February 11, 2016

Pacific Island Countries Offer to Compromise in Tuna Fishing Standoff

U.S. boats might soon be allowed back in to the world’s best tuna fishing waters after the 17 Pacific states that control the waters offered to compromise in an attempt to end a six-week standoff.

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

The standoff means U.S. 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.

The Pacific island countries have now agreed to sell fewer fishing days to the U.S. boats, in line with the U.S.’s request, with the remaining days to be sold to fleets from other countries or local boats, said James Movick, Director General of the Pacific Islands Forum Fisheries Agency. The agency has been responsible for negotiating the fishing agreement on behalf of the Pacific states.

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 US$8,000.

The current dispute first arose in November when the U.S. government asked for significant changes to the August agreement it made on behalf of the American Tunaboat Association. It had agreed to pay US$68 million so that its member boats could fish for 6,250 days collectively. The first quarterly payment toward that was due at the end of December, in time for licenses to be issued at the start of January.

The association now wants to cut the fishing days by 30% and reduce its payment by US$23 million, blaming sharply lower tuna prices. The U.S. 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 new proposal “should satisfy the U.S. without the need for any further negotiation,” and he is hopeful that licenses will be able to be issued over the next couple of weeks, Movick said.

No specific details have been released about the new proposal. Movick said negotiations are continuing.

The U.S. has officially withdrawn from the treaty beginning in January 2017 and new negotiations over access for U.S. boats will be undertaken over the coming year, Movick added.