Fish and Foreign Policy: Renegotiating the South Pacific Tuna Treaty

By Elke Larsen

Tuna are the biggest economic link between the Pacific Islands & the United States. Source: David L.'s flickr photostream, used under a creative commons license.

Tuna is the largest economic interest shared by the United States and the Pacific Islands, consequently the 1988 South Pacific Tuna Treaty has served as the cornerstone of US-Pacific relations. Originally designed to provide aid and development to the island nations in return for U.S. access to the Western and Central Pacific Ocean’s tuna resources, it has recently become clear that that the treaty has not lived up to expectations. In May 2011 Papua New Guinea unilaterally announced it was withdrawing, giving all parties one year’s notice before the treaty would be nullified. With the Obama administration pledging to reengage the region, the 18 parties to the treaty have scrambled to breathe new life into the agreement.

The treaty collapsed for several reasons. First, it has failed to adapt to conservation measures. Tuna has become increasingly popular and scarce over the past 50 years, with Pacific fisheries now providing more than 50 percent of the global catch. With Tuna being one of the Pacific’s major natural resources, the parties to the treaty have aimed to create a sustainable fishery. It was revealed by the late 1990s that simply limiting the number of fishing vessel was ineffective as boat capacity increased. Therefore, in 2007, the Vessel Day Scheme (VDS) was launched that instead limited fishing efforts by capping the number of days that tuna vessels could operate. Overall, the South Pacific Tuna Treaty has failed to adapt to the VDS although it has become a standard operating procedure in the Pacific tuna industry; the US has had the right to operate 40 vessels fishing for unlimited periods of time.

Second, the treaty has not adapted to the increase in the price of tuna. According to the treaty’s original terms, the United States pays $21 million dollars 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.

However, the treaty’s woes cannot be blamed solely on the United States. The United States has demonstrated a willingness to change the treaty’s terms by requesting (1) a framework explaining what the VDS actually entails, (2) copies of bilateral agreements concluded under the VDS, and (3) the amount of additional aid needed to maintain the treaty. Yet, the framework, treaties, and figures have not materialized until recently because of long-standing issues with transparency.

The South Pacific Tuna Treaty is currently being renegotiated, with the latest round of talks held February 27 in Hawaii. Negotiators have made impressive progress: Papua New Guinea’s requirement that the United States agree to pay $45 million to rejoin the negotiations has been met, and, during the January talks in Fiji, the United States 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 reason why the progress of this treaty is critical is about more than just the prized fish itself. If the treaty is not renegotiated successfully, the United States will lack a sound foundation to reengage the Pacific as promised. Consequently, anyone concerned with the United States’ ability to follow through in its “rebalance” toward Asia should pay attention to the outcome of the negotiations.

Ms. Elke Larsen is researcher for the CSIS Southeast Asia Program and the Pacific Partners Initiative.