AMERICAN boats are set to be locked out of the world’s best tuna-fishing waters after reneging on a deal with 17 Pacific states, amid a slump in prices for the fish sold in cans in supermarkets all over the US.
The standoff means US boats cannot access seas where roughly half of the world’s skipjack tuna are caught each year.
It is also endangering a vital revenue stream for some of the world’s poorest nations.
A group of Pacific island states — which includes small islands and atolls such as Tuvalu, Tokelau and the Marshall Islands — along with New Zealand and Australia are refusing to issue fishing licences to 36 US vessels to trawl in their waters after their owners, typically tuna-supply companies or individuals, refused to meet payments agreed upon last August.
“These are the most attractive fisheries in the world and there are boats dying to fish in these waters right now but they can’t go and fish,” said Solomon Islander Dr Transform Aqorau, the chief executive officer of the Parties to the Nauru Agreement, a grouping of eight of the islands which control most of the regions’ best fishing grounds.
Without a resolution, US-owned fishing boats — often based in American Samoa — risk losing the roughly 300,000 tonnes of catch, mainly skipjack, they normally net annually in the region.
That tuna is mostly processed into canned form, often in American Samoa as well.
Fishery licence sales generate about $US350 million annually in total for small states such as Kiribati and Tuvalu, where about 20 per cent of the population lives on less than US$1 a day. More than a quarter of that fishing revenue comes from the US.
Pacific island countries aim to raise revenue and manage tuna stocks by selling fishing days each year to either countries or companies, which in turn allocate them to different vessels. The minimum price for one fishing day is $US8000.
Some of the islands are already struggling because of the way in which El Nino has affected fish migration patterns this past year, reducing the amount of tuna in areas they control, said Christopher Edmonds, a senior economist at the Asian Development Bank.
The current dispute first arose in November, when the US government asked for significant changes to the August agreement it made on behalf of the American Tunaboat Association.
It had agreed to pay $US68m so that its member boats could fish for 6250 days collectively.
The first quarterly payment toward that was due at the end of last month, in time for licences to be issued at the start of the year.
The association now wants to cut the fishing days by 30 per cent and reduce its payment by $US23m.
The US is entitled to its allocation of fishing days under a nearly 30-year-old treaty that is linked to a US$21m annual aid payment to the islands.
“The issue is simply that the US fleet cannot afford to buy the number of days,” said Brian Hallman, executive director of the American Tunaboat Association based in San Diego.
“The economic situation for the US fleet has been worsening, and is so dire that many vessels are on the edge of bankruptcy, and boats are dropping out of the treaty.”
Mr Hallman said ample global tuna stocks were behind the recent drop in tuna prices, thanks to an increasing number of boats fishing for the catch globally.
Skipjack tuna is currently selling at $US950 a tonne in Thailand, having nearly halved since July 2014, when it was selling for $US1820.
Fishing costs have risen: in 2010, the US paid about $US30m to access the fishing grounds now in dispute.
Negotiations between the parties are continuing, but until an agreement is reached the US fleet will remain docked in American Samoa.
The Pacific states are currently “testing the waters” to see if they can sell the fishing days the US wishes to give up, said WezNorris, the deputy director-general of the Honiara-based Pacific Islands Forum Fisheries Agency, which negotiated last year’s agreement on behalf of the Pacific states.