Fisheries negotiations under time pressure

US/Pacific meet to iron out differences

Although last year produced agreement about how much money will be paid for US vessels to fish in the Pacific, there are still many hurdles to leap before a new US Pacific tuna treaty arrangement can be approved, say fisheries officials in the Marshall Islands.

United States and islands delegations meet for another round of negotiations in Auckland, New Zealand on February 4-9 and will attempt to iron out differences related to application of national laws to the US Pacific treaty, length of the new financial agreement, and requirements including the minimum number of Pacific islanders crewing on US purse seiners.

There is still significant disagreement not only between the islands and the US on these issues, but also divisions within the Pacific group. The eight members of the Parties to the Nauru Agreement (PNA) are 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 majority of skipjack is caught in the Pacific.

Because of their clout, PNA nations, for example, drove the price demands in the treaty talks with the US that saw the US agree last year to triple access payment from $21 million to $63 million annually.

Part of this money is equally divided among all islands nations, even though the bulk of the tuna is caught in PNA members’ waters.

“The United States has been in a privileged position since 1987 (when the first US Pacific fisheries treaty was approved),” said PNA CEO Dr. Transform Aqorau, who is based in Majuro. “Now we’re saying the US has to fish like everyone else and they don’t want to accept it.”

The financial package of the treaty expires in June and there is little time to complete negotiations on the many items still on the negotiation table.

“I don’t think they will wrap it up by June,” said Aqorau. If not, he sees two options. “Either there will be an interim agreement to allow US vessels to fish or fishing will be suspended under the treaty and US boats will need to buy fishing days like other nations.”

Among outstanding issues:

Application of national laws to the treaty

Currently, the treaty exempts US vessels from the application of national laws that conflict with the treaty. Pacific islands have demanded the power to apply their laws to the US fleet, and the US has agreed but is seeking the concession of 90-day notice before any new national law can effect its fleet. Some see this as a restriction on the exercise of sovereignty by islands nations.

Aqorau’s comment: “The US still doesn’t get it that Pacific islands states should be able to make laws governing fishing in their waters.”

If an island country passes commercial fisheries-related legislation, it applies immediately to Japan, Taiwan and other countries but not the US until the three-month notice is given, if the US position is acceded to by Pacific nations.

Number of vessels allowed

The US wants to specify the number of boats under its flag (40 vessels) within the text of the treaty. Some in the PNA object to this because for the vessel day scheme (VDS) that governs fishing in PNA waters the number of purse seiners is irrelevant. This is because fishing is governed by the purchase of days. Provided countries abide by the number of days they have purchased, it doesn’t matter how many boats are using these days, said Aqorau. “Our reading is that the US wants to use the treaty avoid PNA rules,” he said. “The US wants to entrench its capacity for fishing by writing 40 boats into the treaty.” This is an issue on which PNA and non-PNA nations may disagree. Aqorau explains that most non-PNA nations do not have a fisheries management framework in place because their waters are not the focus of fishing. “It is okay for them because they don’t manage a purse seine fishery like the PNA does,” he said. “Most PNA nations have a comprehensive management system in place. Non-PNA nations will come to see they need a comprehensive system and will want flexibility to implement their national laws.”

Term limit of the new financial package

The US is seeking a 10-year extension, while the Pacific islands 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.”

Application of actions that “materially affect” treaty

The US is seeking the right of its fleet to avoid being affected by decisions of PNA nations that could alter access rights of the US fleet. This could include closing their waters to fishing or extending bans on fish aggregation devices (FADs) that affect the US fleet.

“If the Marshall Islands closed its exclusive economic zone or implemented additional FAD closures, the US wants the ability to say it won’t apply to the US fleet,” said Aqorau.

He made the point that today there are many conservation concerns in Pacific fisheries. The existing treaty has exempted the US 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 US. “The US has to agree, like everyone else,” he said.

Minimum Pacific islands crew requirements

The PNA requires that at least 10 percent of all purse seine vessel crews be made up of Pacific island fishermen. This is slated to increase to 20 percent over five years. The US wants it to apply to the entire fleet, not per boat to allow it flexibility if some boats are under the minimum requirement.vSumming up PNA reaction to many of the US positions in the fisheries treaty negotiations, Aqorau said: “When I arrive in Honolulu, I don’t like to fill in the immigration form, but it’s a requirement. Why can’t the US do the same in fishing in the Pacific?”

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