U.S. House Considers Bill To Cut Aid To Tuna Treaty Countries

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

$21 million aid package attached to fishing agreement

By Fili Sagapolutele

PAGO PAGO, American Samoa (The Samoa News, Feb. 2, 2016) – Because the Pacific Islands Forum Fishery Agency (FFA) is no longer issuing fishing licenses to the US fleet, a California congressman has introduced federal legislation prohibiting the US government from using Congressionally approved funds as aid to Pacific Island countries who are parties to the South Pacific Tuna Treaty.

US Rep. Duncan Hunter, a Republican, last month threatened to introduce such a measure following the impasse surrounding the Tuna Treaty payment from the US fleet to FFA, which administers the Treaty for 17 Pacific island countries. The FFA has not issued any fishing license for some 30 US vessels under the Treaty.

Introduced Monday in the US House, the Fairness to United States Distant Water Fishermen Act of 2016, is co-sponsor by Rep. Juan Vargas, also of California. And the measure has been referred to the House Committee on Foreign Affairs.

Congress allocates about $21 million annually to the US State Department as part of the federal government’s financial aid to Pacific island countries, under the Tuna Treaty but Hunter’s bill prohibits the use of the funds to provide assistance under the agreement between the US government and FFA.

In introducing the bill, Hunter told his colleagues that the US has been party to the Treaty for 28 years with certain Pacific island countries. At the time, the Treaty resolved maritime boundary disputes and secured access for US fishermen to tuna stocks wherever they migrated beyond the coastal waters of Pacific Island nations.

To provide such access, multi-year fishing agreements were established, where vessel owners could pay for a license to access the Treaty area, roughly ten million square miles of the South Pacific Ocean, he said.

In addition to the industry license payments, the Treaty includes a related Economic Assistance Agreement between the FFA, and US he said, adding that the economic assistance usually ran in conjunction with the multi-year fishing agreement.

He says that in 2013, a 10-year Economic Assistance Agreement of $21 million a year was adopted. "It is important to stress that the economic assistance does not occur on its own; it has always been tied to United States fishermen fishing in the Treaty area," Hunter said, according to a copy of his written statement on Congressional records.

He explained that the multi-year fishing agreements were fairly stable under the Treaty for the first 25 years, with the last 10-year agreement expiring in 2013. Since then, the US and Pacific Island nations have only been able to agree on annual agreements, "the last few being detrimental to United States-flag vessels due to lower tuna prices and payment for unused fishing days causing economic hardship," he said.

According to the Congressman, the most recent non-binding agreement was developed in August 2015, and has been under month's long discussion between the State Department and FFA regarding the final number of fishing days the United States and its industry will be paying for in 2016.

However, since Jan. 1 this year, US-flag vessels have been banned from the Treaty fishing area, even though the US government paid $21 million in economic assistance in June 2015, which covers through June 2016, he said.

"The thirty-seven US flag vessels are impacted by the ban and are losing money every day the vessels are tied up. The impact on the United States-flag fleet cannot be minimized," he said. "The viability of these United States companies and American jobs are at stake."

Hunter says this legislation would prohibit the US government from providing economic assistance payments to the FFA when there is no Treaty agreement allowing United States-flag vessels access to the Treaty area.

Last month the State Department announced that it has given notice of intent to withdraw from the Treaty. And according to the FFA the US has defaulted on its payment for the Treaty, which was due Jan. 1, 2016.

"We now have two immediate priorities – to find a resolution for the 2016 impasse that will represent the best outcome for the Pacific; and to continue our work to restructure the Treaty," said FFA’s acting Director-General, Wez Norris. "On the latter, we recognize the issues of inflexibility that the US is now grappling with, and Pacific countries have struggled with the exact same issues over the last few years."

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