Time critical: US Pacific fisheries treaty negotiations

Time is running out for the United States tuna industry to complete an agreement that will keep its boats fishing in the lucrative waters of the Pacific islands.

A joint U.S. government and industry team headed into a crucial series of negotiations with Pacific island representatives this past Monday in Auckland. The negotiations will determine if American purse seiners can continue to fish beyond June, when the current 10-year funding package expires.

(Giff Johnson, editor of the Marshall Islands Journal, wrote this examination of where things stand as the NZ negotiations opened this past Monday. The meeting has now ended and we await word on whether or not an agreement has been forged. Read below Johnson's look at the issues.)

A leading Pacific fisheries official said last week there are many hurdles to completing the deal and he is doubtful that an agreement will be reached in Auckland. Although the U.S. agreed last year to triple the fees paid for access of 40 fishing boats from $21 million annually to $63 million, sovereignty issues such as the right of Pacific islands to apply national laws to U.S. fishing boats, remain unresolved.

“The United States has been in a privileged position since 1987 (when the first U.S. Pacific fisheries treaty was approved),” said Dr. Transform Aqorau, the CEO of the Parties to the Nauru Agreement, an eight-nation bloc that controls waters where the majority of tuna is caught. “Now we’re saying the U.S. has to fish like everyone else and they don’t want to accept it.”

A State Department official declined to comment on the specifics of the negotiations, saying only, “We are pleased with the progress in the negotiations and hopeful that we can come to closure on all substantive issues under discussion at the upcoming Auckland meeting.”

At the February 4-9 negotiating session in Auckland, United States and island delegations will attempt to iron out differences related to application of national laws to the U.S. Pacific treaty, length of the new financial agreement, and other requirements including the minimum number of Pacific islanders crewing on U.S. purse seiners.

“I don’t think they will wrap it up by June,” said Aqorau. “Either there will be an interim agreement to allow U.S. vessels to fish or fishing will be suspended under the treaty and U.S. boats will need to buy fishing days like other nations.”

There is significant disagreement between the islands and the U.S. on several issues, but also divisions within the Pacific negotiating team. The eight-member PNA is often at odds with non-PNA members in the treaty talks because of differing interests. Non-PNA members have generally been more supportive of maintaining the treaty than PNA nations because even if no fish are caught in their waters, they still receive development funding under the treaty. PNA nations — the Marshall Islands, Kiribati, Tuvalu, Solomon Islands, Federated States of Micronesia, Nauru, Palau and Papua New Guinea — control Pacific waters where the U.S. fleet wants to fish.

Because of this clout, PNA nations drove the price demands in the negotiations, securing a tripling of annual fishing fees. Part of this U.S. payment is equally divided among all island nations, even though the bulk of tuna is caught in PNA members’ waters.


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