Analysis: Pacific governments need to tighten regime for foreign tuna fleets


The Parties to the Nauru Agreement (PNA) agreed at its meeting in Honiara in March 2014 to set limits on tuna catches. Sean Dorney reports Pacific governments now need to address illegal fishing, an errant European Union, and the threat posed by subsidised foreign fishing fleets.

The ABC's Sean Dorney

The ABC’s Sean Dorney

In 2008, the eight-member PNA introduced a Vessel Day Scheme (VDS), whereby purse seiner fishing fleets have to bid in something like an auction for fishing days. The eight signatories, including Papua New Guinea, collectively control 25–30% of the world’s tuna supply and approximately 60% of the western and central Pacific tuna supply.

For the next three years, foreign purse seiner fleets will be limited to a total of 44,623 fishing days a year in Pacific waters, a cut of 7,827 days a year, or 15%.

The current minimum price of a fishing day for foreign fishing vessels is US$6,000 and, according to the PNA, the VDS is now worth US$240 million per year to member countries.

European Union refusal

However, the extent of foreign fishing fleets has seriously affected the ability of local Pacific fishing fleets to continue operating.

The problem is partly that the European Union has refused to sign up to PNA fishing limits, preferring instead to reach bilateral fishing arrangements with individual PNA members such as Kiribati and Solomon Islands.

Last December, the ousted Managing Director of the PNG National Fisheries Authority, Sylvester Pokajam, told the EU at the Western Central Pacific Fisheries Commission meeting in Cairns that if they did not want to recognise PNA’s Vessel Day Scheme, they should pack up and leave the Pacific.

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Part of the blame for the demise of local Pacific fishing fleets can be traced to heavily subsided Chinese fishing fleets.

Some PNA country members say the answer is to roll these bilateral fishing agreements with the EU into the VDS to promote consistency.

Subsidised fleets

Part of the blame for the demise of local Pacific fishing fleets can also be traced to heavily-subsided Chinese fishing fleets.

Figures from the Pacific Forum Fisheries Agency (FFA) show that last year there was a 125% increase in the size of China’s South Pacific tuna fleet, which now counts 241 vessels, many of them newly-built using subsidies.

An FFA briefing paper warned that, without Pacific governments’ intervention, ‘the prospect for the survival of domestic non-Chinese-flagged vessels in the region would be extremely challenging.’

‘A$1.7 billion is lost through illegal and unregulated fishing activity in the Pacific.’

‘Pacific Island governments have a responsibility to control tuna fishing in their waters, and should be giving preference to local fishing fleets instead of granting more licences to foreign fishing vessels,’ according to one PNA official.

Illegal fishing

A major problem, too, is illegal fishing. Anthony Bergin, the Deputy Director of the Australian Security Policy Institute, estimates that about A$1.7 billion is lost through illegal and unregulated fishing activity in the Pacific.

Pacific nations struggle with foreign tuna fishing. Courtesy: ABC

Pacific nations struggle with foreign tuna fishing. Courtesy: ABC

Bergin has proposed that Australia aid could be put into the soon-to-be-revamped Australian Pacific Patrol Boat Program, which supplies patrol boats to Pacific countries so they can patrol their territorial waters, so that it is not solely a Defence Department program.

The tuna catch from the Central and Western Pacific is now worth an estimated US$7 billion a year.

Although enforcement of the Vessel Day Scheme (VDS) has already increased revenue to the islands more than three-fold, PNA chief executive Dr Aqorau says this is a fraction of what the industry is worth to PNA members.

‘With greater cooperation among the Parties to make the VDS more effective, and reduce leakages from allowances being made to vessel operators through the manipulation of non-fishing days, revenues generated from sale of days can be trebled,’ he said.

Sean Dorney is the ABC’s Pacific Correspondent.

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