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.

BANGKOK - 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.