US withdrawal from Pacific tuna treaty will take effect January 2017

Starkist tuna from American Samoa ... A drop in tuna prices in 2015 has been blamed by fishing trade journals as a reason that US fishermen are struggling in the Pacific Ocean. Image: Danny Johnston/LA Times

Report from Pacific Media Watch in Suva

The decision by the United States to withdraw from the 30-year Tuna Treaty with Pacific Island countries will not take effect until January 2017, says Pacific Islands Forum Fisheries Agency (FFA) deputy director general Wez Norris.

In his initial response to Pacnews queries, Norris admitted that the impact of the US withdrawal “will be markedly different among individual Pacific Island Parties (PIPs)”.

“Some of them have viable alternative markets that could absorb their fishing days with relatively little impact. Others, however that are reliant on the Treaty to sell their days would struggle to achieve revenues similar to those currently enjoyed, said Norris.

In addition, parties will lose economic assistance under the treaty, which contributes significantly to the core revenue of some of Pacific nations.

All is not lost for the Pacific, and according to Norris, the immediate task ahead is for PIPs that are part of the Vessel Day Scheme (VDS) to assess their ability to sell additional days to other fleets for 2016.

“This will be a critical component of any arrangement that PIPs can craft for responding to the revised proposal of the US.

‘Redesigning Treaty’
“Beyond that, our work will focus on redesigning the Treaty so that it can still play its vital government to government roles, but can cater for more flexible commercial arrangements between individual vessel operators and countries that sell then fishing days. This will ensure that the treaty adequately reflects the nature of the fishery and respects the VDS.”

Norris said the 17 PIPs were keen to find the best solution to the situation that has now arisen with the United States.

“PIPs are committed to continuing the work already started, both to ‘fix’ 2016 and to redesign the treaty for the longer term to address the weaknesses in the current arrangement that the US has finally come to recognise.

Under the agreement reached by the parties in Brisbane in August last year – the US and the America Tuna Boats Association (AT) were to make the first quarterly payment of US$17 million by January.

However In November last year, FFA received an advice that the “ATA could not afford the first quarterly payment.’

In response, the PIPs through the FFA informed the US that it will not issue licenses, halting the entire 37 fleet operating in the Pacific.

Since the US is one of the largest purse seine fishing fleets fishing in the Pacific region, its withdrawal will have an impact on the FFA’s Regional Observer Programme.

“Complete cessation would have noticeable impact on the region’s observer programmes. We are working hard to ensure there will indeed be fishing in 2016, Norris said.

On the issue of the US being taken to task for reneging on its commitment, Norris said: “There are avenues under the treaty and broader international law for PIPs to take action but the immediate action now is to resolve the issue in mutual best interest.”

“Unfortunately, events like this can damage relationships and erode trust that may take significant time to rebuild,” said Norris.

The 17 Pacific Parties to the US Tuna Treaty are Australia, Cook Islands, Federated States of Micronesia, Fiji, Kiribati, Marshall Islands, Nauru, New Zealand, Niue, Palau, Papua New Guinea, Samoa, Solomon Islands, Tonga, Tuvalu, United States, and Vanuatu.

Tuna fishing deal dispute keeps US boats out of Pacific

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