Chances are, you would be hard-pressed to place nations such as Micronesia, Kiribati, Nauru, the Marshall Islands, Palau, the Solomon Islands, Papua New Guinea, and Tuvalu on a map. However, these eight tiny Pacific island-states might be decisive in protecting one of the last remaining healthy tuna fisheries in the world, as this article reports.
Despite being located in some of the richest fishing territories, the states do not have enough resources to operate their own fleets. Thus, they take advantage of these natural resources by leasing out their waters to foreign fleets, mainly from the United States, the EU, the Philippines, and Taiwan. Up until recently, this would play out in a race to the bottom, where these distant-power fishing nations would play one of these island-states against another to push the leasing prices down. Not anymore, though.
In 1992, the Parties to the Nauru Agreement (these eight states; the group is thus abbreviated as the PNA) agreed to an unprecedented step: they would work collectively to manage their tuna stocks and limit fishing in their waters. This simple step completely changed the game, as the article explains:
Once the PNA decided to act as a block, they suddenly had nearly half of the world’s skipjack tuna—America’s favorite fish—and nearly one-third of the world’s total tuna inside their joint territorial waters. They became the Saudi Arabia of sashimi.
Now, as long as all states kept to the agreement, distant-water fishing nations had to play according to their rules if they wanted to continue fishing for tuna in their waters. Thereafter, the PNA took three more game-changing, highly controversial steps:
- In 2007, they devised a “vessel day scheme”, limiting both the numbers of vessels in their territories and the number of days they are allowed to fish. This contributed to saving the tuna stocks and pushing up licensing prices. As tuna stocks elsewhere collapse, the value of a daily licensing fee has risen from $400 to $6,000 in the last four years.
- Thanks to their collaboration, the PNA were able to impose strict rules for sustainable purse-seine fishing practices that limit by-catch and tuna catch alike. These rules led the Marine Stewardship Council (MSC) to certify the region as the largest sustainable purse-sein fishery – a rare move for a certifying body that normally only certifies individual ships or companies’ practices.
- Finally, in 2010 they forbid the fishing vessels that had licenses in their waters to fish on the “tuna highways” in international waters between their territories. Since tuna is a “migratory resource” that moves into and out of the PNA’s territory, it only made sense to protect tuna stocks there if there weren’t ships waiting outside of the territorial boundaries to catch the fish there. This was the most controversial move, since international waters are by definition not privy to the jurisdiction of any country, but it seems that so far the purse seiners agreed to these rules.
This does not mean that the PNA isn’t tackling huge problems with enforcing these rules, and protecting their waters against tuna pirates in general. Their limited budget only allows 13 boats to patrol a territory of 5.5 billion square miles – which appears to be a needle-in-the-haystack sort of enterprise, especially considering that they cannot do anything about illegal activities of vessels if they catch them in international waters.
However, the legal steps are a first and force countries that want to maintain in good international standing such as the USA and the EU to seriously reconsider their policies. The latest U.S. tuna treaty was negotiated 25 years ago, and is being renegotiated right now. According to the article, the PNA already managed to triple the USA’s annual tuna fees from $21 million to $63 million, though negotiations are still underway.
The PNA’s move also set a precedence, as the article notes:
“Other developing countries are genuinely surprised,” Hurry says. “Now countries off the African coast are thinking, ‘Why can’t we have one of those?’
Also, there might be a shift in international policies regarding fish laundering (moving catches from one vessel to another to hide its origin) and piratery. Interpol recently announced that they will move against fish laundering, which would create an international patrol unit legally authorized to move against illegal activities in international waters.
Finally, a new body called the Global Ocean Commission was announced in February to tackle piratery and lawlessness on the seas.
It will have to be seen whether these efforts are in time to save fish stocks from collapsing around the globe, but I still feel it’s encouraging that steps are being taken, especially by such underdogs as the Pacific nations.
What do you think?
Bonus: The original article has a great infographic which showcases graphically the difference in power and vessel size of the fishing countries vs. the island-states.