US quits fish treaty

A tender approaches the US flagged fishing vessel Raffaello tied up to a carrier vessel for transshipment of its tuna catch in Port Majuro. Photo: Giff Johnson.
A tender approaches the US flagged fishing vessel Raffaello tied up to a carrier vessel for transshipment of its tuna catch in Port Majuro. Photo: Giff Johnson.


The US government officially announced it is pulling out of the US Pacific islands fisheries treaty, a move that will take effect in 12 months, according to the terms of the nearly 30-year old deal.

The US State Department advised the Forum Fisheries Agency (FFA) this past weekend that it had officially communicated to the Papua New Guinea government — which is the depository for the treaty — that the US is withdrawing from the treaty.

The State Department’s move was presaged last month when the US government and its fishing industry asked the FFA to “take back” 2,000 fishing days that the US fleet had requested for 2016 during an August negotiation session. The FFA refused, saying it was a signed agreement that the US should abide by.

Last month, several US flagged fishing companies said they could not or would not pay their portion of the $17 million quarterly payment due January 1. As a result, the FFA has so far not issued licenses for the 37 US vessels, which are either anchored in port or fishing in other regions.

“The treaty has provided a strong foundation for cooperation, not solely on fisheries access, but a wide range of other matters including conservation and management of marine resources, efforts to combat illegal fishing, and capacity building in a range of management and technical areas,” William Gibbons-Fly, the State Department’s Director of the Office of Marine Conservation, told FFA Director James Movick in a letter this weekend.

But Gibbons-Fly added, “under current circumstances, the treaty is no longer viable for the US fleet.”

The State Department, however, left open the opportunity for possibly restructuring the treaty through discussions with FFA members during 2016.

FFA Acting Director General Wez Norris issued a briefing for FFA members in response to the official US withdrawal from the treaty that outlines a series of options open to islands to address the collapse of the treaty.

A bid (tender) has been issued for the possible future sale of multilateral fishing zone access fishing days to test the market for selling days unused by the US fleet. FFA thinks it may be difficult to get all days purchased at the level — over $10,000 per day — that the US fleet agreed to pay. FFA is urging all members to consider the worst case scenario — no payment and no fishing by the US fleet — when reviewing possible options in negotiation with the US.

“The treaty is failing because the US government cannot adapt to managing the US fleet under the Vessel Day Scheme (VDS),” said Dr. Transform Aqorau, CEO of the Parties to the Nauru Agreement. “We have known for a long time that some parts of the US fleet will not be able to compete for days with other buyers. That is not unique to the US — Japan, Korea, Taiwan, Philippines, New Zealand, Vanuatu, Kiribati have all seen vessels fall out of their fleets and have had to adapt to it. However, the US State Department has insisted that all vessels have to be treated equally and given the same opportunities and the Treaty cannot just be a cover over a series of separately negotiated arrangements between US companies and different PIPs because it is an intergovernmental Treaty. This is why we always say that the problem with the Treaty is that it is a Treaty.

“If the US maintains those positions, and can’t adapt, then there is really no prospect for the Treaty to continue effectively even if 2016 is solved.”

Read more about this in the January 22, 2016 edition of the Marshall Islands Journal