28 Jun 2016

US and Pacific agree on new rules for tuna fishery

11:47 am on 28 June 2016
The American purse seiner Raffaello off-loads tuna in Port Majuro

The American purse seiner Raffaello off-loads tuna in Port Majuro Photo: RNZI GIff Johnson

The United States and several Pacific countries have agreed to a new fishing deal which governs US access to the region's billion dollar tuna fishery.

The world's largest multilateral tuna fisheries deal, which will govern US fishing vessels' access to the region's exclusive economic zones, was concluded after increasingly difficult negotiations since the last multi-year agreement ended in 2012.

The director general of the Forum Fisheries Agency, James Movick, said a patchwork of 12-month deals had kept the arrangement alive since then, and were marred by a breakdown in negotiations over the US industry's non-payment for the 2016 deal and a very public impasse where the Pacific refused to issue licences for US vessels.

Still, in what were widely regarded as last ditch efforts to save a deal, the two sides managed to reach an agreement at 3am on Sunday, New Zealand time.

"It has restructured the way in which we are licensing the US boats," said Mr Movick, who said the deal was a huge achievement for the region. "We have struck a six year deal that should provide for a secure yet flexible future for the US industry, stability in the delivery of US economic assistance and excellent financial returns for Pacific islands."

At this stage, Mr Movick said, the agreement remains "in principle." The United States will need to rescind its earlier withdrawal, a decision that can only be made at the highest political levels in Washington, while the Pacific's fisheries ministers need to endorse the deal when they meet in Vanuatu in July.

tuna on the deck of a Pacific fishing vessel

tuna on the deck of a Pacific fishing vessel Photo: Giff Johnson

If approved by both sides, the new deal would provide more flexibility for US fishing boats to pick and choose the number and type of fishing access days they want, while at the same time giving the countries of the Pacific Islands Forum more control of their respective EEZs.

"It has restructured the way in which we are licensing the US boats," said Mr Movick. "It has allowed us to continue the strategic political relationship between the Pacific and the US on amicable terms and it has reinforced and reaffirmed the commitment to regional solidarity and cooperation that has really under-pinned the success of the entire Pacific Island region to date."

The President of the American Tunaboat Association, Brian Hallman, welcomed the new deal, and said it was the best outcome achieved under difficult circumstances.

Mr Hallinan said there were several changes in the new agreement which were not part of the previous agreement, including allowing individual vessels to decide how many fishing days they wanted to purchase.

On the other hand, he said, the treaty would provide fewer multilateral fishing days than in the past and those days - should US vessels decide to purchase them - would be expensive.

Access to the waters of Pacific countries would need to be obtained via bilateral or sub-regional agreements negotiated under the umbrella of the treaty, and it remained to be seen whether the restructured treaty would provide a viable future for the US fleet, he said.

Cook Island workers handling a yellow fin tuna that was off-loaded from a fishing ship into a shipping container in Avarua on Rarotonga.

Yellow Fin tuna in the Cook Islands. Photo: Marty Melville / AFP

The Deputy Director of the Forum Fisheries Agency, Wes Norris, said the overall package could be worth as much as US$70million for 2017 "if the fleet takes up all its available opportunities."

"By the end of the deal the treaty will be providing returns of over US$14,000 per fishing day in addition to the economic assistance that each country receives. At the start of the negotiation, that amount was somewhere in the vicinity of US$2,000 per day," said Mr Norris.

If approved, the new six year agreement is due to be signed off by the Pacific Island Forum leaders in Pohnpei in August, and will come into effect in January 2017.

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