MAJURO, (MARIANAS VARIETY) — As Pacific fisheries officials gather in Nadi, Fiji from Monday for a three-day series of meeting focused on the future of a tuna treaty with the United States, the head of a powerful island fisheries bloc says the U.S. treaty is a “distraction” taking valuable time away from managing the fishing industry.
Dr Transform Aqorau, CEO of the Parties to the Nauru Agreement or PNA, said the recent collapse of the nearly 30-year-old treaty with the U.S. government and its tuna industry opens “a huge opportunity for PNA to re-assert control over the fishery.”
The Forum Fisheries Agency called the three-day meeting this week in Fiji so the islands can respond to the U.S. State Department’s formal announcement last month that it is withdrawing from the treaty that has governed the U.S. tuna industry since the late 1980s. U.S government and industry were to pay the Pacific islands $89 million in 2016 for licenses for about 40 tuna boats.
But, after agreeing last August to this amount for buying 6,200 fishing days, a portion of the U.S. industry said it couldn’t pay. As of January 1, the U.S. fleet is no longer licensed to fish in the region following its default.
Some islands that reserved large numbers of days for the U.S. fleet or where fishing revenue from the U.S. makes up a high percentage of the government budget have been hit hard by the U.S. default, Aqorau acknowledged. “The lesson for those putting all their eggs in the U.S. treaty basket is diversify in the future,” he said.
He said all of the meetings and communications that have developed around the U.S. treaty collapse are “distractions from the good work and time needed to improve the vessel day scheme and sustainability in the fishery.”
Aqorau sees opportunity for the islands in the default of the U.S. industry. “The issue is the extent to which countries can minimize their loss,” Aqorau said. “If PNA closes the eastern high seas (an area to the east of Kiribati that has seen heavy and unregulated fishing) and reduce the allocation of days for the U.S. to sell to others, it will minimize the loss.”
PNA officials have pointed to unregulated fishing escalating in the eastern high seas area just outside PNA jurisdictions over the past two years. Aqorau has proposed to PNA members that they make closure of the eastern high seas a condition of licensing to fish in PNA zones in order to limit what he describes as unsustainable fishing.
In Aqorau’s view, what PNA has done over the past six years by implementing the vessel day scheme to regulate purse seine fishing in PNA waters is to “re-assert island control over fishing and drive fishing (management).” Now, the uncertainty of the U.S. treaty should be viewed as an opportunity, he said. “We shouldn’t pander to an unsustainable agreement,” Aqorau said.
The huge rise in revenue accruing to the eight PNA members since 2010 — from US$60 million to over US$350 million last year — is all because of the vessel day scheme PNA uses to manage the purse seine fishery, he said. This increase in revenue “tells us we’ve been being robbed all these years (by distant water fishing nations),” he said. “Now, we’ve shown the VDS to be successful. For PNA, it’s about creating a sustainable fishery for self-reliance (of the islands) and to reduce dependency on donors.”
Officials from the eight PNA nations will join with the nine other Forum Fishery Agency island members at the meeting from Monday through Wednesday in Fiji.