US, Pacific countries resolve treaty deadlock – fleet fishing again

A cannery in American Samoa ... welcome news for the tuna-dependent economy. Image: Savalinews
By Jason Smith

A fishing rights dispute that has seen the US-flagged tuna fleet grounded in the Western and Central Pacific has ended with Pacific countries’ selling unused days to other fleets.

Tri-Marine International, which operates 10 of the 37 vessels in the fleet that have been idle since January 1, said that negotiations between a group of Pacific island nations and the US government have been successful.

“This is welcome news not only for our fleet and our business, but to the many families in American Samoa that depend on a tuna-based economy, including the 2000 employees we aim to have working when we are at capacity at Samoa Tuna Processors (STP),” Don Binotto, CEO of Tri-Marine subsidiaries Samoa Tuna Processor and The Tuna Store, said.

During the fleet grounding, Tri Marine had been sourcing tuna from more distant waters and relying on raw material reserves in order to continue production, it said.

Fishing rights in the region are allocated under a decades-old system, the South Pacific Tuna Treaty. Under the treaty, the US fleet negotiates collectively for fishing access days with nine Pacific Island countries, represented by a group called the Parties to the Nauru agreement (PNA).

The grounding began January 1 on the orders of the US fishing regulator, the  National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS), which said that the fleet cannot fish until the FFA issues vessels licences for 2016.

The FFA had said that licences would not be granted until the fleet agreed to pay the PNA, its subordinate body,  the US$17 million in quarterly fees that the fleet agreed to at an August meeting in Brisbane, Australia.

Sharp price fall
At that time, the fleet, through its representative body the American Tunaboat Association (ATA) agreed to purchase around 5700 days of fishing access. But after a sharp fall in skipjack tuna prices, some members of the American fleet had indicated they could not pay the fees and wanted to instead re-negotiate to purchase 3700 days of access.

According to a person familiar with the situation — who declined to be identified publicly —  Bellevue, Washington-based Tri Marine International and Dongwon Industries, which owns the tuna seiner Pacific Breeze, are among those seeking to reduce the number of days.

Tri Marine previously criticised the current form of the treaty as inflexible and obsolete.

In an interview with Radio New Zealand, FFA director James Movick said that the breakthrough occurred after the Pacific nations agreed to reduce the number of days it had agreed to sell to the US fleet. Those extra days may be sold to other fleets.

“That and a number of other conditions which they had, and which the US essentially agreed to, with a few minor revisions, that minor revision was in turn reviewed by Pacific Island parties. So as of Monday [last week], we finally have all Pacific Island parties agreeing,” he said.

And in January, the US government signalled its intent to leave the South Pacific Tuna Treaty in 2017, paving the way for a more flexible arrangement to be negotiated in the future, something all parties to the treaty say they want.

Jason Smith is a senior reporter with Undercurrent News, a US fishing industry publication.

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