Why the US Should Conclude a New South Pacific Tuna Treaty

For developing Pacific Island nations, the treaty has implications that go beyond tuna.

By Eileen Natuzzi for
Why the US Should Conclude a New South Pacific Tuna Treaty

Longline tuna fishing boats off the coast of Guadalcanal, with Savo Island in the background

Credit: Eileen Natuzzi

The South Pacific Tuna treaty is up for its five-year renewal but current negotiations between the parties are stalled. This treaty was established in 1987 between the United States and the Forum Fisheries Agency (FFA) member nations (Federated States of Micronesia, Fiji, Kiribati, Marshall Islands, Nauru, Niue, Palau, Papua New Guinea, Samoa, Solomon Islands, Tokelau, Tonga, Tuvalu, and Vanuatu) and it sets operational terms for U.S. purse seine tuna fishing vessels to operate in the Central and Western Pacific Ocean. While its terms change very little from one renewal agreement to another, this year the stakes in renegotiating the treaty are high. Pacific Island nations have economic pressures and development concerns they wish to use monies from the treaty to address, while from a U.S. perspective President Barack Obama’s expansion of Pacific Remote Island Marine National Monument (PRIMNM) will negatively impact the U.S. tuna industry by cutting off their access to these U.S. waters. This has made a newly negotiated U.S. South Pacific Tuna treaty a matter of survival in more ways than one.

Over the past 27 years the South Pacific Tuna Treaty has served as the U.S. government’s only significant economic assistance program in the Pacific Region, and yet it is one of Washington’s most modest appropriation of foreign aid funds. The current dollar value of the treaty agreement is $25 million per year, paid to the Forum Fisheries Agency which then distributes funds to its 14 member states. Of this amount, $18 million comes from U.S. government appropriation funds while American tuna boats pay the balance. Pacific tuna is worth a lot, more than $3 billion annually, but Pacific Island countries only see approximately 14 percent of that value, despite being the source of more than 50 percent of the world’s tuna. It is no wonder that these small Pacific Island developing states are holding back on negotiations. Obama’s “Pacific re-pivot,” as evidenced by Secretary John Kerry’s recent historic visit to Solomon Islands, suggests a U.S. willingness to redefine its relationship and foreign aid policy in the region. What hard policy and new programs come from the re-pivot remains to be seen.

Sustainable fisheries, ocean conservation, climate change, and economic development are important issues confronting Pacific Islanders. The topics have been discussed at the recent Pacific Island Forum, the U.N. Small Island Developing States, and the United Nations General Assembly Climate Summit. These discussions include health issues related to climate change impacts and the rising tide of non-communicable disease like cancers, diabetes, heart and lung disease among Pacific Islanders. The increasing rate of chronic diseases is important in the Pacific Region because it further burdens underdeveloped health systems already strained by infectious diseases such as malaria, dengue, tuberculosis and childhood diarrhea. The recent WHO Climate Change and Human Health conference has highlighted the human health impacts that are inextricably linked to climate change.

All Pacific Island countries are vulnerable to climate change impacts, some more so than others. The regions least developed countries like Papua New Guinea and Solomon Islands are quite vulnerable to extreme weather events based on their low UNDP Human Development Index rating and their high World Risk Report Index score. Strong health systems with the capacity to respond to acute injuries and minimize infectious disease outbreaks while addressing chronic diseases are important for the health and development of the Pacific Region. The deadly outbreak of the Ebola virus in Western Africa is a reminder that weak health systems can allow novel and deadly viruses to spread unchecked and in doing so pose a global health security threat. This is where the U.S. South Pacific Tuna Treaty can make a difference in the health of the people of the Pacific Region.

Secretary John Kerry’s Our Ocean 2014 conservation program will need Pacific Island support if it is to be successful in changing illegal and destructive fishing practices in the region. By engaging the members of the Forum Fisheries Agency both collectively and individually the United States can broker a multinational agreement that regulates these practices by enforcing limitations on fish landings and over fishing practices by certain distant fishing nations. This type of cooperation on the part of Forum Fisheries Agency member states will likely require a “give” in return. Upgrading the U.S. South Pacific Tuna Treaty to include a “Treaty Plus” amendment would help establish cooperative ocean conservation practices in the Pacific. An increase in the overall dollar value of this current agreement must take into account the current cost of addressing unique development needs of the region and the “Treaty Plus” component should fund programs that address the health threats the people of the region face. This additional revenue should be placed in a health trust fund to be used only for building health systems and public health services based on an individual Pacific Island country’s need.

Enjoying this article? Click here to subscribe for full access. Just $5 a month.

There is no doubt the cost of tuna fishing will rise no matter what agreement is reached on the U.S. South Pacific Tuna Treaty and with the expansion of the Pacific Remote Island Marine National Monument. And those costs will be passed on to American consumers. For 27 years the United States has enjoyed a foreign policy bargain in the Pacific Region and now it is time to upgrade that policy to reflect new geopolitical influences. Facilitating the development of strong and responsive healthcare and public health systems in Pacific Island Countries through a new U.S. South Pacific Tuna Treaty will go a long way to protecting marine and ocean health while addressing the health of the people of the Pacific Region.

Eileen Natuzzi, MD, MS, FACS is a public health surgeon and director of surgical education for the Solomon Islands Living Memorial Program, an educational partnership between health providers in the U.S., Australia and Solomon Islands.