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By Robert Keith-Reid

SUVA, Fiji Islands (March 3, 2000 - Islands Business/PINA Nius Online,)--A taste of Spain has been netted by Kiribati in the way of the first fishing license issued to a European fishing organization by a country belonging to the 16-member Forum Fisheries Agency (FFA). The Kiribati government will allow up to 14 Spanish purse seine vessels to fish in the country’s 3.5 million square kilometer (1.4 million square mile) exclusive economic zone (EEZ) for 12 months, retroactive to last October.

Kiribati says the agreement will be renewed if the Spanish, who in other parts of the world have a dodgy reputation, stick to the terms of an agreement it signed last September with a fishing association, the Organizacion De Productores Asociados De Grandes Atuneros Congeladores (OPAGAC). The Spaniards have apparently agreed to pay more for their license than the Asians, mainly Japanese, Taiwanese, Chinese and Korean boats licensed under FFA rules.

According to Kaburoro Ruaia, Secretary for Natural Resources Development, total revenue from the agreement will be "in excess of 6%" of the catch value. Current agreements bring FFA members only 4-5% of the catch value.

Japan, in particular, resists requests for a 6-7% cut of a total catch estimated by FFA to have had a value in 1998/99 of about $US 2 billion.

Asian and United States fishing boats have had the central and western Pacific tuna fishery, the world’s biggest, to themselves since heavy exploitation of it began in the 1960s.


With pressure on Atlantic and Indian Ocean tuna stocks mounting, the European Union in recent years has mentioned access to the Pacific fishing grounds for its tuna fleets as a reciprocal benefit for the aid it gives to Pacific Islands countries.

Spanish fishing people have fished in the eastern Pacific for a long time by agreement with Panama, Ecuador and Guatemala. Ruaia told Islands Business that some Spanish ships recently moved eastwards towards the Line Islands, which form the eastern boundary of the Kiribati EEZ. Their Ecuador and Guatemala bases became too distant for them. In late 1997 OPAGAC asked for the use of Kiritimati, the largest of the Line Islands, as a transshipment port.

With only one small patrol boat to cover its EEZ, and with Kiritimati more than 3,200 kilometers (1,920 miles) from Tarawa, the Kiribati government decided that unless Spanish ships were also licensed to fish in its water, it would be impossible to allow them to use the island only for transshipments since they’d fish illegally moving in and out of port.

Kiribati’s deal with OPAGAS was for economic reasons, but was within the Palau Agreement, Ruaia said. The agreement sets a limit of 205 on the number of purse seiners allowed to fish in the Micronesian region. Kiribati isn’t happy with how the agreement works since it doesn’t take into account the capacity of vessels or that some are too small to viably work as far eastwards as Kiribati. The Palau Agreement is to be reviewed early this year at Kiribati’s request.

Ruaia said that in assessing the Spanish application Kiribati was aware that its 77,658 people are almost totally reliant on fishing. Kiribati’s priority is to build up its own long-range fishing fleet. Until this can be done, it is ready to issue licenses to foreign fishermen who are prepared to help it develop its own fleet.

Mindful of the "alleged poor compliance record" of the Spaniards, rigorous conditions have been attached to the Spanish license, he said.


Spanish ships need to ‘register with the FFA in Honiara, carry the FFA’s satellite monitor, accept the presence of FFA observers for a specified percentage of trips, transship fish at Kiritimati, and fully comply with other minimum terms and conditions.’

Ruaia said that after talks with OPAGAC, Kiribati is confident that the Spanish will eventually have "full involvement" in developing local fishing ability. Substantial shore fishing facilities are planned at Kiritimati by Kiribati itself. About 70 nationals have been hired for transshipment work and 14 more will get jobs aboard the Spanish vessels with room to increase the number in future. The Spanish will also invest in shore facilities. "This type of domestic development is absolutely vital to the ongoing viability of the Kiribati economy and people," Ruaia said.

Kiribati has kept the FFA and other fishing interests fully briefed on its deal-making with the Spanish. Ideally, Ruaia said, it would have liked to wait until the completion of the Palau Agreement review and a new agreement, nearing completion, for a Pacific international seas area fishing agency.

"However, Kiribati has vital short-term economic imperatives to meet and already the discussion with OPAGAC has been for almost two years.

"To wait for too long would mean foregoing additional license revenue badly needed to balance the government’s budget." Past fishing license revenue has been more than half the $A 60 million (US$ 36.48 million) plus annual Kiribati budget. In 1998 fees from the United States, Japan, Korea and Taiwan boats exceeded $A 41 million (US$ 24.928 million).

Since the OPAGAC deal will bring better returns than from most traditional fishing partners individually, the deal with the Spanish is desirable, Ruaia said. "While the present agreement is for one year only, its extension will be dependent on OPAGAC’s performance in honoring its commitments, as well as its ability to make further improvements on the present terms and conditions."

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