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By Giff Johnson

For Variety

POHNPEI, FSM (Marianas Variety, Dec. 7) — Kiribati is a watery nation of low-lying coral islands that covers more than one million square miles of ocean in the South Pacific. As with most of its immediate neighbors in the region, fish is virtually its only resource.

Tetabo Nakara, Kiribati’s minister for Fisheries and Marine Resources Development, took the floor unexpectedly at the opening of Monday’s final preparatory conference for establishing a new Tuna Commission for the region, and appealed for action to implement the new agency. "We don’t wish to be sidetracked" by issues that are not relevant to the Tuna Commission, Nakara told the more than 200 officials representing 29 countries in the Asia-Pacific region, including the United States and the European Union.

Speaking for all the Pacific island nations, Nakara said the conference being held in Pohnpei needed to focus on getting the Tuna Commission "up and running" as quickly as possible to enforce new controls on tuna fishing on the high seas, an area outside the national 200 mile boundaries and control of each island nation in the Pacific.

Although there are 29 participating governments in the preparatory conference, only 17 — 14 from the Pacific and China, Korea and Taiwan — have actually become parties to the new convention that will regulate and monitor tuna fishing on the high seas. For some, like the United States, it’s just a matter of the formality of the approval process. Island officials say they hope other major fishing countries, including Japan, Indonesia and the Philippines, will give some indication at this week’s meetings about their plan to formally join the Tuna Commission.

"It’s incumbent on all of us to assume greater responsibility for the sustainability and well-being of (tuna) resources," Federated States of Micronesia external affairs secretary Sebastian Anafel told the group Monday. "Despite our differences, we have a higher goal (conserving tuna resources)."

The 29 nations have been meeting since 2001 in six previous preparatory conferences to craft the convention that establishes the new Tuna Commission. This week’s two-day meeting that opened Monday will lead into the first meeting of the Tuna Commission membership starting on Thursday in Pohnpei.

The preparatory conference, or ‘PrepCon’ meeting as delegates call it, is expected to be largely ceremonial to approval previously negotiated budget and scientific research plans, as well as the draft rules for the new Tuna Commission.

But there are sideshows. Both China and Taiwan are among the initial membership, making the Tuna Commission one of the few international organizations with both as members. In previous PrepCon meetings, there have been tussles between the Chinese and Taiwanese representatives over the so-called ‘One China’ policy. "We have a long agenda and no time for the China-Taiwan debate," said Bernard Thoulag, head of the Micronesian government’s National Oceanic Resource Management Authority and an organizer of the meetings this week in Pohnpei.

In addition, because Tuesday’s meeting is supposed to adopt the draft rules of procedure for the Tuna Commission, and the fishing nations have more weight in the PrepCon than they do in the Tuna Commission — since most have yet to formally join the convention establishing the Commission — there may be some sparring over the rules for the Commission, with some island officials believing that there may be efforts to slow island demands for immediate implementation of the convention.

A key issue that needs to be decided, but may not be in this initial Tuna Commission meeting, is compliance with the regulations of the Tuna Commission and how the regulations are to be enforced.

"There is a debate about the rights of vessels on the high seas and compliance with Commission regulations," Thoulag said. "The convention puts a lot of responsibility on the flag states to help enforce (that vessels flying their flags are abiding by fishing rules). But I don’t know how this will work in practice."

The entire Tuna Commission and convention are charting new territory with their control and management of tuna fishing on the high seas — an area of fishing that has never been regulated.

But with stocks of big eye tuna in serious danger of over-fishing and yellowfin tuna catches nearing maximum catch levels, there’s pressure on both island and fishing nations to come to the table on the new Tuna Commission.

December 8, 2004

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