years, apart from providing the first authoritative opinion on the status and development prospects for fisheries in the SPC work-area, was to encourage the setting-up of national fisheries services. In the 1950s SPC was also involved in developing the first trawl fishery in Papua New Guinea, in the introduction of trochus to several countries, and the first steps in aquaculture in several others - activities which have generated many millions of dollars of revenue since then.

Judging by the written evidence, SPC appeared to rest on its fisheries laurels in the 1960s, perhaps assuming that its capacity-building role was complete, and there were long periods without any fisheries specialists on the staff. The modern era started when SPC became the home of the UNDP-funded South Pacific Fisheries Development Agency (SPIFDA) from 1970-73. During this period, the SPC Regional Technical Meeting on Fisheries (now known as the Heads of Fisheries meeting) became an annual event, and the concept of a regional advisory and collaboration-enhancing facility working hand-in-hand with national development efforts became established.

A major development during the 1970s was the development of Pacific Island aspirations in industrial tuna fisheries, which had quadrupled in volume during the decade which culminated in the Conferences on the International Law of the Sea, the declaration of 200-mile Exclusive Economic Zones, and the setting-up of the Forum Fisheries Agency. During this time SPC was instrumental in underlining the importance of these fisheries, through the Skipjack Survey and Assessment Programme, and in laying the groundwork for the establishment of the FFA.

At the same time, SPC became much more active in the coastal fisheries development area. Although there were several projects implemented to develop export initiatives, such as lobster fisheries in the Solomon Islands and beche-de-mer fisheries in Fiji, it was the Outer Reef Artisanal Fishing Project (ORAF) which defined a consistent future path for SPC in the coastal fisheries area. This project sent a self-contained team of fishermen, engineer and biologist, with their own vessel and refrigeration, to assess deep reef-slope resources, demonstrate fishing techniques and make economic projections for the fishery.

ORAF developed into the Deepsea Fisheries Development Project in 1978, and this practical beyond-the-reef fishery development service has remained the core of SPC's Coastal Fisheries Programme ever since. During the 1980s, under the guiding hands of Barney Smith and Garry Preston, SPC's Coastal Fisheries service developed into a balanced programme that included resource assessment and post-harvest components as well as specific initiatives concentrating on training, information, and gender aspects of Pacific Islands domestic fisheries development.

For the past decade the Coastal Fisheries Programme has more or less maintained the same balance of functions, and has filled a distinct regional sectoral niche that concentrates on practical, hands-on, gap-filling support and advisory service towards the development of commercial fisheries and export opportunities for Pacific Islanders. The Programme has also concentrated particularly on ensuring that new fisheries development is realistically channelled into fisheries with potential for long-term sustainability, and has become increasingly involved in helping measure the status and ensure the sustainability of overstressed fisheries.

The SPC's assistance to Pacific Islands fisheries development has thus developed in an adaptive way over the past 40 years. Although the changing priorities of external sources of development assistance have inevitably had a large influence on the extent of its work, the activity that has now become the Coastal Fisheries Programme fairly closely reflects the development of Pacific Island fisheries services themselves, from their very inception, through decolonialisation, to maturity. Although it has always striven to maintain a regional overview and provide a medium for sharing experience and information, its major function has been to fill gaps and support national fishery development needs where more narrowly-focussed programmes, either national or regional, fail to reach.

Because of this, it is easier to define the SPC Coastal Fisheries Programme in the regional institutional context in terms of what it does not do, rather than what it does:-

  • it does not carry out stock assessment or biological research on tuna fisheries, the mandate of the SPC Oceanic Fisheries Programme (OFP), although the CFP picked up stock assessment and research into baitfish and deep-slope demersal fisheries when the OFP narrowed its focus specifically on tuna in 1987;

  • it does not support Pacific Island countries in negotiations with distant-water fishing nations for access to regional tuna fisheries or in the development of Pacific Island capacities in industrial-scale tuna fishing, for which purpose the Forum Fisheries Agency was created in 1978, although it has tried to fill the gaps in practical support for the small-scale tuna fisheries carried out by Pacific Islanders themselves;

  • it does not mount campaigns to conserve endangered marine species, which role the South Pacific Regional Environment Programme (SPREP) took on in 1990 with the first regional turtle workshop, but rather tries to generally divert effort away from grossly overexploited species, and encourage the institution of management measures that would prevent species becoming endangered in the first instance;

  • it does not try to integrate fisheries into the overall context of coastal planning and multi-sectoral management, which SPREP is attempting the monumental task of trying to encourage in the Pacific Region, although it compiles the available information so that the characteristics of these fisheries are understandable in the broader context;

  • it is not currently involved in marine mapping or habitat classification: which is an area that the South Pacific Geosciences Commission (SOPAC) is starting to address, although it could make great use of such products if they existed, particularly for fishery assessment;

  • it does not undertake formal or long-term training or education in marine resources or fisheries subjects, which is the domain of national education departments and national universities and the University of the South Pacific (USP), although it does fill perceived gaps in the need for short practical training courses for serving fisheries officers and practical workshops in specific aspects of commercial fisheries and in-service skills development;

  • it occasionally tries to develop harmonised regional policy, in the same way as FFA, SPREP, the SPC Agriculture Programme and the Forum Secretariat in their respective fields, but has never assumed a formal role as the secretariat for any international agreement. Regional policies have been developed and agreed between members on such issues as marine species introductions and quarantine, and are currently under consideration for regional HACCP (hazard analysis and critical control point) issues in the post-harvest sector.

The SPC Coastal Fisheries Programme has thus always been a responsive creature, adapting to changing circumstances and prospects. In many ways this is an essential role in the region because heavily pre-planned and rigorously-channeled projects can never anticipate all developments over the course of a three to five-year cycle. The Coastal Fisheries Programme has both a continuous responsibility to the region, and the capacity for a more rapid response to quickly-developing commercial fishery needs. The need to continually justify itself to a plethora of different clients, donors, and objectives in order to secure the future of its service to the region has also given the Coastal Fisheries Programme a fairly lean and efficient mode of operation and output. However, the lack of a long-term set of objectives does hamper the Coastal Fisheries Programme in developing some of the coordinative functions that are going to be of long-term value in a small-island region.

The SPC Coastal Fisheries Programme has adapted and matured along with the fisheries services of its member countries and territories. Like many of them it is going through a period of formalisation of its adapted mandate, with an emphasis on managing fisheries rather than just reacting to crises and circumstances; on directing development so that it is both socially appropriate and sustainable in the long term; and on patiently building the human infrastructure and knowledge-base that will be necessary for future survival. Appreciating all the time the need to measure progress against benchmarks that are both realistic and measurable.


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