Tuna treaty negotiations signal grave consequences for Pacific

Tuna, cleaned, inspected, ready to be packed and shipped. The US may be buying their tuna in bulk from Asia.
Quentin Jones

Tuna, cleaned, inspected, ready to be packed and shipped. The US may be buying their tuna in bulk from Asia.

Concerns have been raised over the sustainability of tuna in the Pacific, as negotiations with the United States for a fishing treaty have proved "difficult".

For the past 27 years, the US government have provided $21 million to the region in a deal involving 17 nations, including New Zealand, Tokelau and Niue, in exchange for tuna fishing licenses. Another $69 million is believed to be paid by boat owners.

However, the US made their formal decision to back out of the treaty in January. Officials gathered in Fiji this week to hash out private negotiations.

Purse seine fishing vessels use very large nets to catch tuna.
National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration/Department of Commerce

Purse seine fishing vessels use very large nets to catch tuna.

Forum Fisheries Agency director-general James Movick said intensive discussions tried to keep Pacific nations happy while trying to meet the US request for fewer fishing days.

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South Pacific Tuna Treaty (SPTT) boundaries - light green areas are the US boundaries.
NOAA Fisheries website

South Pacific Tuna Treaty (SPTT) boundaries - light green areas are the US boundaries.

"These internal negotiations were difficult, as attempting to resolve third party conflicts often results in internal differences that must be overcome," he said.

However, he said the Pacific island parties were able to develop a "counter-proposal" but could not release details.

A Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade spokesperson said they supported the negotiations.


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Labour Party's foreign affairs spokesperson David Shearer said the treaty issues highlighted tuna management problems in the area, what he described as an "environmental disaster waiting to happen". 

"The short-term (effect) is that countries like Tokelau for example, that we give a lot of aid to ... 90 per cent of their exports are going to be gone unless they can renegotiate," he said.

"So that means there's gonna be a shortfall and obviously they'll be looking to us."

But longer-term the sustainability of tuna is called into question, said Shearer. 

About a third of the world's tuna is caught in the western Pacific in areas controlled by island states, such as Micronesia, Kiribati, the Solomons and Tuvalu. The industry is worth over $3 billion a year.

The Vessel Day Scheme means countries pay for allocation of fishing days, rather than fishing quantities, that are set for 12 month periods and can be set up to three years in advance.

Progress in technology since the system was established means vessel efficiency is higher than a few decades ago, and they can take a lot more fish, says Shearer.

"We need to be moving to a proper quota system rather than a vessel day system."

There have been reports that the price of US tuna licenses went up in just a few years from US$5,000 for a day to more than US$10,000, and was unaffordable.

Foreign affairs minister Murray McCully said the US notice to stop paying has big impacts on countries in our territory such as Tokelau and Niue.

The US has not taken up their entitlement in fishing licenses, leaving Pacific nations to try to onsell them, McCully said.

"Quite what the net cost is going to be to Pacific nations ... will only be determined once we see what they'll be able to onsell to third parties."


Some island nations such as Kiribati have been favouring fishing boats from China and the US in recent years, because they can get more money.

David Shearer said there was an increase in the number of Asian companies gaining access to these Pacific fishing areas.

"The Chinese fleet increased seven times their catch over the last 15 years," said Shearer.

"And they get subsidised ... they get back and they get some of their fuel costs for example written off by the government."

McCully said if the US were to withdraw from the area it would "change the character of the fishery in the region".

"We've, for that reason, encouraged the US to try and find a solution."


A spokesperson for the US Department of State Office of Oceans Environment and Science confirmed they had withdrawn from the treaty after "difficult renegotiations".

"Although the Treaty provided a solid foundation for a mutually beneficial strategic and economic relationship between the United States and the Pacific Island parties for over two decades, in recent years the terms of access have steadily deteriorated to the point where the Treaty is no longer viable."

The department stated they could still negotiate directly with Pacific Island parties for "more flexible" fishing access.

It will take one year for the Treaty to cease to have an effect (January 2017), but the US were obviously willing to see whether it could be restructured.

US fleets were tied up in December and were not given licenses after refusing to pay for the 2016 quota. They have been released, the FFA announced on Tuesday, as a result of the Treaty meetings.


1987: Tuna Treaty signed for five years

1993: treaty extended

2002: renegotiated terms with the Forum Fisheries Agency, increased annual payment by US from $18million to $21million (USD)

2013: interim extension until December 2014, and again until December 2015

August 2015: Treaty meetings to negotiate commence

December 2015: disputes over fishing permits, as vessels have difficulty paying licenses because of falling tuna prices

1 January 2016: US default on payment and are no longer licensed to fish

18 January 2016: US gives formal notice of withdrawing from treaty

January 2017: US withdrawal final

There are 17 parties to the agreement: Australia, Cook Islands, Federated States of Micronesia, Fiji, Kiribati, Marshall Islands, Nauru, New Zealand, Niue, Palau, Papua New Guinea, Samoa, Solomon Islands, Tonga, Tuvalu, United States, and Vanuatu.

 - Stuff


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