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Pacific Islands Development Program, East-West Center

With Support From Center for Pacific Islands Studies, University of Hawai‘i


PNA Leadership Calls To Phase-Out Fishing Treaties
Aqorau says U.S. fleet ‘has to fish like everyone else’

By Giff Johnson

SAIPAN, CNMI (Marianas Variety, Feb. 4, 2013) – Time is running out for the United States tuna industry to complete an agreement that will keep its boats fishing in the lucrative waters of the Pacific islands. A joint U.S. government and industry team heads into a crucial series of negotiations with Pacific island representatives starting Monday in Auckland, New Zealand that will determine if American purse seiners can continue to fish beyond June, when the current 10-year funding package expires.

A leading Pacific fisheries official said Thursday there are many hurdles to completing the deal and he is doubtful that an agreement will be reached in Auckland. Although the U.S. agreed last year to triple the fees paid for access of 40 fishing boats from $21 million annually to $63 million, sovereignty issues such as the right of Pacific islands to apply national laws to U.S. fishing boats, remain unresolved.

"The United States has been in a privileged position since 1987 (when the first U.S. Pacific fisheries treaty was approved)," said Dr. Transform Aqorau, the CEO of the Parties to the Nauru Agreement, an eight-nation bloc that controls waters where the majority of tuna is caught. "Now we’re saying the U.S. has to fish like everyone else and they don’t want to accept it."

A State Department official declined to comment on the specifics of the negotiations, saying only, "We are pleased with the progress in the negotiations and hopeful that we can come to closure on all substantive issues under discussion at the upcoming Auckland meeting."

At the February 4-9 negotiating session in Auckland, United States and island delegations will attempt to iron out differences related to application of national laws to the U.S. Pacific treaty, length of the new financial agreement, and other requirements including the minimum number of Pacific islanders crewing on U.S. purse seiners.

"I don’t think they will wrap it up by June," said Aqorau. "Either there will be an interim agreement to allow U.S. vessels to fish or fishing will be suspended under the treaty and U.S. boats will need to buy fishing days like other nations."

There is significant disagreement between the islands and the U.S. on several issues, but also divisions within the Pacific negotiating team. The eight-member PNA is often at odds with non-PNA members in the treaty talks because of differing interests. Non-PNA members have generally been more supportive of maintaining the treaty than PNA nations because even if no fish are caught in their waters, they still receive development funding under the treaty. PNA nations — the Marshall Islands, Kiribati, Tuvalu, Solomon Islands, Federated States of Micronesia, Nauru, Palau and Papua New Guinea — control Pacific waters where the U.S. fleet wants to fish.

Because of this clout, PNA nations drove the price demands in the negotiations, securing a tripling of annual fishing fees. Part of this U.S. payment is equally divided among all island nations, even though the bulk of tuna is caught in PNA members’ waters.

Aqorau said an important issue for the islands is their ability to apply their own laws to the U.S. fishing fleet. Currently, the treaty exempts U.S. vessels from the application of national laws that conflict with the treaty. Pacific islands have demanded the power to apply their laws to the U.S. fleet, and the U.S. has agreed but is seeking the concession of 90-day notice before any new national law can take effect on its fleet. Some view this as a restriction on the exercise of sovereignty by island nations. "The U.S. still doesn’t get it that Pacific island states should be able to make laws governing fishing in their waters," Aqorau said. If an island country passes commercial fisheries-related legislation, it would apply immediately to Japan, Taiwan and other fishing fleets but not the U.S. until the three-month notice is given, if the U.S. position is acceded to by Pacific nations, Aqorau said.

The U.S. wants a 10-year extension, but the Pacific island side wants it limited to a five-to-six year deal. Agreement has been reached on an every-two-year review of the agreement. "We’ve learned that there were a lot of changes in the fishing industry while we’ve been locked into a 10-year arrangement," said Aqorau. "We can’t afford to lock into another 10-year deal."

Aqorau said the U.S. wants its fleet to be unaffected by future decisions of PNA nations that could alter access rights of the U.S. fleet. "If the Marshall Islands closed its exclusive economic zone or implemented additional fish aggregation device closures, the U.S. wants the ability to say it won’t apply to their fleet," said Aqorau. There are many conservation concerns for the Pacific fishery, Aqorau said. The existing treaty has exempted the U.S. fleet from a number of measures instituted by PNA nations in recent years that has led to an uneven application of conservation and management rules.

These apply to Japan, Taiwan and Chinese fleets, for example, but not to the U.S., he said. "The U.S. has to agree to conservation measures, like everyone else," he said.

Aqorau said the PNA bloc’s position is the U.S. fleet must abide by fishing rules established by the islands. "When I arrive in Honolulu, I don’t like to fill in the immigration form, but it’s a requirement," he said. "Why can’t the U.S. do the same in fishing in the Pacific?"

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