The treaty which provides 37 US purse seine vessels access to the Western and Central Pacific Ocean fisheries came under scrutiny after Pacific Islands Forum Fisheries Agency (FFA) barred the US tuna boats from fishing in the region.
FFA made the decision after US operators’ failed to pay $101,236,000 for 5700 days of fishing (split among all the vessels), as part of an interim agreement under the treaty.
Subsequently, the agency refused to issue 2016 licenses until all US operators honoured the agreed amount.
Ministry of Marine Resources secretary Ben Ponia says that government is concerned about the hard lines developing around the treaty and its impact on national fisheries revenue.
In 2014/15, the treaty (also known US Fisheries Treaty) provided the Cook Islands with $7.7 million of fisheries revenue.
“The majority of our catches are in the first six months of the year so delays to the treaty will reduce our fishing season and amounts of fisheries revenue,” Ponia said.
“We were anticipating high catch revenues for the start of this year with the onset of the El Nino conditions.
Therefore, we are already being impacted by the Forum Fisheries Agency suspending fishing licenses for the US boats at the start of the year.”
Ponia says that the FFA is convening an urgent meeting of Pacific Island Parties and a separate meeting of the small working group of fisheries officials to be held at its headquarters in Honiara over the next few weeks.
The 27-year-old treaty which is one of its most important aid, trade and geopolitical arrangements with the region is set to expire 12 months from the date of the withdrawal notice.
ABC Online reports the US State Department in a letter to the 17-nation FFA, which controls the world’s biggest tuna fishery, said under current conditions the treaty is “no longer viable”.
“Rather than serving as a means of facilitating opportunities for the US fleet to fish in the region, the treaty itself prevents the fleet from doing so,” William Gibbons-Fly, the State Department’s director of marine conservation, said in the letter.
“The United States valued deeply its relationship with the Pacific Island parties over the life of the treaty.
“The United States stands ready to engage in discussions to determine whether the treaty can be restructured to provide benefits to both sides in the long-term.”
US operators wanted to revise their earlier agreement and reduce the amount of fishing days by almost 2000 days, but slightly increase the Cook Islands fishing days.
The revised US proposal involves 3465 days of fishing for PNA participants other than Kiribati (a reduction of 1930 days), 300 days in Kiribati, 255 days in the Cook Islands and 300 “exploratory” fishing days in Fiji, Niue, Samoa, Tonga and Vanuatu.
Despite the dispute over the US fishing days, FFA is keen to see the treaty continue.
“We still see a very, very strong role for having the treaty between the Pacific countries and the US,” FFA deputy director general Wez Norris told the ABC’s Pacific Beat programme.
“It is just a matter of modernising it and making sure it reflects the real situation both in terms of the geo-political arrangements and the way that the fishery is managed and access is sold these days.”
Apart from the United States and the Cook Islands, other nations that have signed the treaty, are Australia, Federated States of Micronesia, Fiji, Kiribati, Marshall Islands, Nauru, New Zealand, Niue, Palau, Papua New Guinea, Samoa, Solomon Islands, Tonga, Tuvalu and Vanuatu.