Tuna fishing deal dispute keeps US boats out of Pacific waters

A 2015 Greenpeace video about the “out of control” global tuna fishing industry, including the Pacific. Rainbow Warrior skipper Peter Willcox interviewed. Video: Greenpeace

Report from Pacific Media Watch

By Lucy Craymer in New York for The Wall Street Journal

United States boats are set to be locked out of the world’s best tuna-fishing waters after reneging on a deal with 17 Pacific states, amid a slump in prices for the fish sold in cans in supermarkets all over the country.

The standoff means US boats cannot access seas where around half of the world’s skipjack tuna are caught each year. It is also endangering a vital revenue stream for some of the world’s poorest nations.

A group of Pacific island states—which includes small island and atoll nations and territories such as Tuvalu, Tokelau and the Marshall Islands—along with New Zealand and Australia are refusing to issue fishing licenses to around 36 US vessels to trawl in their waters after their owners, typically tuna-supply companies or individuals, refused to meet payments agreed in August last year.

“These are the most attractive fisheries in the world and there are boats dying to fish in these waters right now but they can’t go and fish,” said Transform Aqorau, chief executive officer of the Parties to the Nauru Agreement, a grouping of eight of the islands which control most of the regions’ best fishing grounds.

Without a resolution, US-owned fishing boats—often based in American Samoa, a US Pacific territory—risk losing the roughly 300,000 tonnes of catch, mainly skipjack, they normally net annually in the region. That tuna is mostly processed into canned form, often in American Samoa as well.

Fishery licence sales generate around US$350 million annually in total for small states such as Kiribati and Tuvalu, where around 20 percent of the population lives on less than US$1 a day. More than a quarter of that fishing revenue comes from the US, the Asian Development Bank estimates.

Pacific island countries aim to both raise revenue and manage tuna stocks by selling fishing days each year to either countries or companies, which in turn allocate them to different vessels. The minimum price for one fishing day is $8000.

Struggling nations
Some of the island nations are already struggling because of the way in which El Niño has affected fish migration patterns this year, reducing the amount of tuna in areas they control, said Christopher Edmonds, a senior economist at the ADB.

The current dispute first arose in November when the US government asked for significant changes to the August agreement it made on behalf of the American Tunaboat Association. It had agreed to pay $68 million so that its member boats could fish for 6250 days collectively. The first quarterly payment toward that was due at the end of December, in time for licences to be issued at the start of January.

The association now wants to cut the fishing days by 30 percent and reduce its payment by $23 million. The US is entitled to its allocation of fishing days under a nearly 30-year-old treaty that is linked to a US$21 million annual aid payment to the islands.

“The issue is simply that the US fleet cannot afford to buy the number of days,” said Brian Hallman, executive director of the American Tunaboat Association based in San Diego.

“The economic situation for the U.S. fleet has been worsening, and is so dire that many vessels are on the edge of bankruptcy, and boats are dropping out of the Treaty.”

Hallman said ample global tuna stocks was behind the recent drop in tuna prices, thanks to an increasing number of boats fishing for the catch globally.

Skipjack tuna is currently selling at $950 a metric ton in Thailand, a major processing location, having nearly halved since July 2014 when it was selling for $1820 a metric ton.

Fishing costs up
Meanwhile, fishing costs have risen: in 2010, the US paid around $30 million to access the fishing grounds now in dispute, compared with the $90 million they agreed to pay this year.

Negotiations continue between the parties but until an agreement is reached the US fleet will remain docked in American Samoa. The Pacific states are currently “testing the waters” to see if they can sell the fishing days the US wishes to give up, said Wez Norris, Deputy Director-General of the Pacific Islands Forum Fisheries Agency, which negotiated last year’s agreement on behalf of the Pacific states.

A US State Department official said “the best way forward for all parties would be for the Pacific Island parties to revise the terms for the US fleet for 2016”.

“It is a huge concern for us that our boats can’t fish in their traditional fishing areas and deliver fish back to American Samoa,” said Joe Hamby, chief operating officer at Tri Marine Management, which produces tuna brand Ocean Naturals and supplies tuna to supermarket chain Costco.

Canned tuna accounts for 93 percent of American Samoa’s exports.

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