Asia-Pacific, Biodiversity, Economy & Trade, Environment, Headlines, North America

Key Fisheries Treaty to Lapse in Rebuke to U.S.

Christopher Pala

HONOLULU, Hawaii, U.S., May 26 2011 (IPS) - For the past quarter century, the United States’ relations with Pacific island nations were framed by the South Pacific Tuna Treaty, which combines foreign aid, subsidies to the U.S. fleet of purse-seine fishing vessels and their largely unfettered access to the islands’ waters, which contain the world’s last major stocks of tuna.

Christopher Pala/IPS Credit: A purse-seiner with a load of skipjack in Pohnpei, Micronesia.

Christopher Pala/IPS Credit: A purse-seiner with a load of skipjack in Pohnpei, Micronesia.

But last month, after a year of negotiations to extend it, Papua New Guinea unilaterally abrogated the 1987 treaty, citing a clear U.S. refusal to address the concerns of the other members.

“Taking a hard line with a group of small, mostly poor, friendly states was a failed strategy,” Phil Kline of Greenpeace, virtually the only non-governmental organisation to closely track the fishery, said last week. “Now the U.S. is either going to have to make bilateral arrangements like the other fishing countries or negotiate a new treaty that meets the requirements of the islands.”

The treaty is unique in the region in that it links development aid to access to fishing grounds, though such arrangements are common between European and African states.

The aid totals 18 million dollars a year and is shared by 13 countries. For some, which receive little money from fishing license because their waters attract few tuna, it’s significant – for others, like PNG or Kiribati or Micronesia, much less.

In addition, the treaty provides six million dollars a year to pay most of the vessels’ license fees, while the vessels themselves contribute five million dollars. It caps the number of vessels at 40, but does not limit how many days each vessel can fish. It also requires Coast Guard planes to search for poachers and other law- enforcement activities.

PNG is one of four treaty super-members (the others are Kiribati, the U.S. and Micronesia) whose withdrawal from the treaty automatically abrogates it for all. Its top fisheries official, Sylvester Pokajam, is also the chairman of the Parties to the Nauru Agreement (PNA), which groups the eight islands in whose Exclusive Economic Zones most of the fish is caught.

“They haven’t been listening at all,” said Pokajam, explaining why his country, with the support of the PNA, ended negotiations to renew the treaty, which as a result will expire next May.

The other treaty members are the Cook Islands, Fiji, the Marshall Islands, Nauru, Niue, Palau, the Solomon Islands, Tonga, Tuvalu, Vanuatu and Samoa. New Zealand and Australia are members but do not receive aid.

The region attracted growing numbers of purse-seiners after these ships depleted tuna stocks in the Eastern Pacific, the Atlantic and the Indian Ocean. Most tuna are found along the equator.

Over the past few years, scientists in the Central and Western Pacific have warned that catches of bigeye tuna, the most valuable to sushi lovers after the fast-disappearing bluefin, should be cut by 30percent or the species could collapse and become commercially extinct because of overfishing from purse-seiners. These are industrial ships that can haul a school of tuna weighing more than 100 tonnes at a time.

Yellowfin stocks are also significantly reduced and even skipjack, the main species used for canning, has shown signs of decline.

After the Western and Central Pacific Fisheries Commission, which includes the major fishing nations (Japan, China, Taiwan, Korea, Spain and the U.S.), failed to significantly reduce the catch, the PNA group was created. By leveraging the contracts its members sign yearly with all nations except the U.S., whose rules are set by the treaty, PNA embarked on a series of unprecedented conservation measures.

These apply to over 200 vessels and include banning fishing in an area of international waters larger than India, reducing the use of devices that cause most of the bigeye mortality, creating a system to monitor by satellite the fishing activity of each vessel and another system to reduce the number of days fished.

But when PNA officials, noting the environment-friendly tone of the Barack Obama administration, asked U.S. officials to either adopt the measures now or at least agree to include them in the treaty after its current set of rules expire in two years, the U.S. demurred.

“The U.S. talks about conservation but behaves differently,” said Pokajam, the PNA leader.

The United States had earlier angered the island governments by allowing 25 Taiwanese vessels, owned jointly by U.S. companies and operating in the Western Pacific, to adopt the Stars and Stripes, thereby allowing them, under the treaty, to fish without the limits imposed on the fleets of other countries.

The companies promised to deliver more fish to Samoa, whose economy is tried to its two canneries, said U.S. Representative Eni Faleomavaega of Samoa. But not one ever showed up there.

“And what does the American taxpayer get in return?” wrote Faleomavaega. “A depleted tuna stock.”

Whether the U.S. ends its development aid to the region is unclear. The State Department declined all requests for comment.

However, in a testimony to Congress last year, William Gibbons-Fly, the chief State department negotiator for the treaty, said the foreign aid and law-enforcement cooperation to the region was “dependent on the extension of the treaty”.

Over the past 25 years, the aid of other nations and the access fees they pay have dwarfed the U.S. contribution. Today, New Zealand gives more aid to the region than does the United States.

According to PNA figures, the combined aid and fees the islands receive per day fished by a U.S.-flagged vessel is about 1,800 dollars, compared to 6,050 dollars for a Japanese one.

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