Recently Announced $90 Million Fisheries Treaty Hits Snag

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Kiribati not putting as many fishing days into pool as expected

By Giff Johnson

MAJURO, Marshall Islands (Marianas Variety, Oct. 16, 2014) – Despite an historic $90 million one-year fisheries deal reached in Honolulu earlier this month, all sides say the Pacific’s over 25-year-old treaty with the United States must be redrawn.

Officials from Kiribati, which controls some of the best tuna fishing grounds in the Pacific, surprised U.S. negotiators in Honolulu when they said they will only put 300 days into a pool of 8,000 fishing days the U.S. is buying for $90 million in 2015. In previous years, Kiribati provided several thousand days to the U.S. fleet through the treaty and with the majority of purse seine tuna fishing centered in Kiribati’s lucrative ocean zone, U.S. officials say this change "is a heavy blow to the U.S. fleet."

Kiribati is one of eight members of the Parties to the Nauru Agreement, which controls waters where over 50 percent of the world’s skipjack tuna is caught. The other PNA nations are working out arrangements to provide the 7,700 days needed to fulfill U.S. treaty terms, said Marshall Islands Marine Resources Authority Director Glen Joseph Wednesday in Majuro. Joseph, who was at the Honolulu talks, said although the price was agreed to, "we haven’t completed negotiations on all the issues for a complete package to be approved."

The treaty has given U.S. purse seiners access to all eight PNA member nations’ waters to fish. But Kiribati officials told negotiators in Honolulu that U.S. vessels can only fish in Kiribati waters using the 300 days Kiribati is contributing. PNA CEO Dr. Transform Aqorau said Wednesday that Kiribati is not telling the U.S. "don’t come and fish. If they want to fish, the U.S. fleet has to buy days bilaterally." This would be an extra cost to the U.S. fleet. Aqorau said reports that Kiribati had already sold all its fishing days to Chinese and Taiwanese fleets were inaccurate. "The Chinese don’t have a major purse seine fleet in the Pacific," he said.

Kiribati is negotiating with Japanese, South Korean and European Union fleets for fishing access, he said.

The $90 million the U.S. has agreed to pay in 2015 is over four times more than what the U.S. was paying just four years ago, an indication of the value of the PNA-controlled skipjack tuna fishery.

"The new level of payment is not viable for the U.S. fleet with the low price of fish the past year," said Hallman. "Actually, vessels will be losing money with these high license fees. However, the fleet felt as if it had no choice but to accept these payments, especially considering how late in the year it is."

Aqorau said Kiribati’s action should come as no surprise since the PNA has been saying since 2010 that the treaty needed to change.

James Movick, director of the Forum Fisheries Agency that administers the U.S. treaty funding for its 17 members, agrees with Aqorau. "In my view, we will have to seriously reconsider the structure of the U.S. treaty," he said last week.

"The treaty has been in effect for 26 years, but if it is to survive into the future, it will have to be restructured somehow," said Hallman, a member of the U.S. negotiating team. "The U.S. fleet simply cannot continue as we have for the past few years, with no certainty of operation or fishing grounds."

With fishing day prices jumping from $6,000 to $8,000 a day in 2015 and Asian and European fleets competing with the U.S. for fishing access that is capped at 44,000 days annually, PNA countries want flexibility to sell fishing days to the highest bidder. But the treaty locks in the price for 8,000 days, and in the view of PNA nations, loses them money because 15 percent of the $90 million is shared equally among all 17 island members of the Forum Fisheries Agency, cutting into the money that goes to the PNA nations where most of the tuna is caught. "With the treaty, we are forced to give days," said Aqorau. "People don’t like that."

"This treaty has to be reshaped," said Aqorau. "This is what we’ve been saying since 2010. We can still have a treaty that allows multiple exclusive economic zone access and serves U.S. geopolitical interests. But it must allow for flexibility for PNA to maximize benefits to their members. The treaty was good for the first 25 years, but it has to be reshaped."

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