No Tuna Agreement Means US Boats To Tie Up Today

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Pacific Islands Development Program, East-West Center With Support From Center for Pacific Islands Studies, University of Hawai‘i

US fleet wants better terms than originally agreed to

By Fili Sagapolutele

PAGO PAGO, American Samoa (The Samoa News, Dec. 31, 2015) – With the "economic situation so bad," American Tunaboat Association executive director Brian Hallman maintains that the US fishing fleet just cannot afford the fees to access Pacific fishing grounds under the South Pacific Tuna Treaty agreement reached this year.

Therefore the US government is in discussions with the Pacific island countries to reduce fishing days from what was agreed upon in Australia this year. With no new agreement, companies anticipate millions and millions in losses.

Hallman was responding to Samoa News inquires following a story yesterday by trade industry news provider Undercurrent News that vessels owned by Tri Marine International and South Korea based Dongwon Industries are among those seeking to opt out of an agreement to pay $17 million in fees in the Treaty to access Pacific tuna fishing grounds.

(The Treaty is negotiated by the US government and the Pacific Islands Fishery Forum Agency (FFA) and the feds pay a portion of the millions of dollars annually under the agreement.)

According to Undercurrent News, the ongoing plunge in skipjack prices has prompted those fishing boat owners to seek to renegotiate an agreement reached in Brisbane with the Parties to the Nauru Agreement (PNA) to purchase around 5,700 days of fishing access.

The companies, along with some independent vessels, are working on a request through the American Tunaboat Association (ATA) to instead purchase 3,700 days of access.

Asked if ATA is working with Tri Marine, Dongwon and some independent vessels to purchase only 3,700 days of access, Hallman first pointed out that "Dongwon is not involved with the US fleet."

Hallman explained that the ATA, which represents all US Treaty vessels, is working with the US government, pursuant to its agreement with FFA, to reduce the number of fishing days the fleet would be obligated to buy for 2016.

"The simple fact is that the fleet cannot afford to buy all of the 5,700 days contemplated in Brisbane, when the price of fish was almost 40% higher than it is now," he said yesterday afternoon. "The economic situation is so bad that many boats are having difficultly just paying their bills."

Asked as to the current status of the move to purchase 3,700 days of access Hallman says this subject is under discussion between the US government and the Governments of the FFA.

Hallman pointed out that one problem with the Treaty is that the license payments are due for the entire fleet, through the ATA, in a lump sum.

"So if a vessel decides that it can no longer afford a Treaty license, or can afford only limited days, or goes bankrupt, the rest of the vessels are held responsible for the full lump sum payment," he explained. "In today's economic environment, this model is no longer sustainable, and it must be changed."

Undercurrent News quotes an unidentified person familiar with the matter saying that Tri Marine and Dongwon, which owns the tuna seiner Pacific Breeze, are among those seeking to reduce the number of days.

Tri Marine, owner of local Samoa Tuna Processors Inc., cannery, also has a US purse seiner fleet based in Pago Pago, while Dongwon owns US based StarKist Co., and local operations StarKist Samoa cannery.

Tri Marine’s chief operation officer, Joe Hamby didn’t immediately respond to the Samoa News request for comments, while efforts to obtain a contact person in the US for Donwong was unsuccessful.

Last week, on Christmas Eve, the US National Marine Fisheries Service’s Honolulu office informed ATA that all U.S. vessels are prohibited from fishing in the WPO until licenses from the Forum Fisheries Agency (FFA) are issued for 2016.

Hallman had told Samoa News on Monday this week that the letter basically says that no US flag vessels could fish in the Western Pacific without a Treaty license. "The only exception is that vessels with a fisheries endorsement can fish in US waters that are not designated as monuments, i.e., Howland Baker, Palmyra Island, and Kingman Reef," he said. (See Tuesday’s edition for details, which includes concerns raised by US based Global Companies, which owns 14 vessels that have been summoned back to port.)

Tri Marine and StarKist have yet to respond to Samoa News questions sent Monday on the impact the fishing license issue will have on the fish supply for their canneries in American Samoa.

According to one estimate seen by Undercurrent News, the 37-vessel fleet’s annual harvest is around 300 tons of tuna per year which brings in around $275 million to $325 million each year. Tying up the entire fleet could result in losses of around $8,000 per day or around $54 million in losses to the companies annually.

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