Conch sounds start of Pacific Islands Forum

22:19, Jul 29 2014
Pacific Islands Forum
LOOKING RELAXED: New Zealand Foreign Minister Murray McCully at the opening of the Pacific Islands Forum in Palau.

The 45th Pacific Islands Forum has opened to the sound of a conch shell.

New Zealand Foreign Minister Murray McCully was among those welcomed to the principal annual meeting of Pacific leaders in Palau, a tiny island nation, northwest of Papua New Guinea, along with dignitaries of the 15 other member states.

About 500 people attended the ceremony at the Palau Capitol building, with the opening dominated by the theme of the forum, chosen by Palau - The Ocean: Life & Future.

Palau President Tommy Remengesau emphasised the importance of marine conservation to all Pacific people.

Ocean initiatives are set to top the agenda this week, as Palau seeks support for marine conservation and sustainability goals to address issues facing Pacific countries.

Remengesau outlined to the United Nations last year a plan to close all of Palau's waters, an area the size of France, to commercial fishing.

The plan comes as crucial tuna fishing negotiations between the island nations and the United States are believed to have stalled.

Palau is one of a number of equatorial island nations currently in negotiations with the United States over fees for tuna fishing in their waters.

Pacific Islands Forum
OPEN: The sound of a conch shell marks the start of the forum.

The countries, known as the PNA - Parties to the Nauru Agreement - operate a "vessel day scheme" where most countries pay up to $8000 a day to allow their fleets to fish in the waters. About 60 per cent of the world's tuna comes from the area.

Fairfax Media understands the US pays $5000 per day under the scheme, but is reluctant to pay as much as the Asian nations. It is believed negotiations have reached somewhat of an impasse.

The negotiations are being overseen by the Pacific Island Forum Fisheries Agency, of which New Zealand is a member. The latest round of discussions were held in Auckland earlier this month.

The US treaty is estimated to be worth between $200-$300 million. US Secretary of State John Kerry is not at the forum this year, but may attend the UN Conference on Small Island Developing States in Samoa next month.

A regional declaration on oceans is expected from the forum at the end of the week, that will feed into discussion on proposed sustainable development goals to replace the Millenium Development Goals, which expire in 2015.

Oceans is one of 17 draft goals proposed by the United Nations Open Working Group on the sustainable development goals.

The readmission of Fiji to the forum is also likely to be discussed this week.

It was expelled in 2009 when its military rulers reneged on a pledge to hold elections. Forum leaders have indicated Fiji could be invited back if elections held in the country in September were free and democratic.

The forum runs until Friday and McCully is expected to have bilateral meetings with delegates of all the other member states at the Pacific Islands Forum during the week.