US State Department reviewing proposal to renew tuna treaty

Published on
February 12, 2016

The U.S. State Department is reviewing a proposal from the Pacific Island Forum Fisheries Agency (FFA) that would restore fishing access to the U.S. tuna fleet operating in FFA-controlled waters.

A State Department official confirmed to SeafoodSource.com that the proposal, delivered 9 February, contains revisions to the U.S. Tuna Treaty intended to find a compromise that would restore the treaty, which the U.S. withdrew from on 29 January.

“The Department is reviewing the proposal and consulting with industry to ascertain whether industry would be able to make the payments expected under the revised terms, despite the passage of many weeks in which vessels have been unable to fish and maintain viable businesses,” the official said.

Late last year, a sharp fall in the price of tuna caused Tri Marine and Dongwan Industries to forgo payment owed to the FFA for fishing rights in 2016 under the U.S. Tuna Treaty. The FFA followed in late December by withdrawing fishing permits from U.S. tuna fishing companies operating in the Pacific, effectively shutting them out of fishing in the waters of the 17 Pacific Island nations that compose the FFA.

The State Department official said the department was still considering the offer and had not yet sent a response to the FFA.

“The proposed terms relate to an ongoing negotiation and are being discussed through the appropriate channels. The United States will respond directly to the Pacific Island parties after we finish consulting internally and with industry,” the official said. “The United States appreciates the constructive response by Pacific Island parties regarding our mutual efforts to resolve the impasse over fishing access in 2016. We look forward to working with Pacific Island parties to reach an accommodation that allows vessels to make payments and resume fishing.”

In an interview with the Australia Broadcasting Corporation, FFA Director-General James Movick said the FFA has offered to refund 1,996 fishing days held by the U.S. fleet for 2016. The total is four less days than was requested by the State Department in its role as lead negotiator between the FFA and the American tuna fishing companies.

J. Douglas Hines, the largest shareholder of The Global Companies and the executive director of South Pacific Tuna Corporation, which owns and operates 14 vessels in the Pacific tuna fishery, said “industry is reviewing the content now and will collaborate with the U.S. government in response.”

Jerry Finin, Director of East-West Center's Pacific Islands Development Program, an expert in U.S.-Pacific Islands relations, said he expected a deal to be reached soon on the treaty.

“There are elements that are in the interest of the U.S. fishing industry as well as elements in the interest of the Pacific Island nations to find a compromise to this situation,” Finin said. “The overall picture as I see it is there are interests to be advanced by both sides if there can be a compromise, meaning to say that the tuna industry obviously wants access and the Pacific Island nations want to allow access, provided that there’s an equitable return.”

While an agreement will provide short-term satisfaction to all parties involved in the U.S. Tuna Treaty, Finin is less confident that the treaty will survive past 2016. The treaty is complicated by the inclusion of tens of millions of dollars in U.S. government aid to the island governments and by a vessel-day scheme that requires competing tuna companies to work together to develop a joint bid.

“To the best of my knowledge, this type of treaty is unprecedented, so I don’t think there’s a clear road map as to what role the State Department will play in the future,” Finin said. “The treaty worked well for a long time but I think there’s a growing realization from all parties that there may be more fundamental structural changes needed in the future.”

That sentiment seemed to be echoed in statements from the U.S. State Department, which faced the added complication of seeing a proposal made in January by U.S. Rep. Duncan Hunter (R-California) to cut aid to Pacific Island countries in response to their withdrawal of fishing licenses from U.S. tuna fleet. A State Department official countered Hunter’s proposal with a statement suggesting it would seek to maintain its aid package regardless of whether an accord is reached on the treaty.

“The United States is committed to building on its long history of assistance to the Pacific Islands region regardless of the outcome of the treaty,” the official said. “The Economic Assistance Agreement with the Forum Fisheries Agency was negotiated under the assumption the treaty would remain operational. If the treaty is terminated, the State Department would review how it supports economic development and capacity building in the region and would work with Pacific Island parties to determine the best path forward.”

In a separate statement, the official appeared to embrace a future separation of U.S. aid from any agreement reached between the FFA and U.S. tuna fishers, as is the situation under the U.S. Tuna Treaty.

“Termination of the treaty would allow companies to negotiate directly with Pacific Island parties for fishing access in the future under terms that are more responsive to changing market conditions,” a State Department official said. “In turn, the U.S. government could continue to focus on strengthening positive relationships with the governments in the region to support sustainable development, marine conservation, and other shared priorities.”

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