By Robert Keith-Reid

Islands Business Magazine

SUVA, Fiji (October) – Pacific Islanders have an opportunity to squeeze much more money for their tuna from foreign fishing fleets.

They now collect only an estimated five to eight percent of the US$2 bllion value of the annual catch from their waters of about one million tonnes, according to the Pacific Islands Forum Fisheries Agency.

But in angling for more money, they could also get badly burnt by ruthless international fisheries political gamesmanship as Asian fishing fleets fight off new competition from European fishermen.

The Pacific’s commercial fishermen, meanwhile, have launched an association to defend their weak industry from domination by foreign fleets.

They have been warned that their governments will be pressured by international finance agencies like the World Bank and Asian Development Bank to be content with the revenue of about five percent of the value of fish caught by foreigners in their waters, rather than invest in developing local fleets that could go for 100 percent.

The association, to be headquartered at Pohnpei in the Federated States of Micronesia, was launched at a meeting attended by 11 countries held at the Pacific Islands Forum Secretariat in Suva in September.

The meeting expressed alarm at what delegates complained was the extent and unfair nature of the recent penetration of Pacific fishing grounds by Chinese fishermen.

Looming competition between European and Asian fishermen for Pacific tuna should push the value of fishing licenses a good way above what Asian fishing fleets pay for them now, industry sources predict.

In their efforts to break Asian dominance of the fishing grounds, the Europeans are expected to brace weak Pacific Islands economies by investment ashore in fishing processing factories and related facilities on a scale few Asian fishing companies are prepared to do. That would mean more jobs and business opportunities for the islands economies that accept the Europeans, as some already have.

These are some benefits that could flow from a new tuna fishing regulatory agency, the Western and Central Pacific Tuna Commission that technically began operating in mid-June.

However, Islands Business was told that the Pacific Islands could be scalped by the Distant Waters Fishing Nations (DWFNs) club if they let their unity as a numerically larger block of 15 to 17 countries be broken, according to regional tuna fishing industry experts.

Negotiations for the new commission were highly political. Japan led efforts to sabotage them; Islands Business was told by industry sources who asked to be anonymous.

The business of the commission, which doesn’t yet have a director, will also be wracked by politics since its job is to prevent overfishing by member countries in comparatively small areas of high seas (international waters) between EEZ boundaries.

The Japanese hate the thought of losing the ease with which they have fished the region cheaply and with little restriction since their boats were first in it from the late 1950s. They were followed by American, Korean, Taiwanese and now Chinese fishing fleets.

Russian efforts to fish in Kiribati flopped because the wrong techniques were used.

What makes the central and western Pacific stock so attractive is that it is the world’s largest. It is already the source of half the world’s canned tuna supply, and except for recent concern about bigeye and yellowfin tuna species, is comparatively lightly fished.

The Atlantic and Indian Ocean stocks are wilting under years of heavy attacks by European, Asian and South American fishermen.

Pacific Islands fisheries departments are determined to avert the ruin of their tuna stocks by overfishing. But they can’t always rely on support at sometimes corruption-affected political levels.

The chief instrument for regulating fishing in EEZs is the Pacific Islands Forum Fisheries Agency (PIFFA), located at Honiara, in the Solomon Islands, which assists with the regulation of fishing in the 200-mile exclusive economic zones around their shores claimed by all PIFFA members under international law.

These total about 35 million square kilometers and the source of about 70 percent of the catch.

Since PIFFA countries have full control over their EEZs, they have a negotiating advantage over countries with Atlantic and Indian Ocean EEZs that yield a far smaller proportion of the catch compared to the quantities caught in international waters outside the 200-mile zone limits.

About 1100 to 1200 foreign vessels are registered by PIFFA to fish in Forum countries’ EEZs. The improving efficiency of fishing technology means that the number of vessels may be cut, together with other restrictions, if the health of stocks is to be preserved Restricted numbers would cause fleet size reductions and drive up the value of the fewer available number of licences.

The Europeans, who through the European Union have a policy of assisting local fishing business in the Pacific, would be positioned to drive Asian fishermen out of the region by offering more money and benefits.

"It is exactly what the EU has in mind," Islands Business was told.

"Say we decide to run a fishery by capacity limits. The choice is either to set limits to the existing fleets in which case PICs will be able to licence only existing ships or sell rights and quotas to other countries. The PICs will license Taiwanese, who are prepared to invest ashore in loining plants and things like that, to the Europeans for much greater levies, and the Americans."

Other fishermen would be priced out of the region.

"The Japanese have a law which prevents their purse seiner vessels from landing fish in any of the PICs," Islands Business was told. "They have deliberately obstructed development for 20 years and they think they can buy that off with aid payments.

"One effect the new commission will have is to put the price up whether as more aid or more fees. The convention and the greater power it gives PICs will put the price up."

The first European fishing vessels to enter the central and western Pacific fishery began fishing in the 3.5 million square kilometers Kiribati exclusive fishing zone (EEZ) two years ago. Kiribati has an agreement with the EU for allowing Spanish, Portuguese and French vessels to fish in its EEZ. The EU has since signed a deal with the Solomon Islands and is talking to other islands governments about deals.

In trade and aid talks the Pacific Islands government opened with the EU in September, the EU will have the forging of a fishing arrangement with the islands governments as one of its primary objectives.

The PIFFA is already working on the possibility of a multilateral deal with the EU covering access for European purse seine fishing vessels, perhaps similar to a successful deal with the American purse seine fleet. China, which is sending long-line class vessels into the region, wants licences for its purse seiners also.

The PIFFA, 25 years old this year, is a highly experienced organisation, technically and politically, and will work close with the new high seas commission

The commission will have its first formal meeting in December at Pohnpei, seat of government of the Federated States of Micronesia (FSM), where a headquarters for it is being opened.

At least 14 of the 17 PIFFA members have ratified the convention that created the new commission and can attend the inaugural meeting as full members.

None of the DWFNs have done so yet. They include Canada, China, Taiwan, France, Indonesia, Japan, Korea, the Philippines and the United States. All are holding back either for strategic reasons or because their ratification procedures get bogged down, the United States is a case in point, in their own bureaucracy.

Pacific Islanders have no worries about the Americans since they have had an excellent fishing deal with them, recently renewed for 10 years, since 1988.

Korea is rushing ahead with ratification and Japan is expected to have ratified the convention in time for the commission’s second meeting.

The European Union, which attended negotiations for the commission as an observer, has to wait until the December meeting so that it can be invited to become a full member.

October 7, 2004

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