News / Asia

    Tuna Treaty in Tatters as Falling Prices Squeeze Boat Owners

    FILE - A big eye tuna, caught in the South Pacific, is shown in a fish processing facility at Pier 45 on Fisherman's Wharf in San Francisco, California.
    FILE - A big eye tuna, caught in the South Pacific, is shown in a fish processing facility at Pier 45 on Fisherman's Wharf in San Francisco, California.

    A decades-old tuna treaty between the United States and Pacific Island nations is in tatters after the American fleet backed out of a commitment to the number of days it wants to pay to fish.

    “The U.S. tuna fishing industry now is unable to afford the fishing access envisioned in the Statement of Intent for 2016,” said Ory Abramowicz, a spokesman for the State Department’s Bureau of East Asian and Pacific Affairs. “We recognize the difficulty posed to Pacific Island governments by the severe financial constraints faced by the U.S. fleet.”

    The non-payment of the fishing fees has wrecked 2017 national budget projections for such small nations as the Solomon Islands and the Marshall Islands, where the income is a critical component of their economies.

    “It’s an inconvenience certainly but it has the potential to become a real crisis,” said James Movick, director general of the Pacific Islands Forum Fisheries Agency (FFA) which is the treaty’s administrator. “Right now there would have to be some degree of apprehension and concern in the minds of many of the governments.”

    “From a very practical and very economic point of view we just can't collect the money because boats are actually going bankrupt and boats are disappearing,” said Brian Hallman, the executive director of the American Tunaboat Association (ATA).

    Falling prices squeeze boat owners

    The boat owners are willing to pay the island states $46 million for annual fishing rights, plus $21 million of U.S. government foreign assistance this year – of the agreed $89 million package under the South Pacific Tuna Treaty for 5,765 days of fishing.

    The Americans want to cut 2,000 days off that for their 37 purse seiner vessels after prices nosedived below $1,000 a ton for skipjack tuna amid record-sized catches.

    The ATA boats fish for tropical species (mostly skipjack but also some bigeye and yellowfin) composing a significant chunk of the annual $15 billion global canned tuna industry.

    None of the parties explicitly say the tuna treaty, which entered into force in 1988, is doomed, rather that significant modifications are unavoidable.

    The “treaty cannot survive in its present form. We all agree on that – the U.S. side, as well as the Pacific island side,” the FFA’s Movick told VOA.

    Abramowicz, at the State Department concurs, acknowledging to VOA that “the current treaty arrangements are not viable or sustainable in the long-run, and that we all need to consider a new framework for fishing access and environmental cooperation.”

    “The treaty actually has not collapsed,” says Transform Aqorau, chief executive officer of the Parties to the Nauru Agreement (PNA), the eight nations controlling the world's largest tuna purse seine fishery. The treaty “continues in perpetuity until the United States or either one of three countries in the Pacific islands – Kiribati, Papua New Guinea or the Federated States of Micronesia – withdraws.”

    International competition for tuna

    The Americans boat owners received a shot to the bow in 2014 when Kiribati, with a population of only 100,000 but controlling the most desirable tuna fishing waters, broke with the collective and began banning boats except from China and Taiwan.

    With the American tuna fleet now consigned to port the island nations are compelled to sell their fishing days to other countries.

    “There's a competition for [fishing] days that's going on. The U.S. is not the only player in this fishery,” Aqorau, in the Marshall Islands, told VOA.

    But at this late stage the FFA might not be able to sell those days to others at a rate anywhere close to what the Americans had pledged to pay.

    “Other fleets we are in competition with, such as the Chinese, Taiwanese, Korean, Japanese, I'm sure, will be happy to pick up the fishing days,” Hallman told VOA. “Traditionally there's not been enough fishing days for all these boats and there are too many boats.”

    The American Tunaboat Association, formed in 1917, has seen its membership diversify in recent years.

    The San Diego-based families, the industry’s mainstay for generations, are more reluctant to pay for additional fishing days compared to the owners of state-of-the-art boats backed by deep pocketed Taiwanese investors.

    Environmental and economic concerns

    Some countries, such as New Zealand, advocate transitioning from the vessel day scheme (VDS) – which has pushed up access fees charged by the islands – to a catch-based quota. But that is not something the island nations desire.

    “A collapse of the treaty may be a good thing in the long term, but Pacific Island countries have gone to great lengths to accommodate the treaty within the VDS in the current negotiations. While they have acted in good faith, the U.S. seems not to be doing so,” said Sandra Tarte, an associate professor who is a specialist in marine resources management at the University of the South Pacific in Fiji.

    FFA director general Movick said as long as this remains unresolved it is “reducing the level of confidence” in the American fleet, as well as the U.S. government backing up the vessel owners.

    Environmentalists also want to see the treaty modified to better protect species such as sharks and juvenile bigeye – inadvertently scooped up in the purse seines (large walls of nets intended to catch entire schools of fish).

    “If the U.S. is going to be tapping into U.S. tax dollars to subsidize these U.S.-flagged tuna vessels then we'd really like to see stronger leadership on conservation issues,” said John Hocevar, oceans campaign director for Greenpeace USA.

    Having American boats fishing in the Pacific waters is preferable to those of other countries because, according to Hocevar, “the U.S. government does do a better job of enforcing violations and holding its flagged vessels accountable.”

    The U.S. State Department says it is continuing to communicate with the island governments hoping to “facilitate a resolution to the financial challenges created by access arrangements and changing economic conditions.”

    Correction: An earlier version of this story had incorrect figures for what boat owners were willing to pay island states. VOA regrets the error.

    Steve Herman

    Steve Herman is VOA's Senior Diplomatic Correspondent, based at the State Department.

    You May Like

    Escalation of Media Crackdown in Turkey Heightens Concerns

    Critics see 'a new dark age' as arrests of journalists, closures of media outlets by Erdogan government mount

    Russia Boasts of Troop Buildup on Flank, Draws Flak

    Russian military moves counter to efforts to de-escalate tensions, State Department says

    Video Iraqis Primed to March on Mosul, Foreign Minister Says

    Iraqi FM Ibrahim al-Jaafari tells VOA the campaign will meet optimistic expectations, even though US officials remain cautious

    This forum has been closed.
    There are no comments in this forum. Be first and add one

    Featured Videos

    Your JavaScript is turned off or you have an old version of Adobe's Flash Player. Get the latest Flash player.
    Immigrant Delegate Marvels at Democratic Processi
    Katherine Gypson
    July 27, 2016 6:21 PM
    It’s been a bitter and divisive election season – but first time Indian-American delegate Dr. Shashi Gupta headed to the Democratic National Convention with a sense of hope. VOA’s Katherine Gypson followed this immigrant with the love of U.S. politics all the way to Philadelphia.

    Video Immigrant Delegate Marvels at Democratic Process

    It’s been a bitter and divisive election season – but first time Indian-American delegate Dr. Shashi Gupta headed to the Democratic National Convention with a sense of hope. VOA’s Katherine Gypson followed this immigrant with the love of U.S. politics all the way to Philadelphia.

    Video A Life of Fighting Back: Hillary Clinton Shatters Glass Ceiling

    Hillary Clinton made history Thursday, overcoming personal and political setbacks to become the first woman to win the presidential nomination of a major U.S. political party. If she wins in November, she will go from “first lady” to U.S. Senator from New York, to Secretary of State, to “Madam President.” Polls show Clinton is both beloved and despised. White House Correspondent Cindy Saine takes a look at the life of the woman both supporters and detractors agree is a fighter for the ages.

    Video Dutch Entrepreneurs Turn Rainwater Into Beer

    June has been recorded as one of the wettest months in more than a century in many parts of Europe. To a group of entrepreneurs in Amsterdam the rain came as a blessing, as they used the extra water to brew beer. Serginho Roosblad has more to the story.

    Video First Time Delegate’s First Day Frustrations

    With thousands of people filling the streets of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania for the 2016 Democratic National Convention, VOA’s Kane Farabaugh narrowed in on one delegate as she made her first trip to a national party convention. It was a day that was anything but routine for this United States military veteran.

    Video Commerce Thrives on US-Mexico Border

    At the Democratic Convention in Philadelphia this week, the party’s presumptive presidential nominee, Hillary Clinton, is expected to attack proposals made by her opponent, Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump, to build a wall along the U.S.-Mexico border. Last Friday, President Barack Obama hosted his Mexican counterpart, President Enrique Peña Nieto, to underscore the good relations between the two countries. VOA’s Greg Flakus reports from Tucson.

    Video Film Helps Save Ethiopian Children Thought to be Cursed

    'Omo Child' looks at effort of African man to stop killings of ‘mingi’ children

    Video London’s Financial Crown at Risk as Rivals Eye Brexit Opportunities

    By most measures, London rivals New York as the only true global financial center. But Britain’s vote to leave the European Union – so-called ‘Brexit’ – means the city could lose its right to sell services tariff-free across the bloc, risking its position as Europe’s financial headquarters. Already some banks have said they may shift operations to the mainland. Henry Ridgwell reports from London.

    Video Recycling Lifeline for Lebanon’s Last Glassblowers

    In a small Lebanese coastal town, one family is preserving a craft that stretches back millennia. The art of glass blowing was developed by Phoenicians in the region, and the Khalifehs say they are the only ones keeping the skill alive in Lebanon. But despite teaming up with an eco-entrepreneur and receiving an unexpected boost from the country’s recent trash crisis the future remains uncertain. John Owens reports from Sarafand.

    Video Migrants Continue to Risk Lives Crossing US Border from Mexico

    In his speech Thursday before the Republican National Convention, the party’s presidential candidate, Donald Trump, reiterated his proposal to build a wall along the U.S.-Mexico border if elected. Polls show a large percentage of Americans support better control of the nation's southwestern border, but as VOA’s Greg Flakus reports from the border town of Nogales in the Mexican state of Sonora, the situation faced by people trying to cross the border is already daunting.

    Video In State of Emergency, Turkey’s Erdogan Focuses on Spiritual Movement

    The state of emergency that Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has declared is giving him even more power to expand a purge that has seen an estimated 60,000 people either arrested or suspended from their jobs. VOA Europe correspondent Luis Ramirez reports from Istanbul.

    Video Calm the Waters: US Doubles Down Diplomatic Efforts in ASEAN Meetings

    The United States is redoubling diplomatic efforts and looking to upcoming regional meetings to calm the waters after an international tribunal invalidated the legal basis of Beijing's extensive claims in the South China Sea. VOA State Department correspondent Nike Ching has the story.

    Video Scientists in Poland Race to Save Honeybees

    Honeybees are in danger worldwide. Causes of what's known as colony collapse disorder range from pesticides and loss of habitat to infections. But scientists in Poland say they are on track to finding a cure for one of the diseases. VOA’s George Putic reports.

    Special Report

    Adrift The Invisible African Diaspora