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US and South Pacific Tuna Treaty - Where will Negotiations Lead?

18 April 2012

ANALYSIS - The South Pacific Tuna Treaty is currently being renegotiated. Tuna is the the largest economic interest shared by the US and the Pacific Islands.

In 1988 the South Pacific Tuna Treaty was established to provide aid and development to the island nations, in return for US access to the Western and Central Pacific Ocean’s tuna resources.

Last year, Papua New Guinea threatened to withdraw from the agreement, forcing the 18 parties left to take a fresh look at the agreement.

Elke Larsen, a researcher for the Centre for Strategic and International Studies Southeast Asia Programme and the Pacific Partners Initiative has suggested several reasons for its collapse - the first being the treaty's failure to adapt to conservation measures.

The Pacific fisheries provides more than 50 per cent of the global catch. Limiting the number of fishing vessels proved ineffective in the treaty's early days, as boat capacity increased.

In more recent years, the Vessel Day Scheme (VDS) was introduced, which limited fishing efforts by capping the number of days that tuna vessels could operate. Whilst this has become a standard operating procedure for Pacific tuna, the South Pacific Tuna Treaty has not fully adopted it.

Secondly, the treaty has not adapted to an increase in the price of tuna. According to the treaty’s original terms, the United States pays $21 million in aid and rent, equivalent to $1,800 per fishing day under the VDS, a sum that is below market value considering that Japan pays an average of $6,050 per fishing day.

The failure of the treaty, Ms Larsen says, cannot be placed solely upon the US. In fact the US has demonstrated a willingness to change the treaty's terms by requesting a new VDS framework, copies of bilateral agreements concluded under the VDS and the amount of additional aid needed to maintain the treaty.

The South Pacific Tuna Treaty is currently being renegotiated, with the latest round of talks held on 27 February in Hawaii.

Negotiations to date have been successful.

Papua New Guinea’s requirement that the US agree to pay $45 million to rejoin the negotiations has been met and during earlier talks the US offered $58 million for 9,000 fishing days ($6,444 per day) – significantly closer to the islands’ demand for $60 million for 7,000 fishing days.

The next round of talks between the Pacific countries and the US will be held in New Zealand in June. It is expected that the US will increase the financial package to $65 million for 9,000 fishing days.

However, the Pacific bloc may put up a tough fight and only accept $65 million for 7,500 fishing days.

Which party will move on the number of fishing days is uncertain, however, this ongoing uncertainty about the number of days to be made available to the US appears to be complicating the Pacific Islands' decision making with regard to other fleets.

Charlotte Johnston, Editor

Charlotte Johnston - Editor

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