Once again the South Pacific Tuna Treaty is in the news. But this year with heels dug in on both sides the outdated tuna treaty may have taken its last breath. For the past five years the tuna treaty’s annual funding negotiation has been an ordeal as the parties involved locked horns on how much the United States should pay to gain access to the Economic Exclusive Zone (EEZ) waters around Pacific Island countries. In the past, an agreement was eventually struck between the Forum Fisheries Agency (FFA) and the American Tunaboat Association (ATA) so private US tuna companies like Tri Marine can fish in southwestern Pacific waters.
This year, though, the South Pacific Tuna Treaty has imploded. The U.S. State Department has pulled out of the treaty, the ATA has refused to pay the $67 million agreed to in August, and the FFA is scrambling to sell the vessel days the ATA have reneged on to other distant waters fishing nations like China, Japan and Korea. To make matters worse, two California Congressmen, Duncan Hunter and Juan Vargus, have proposed legislation to cut the $21 million per year appropriated as foreign aid to the 17 Pacific Island Countries that make up the Forum Fisheries Agency (FFA) in order to bully them into allowing the ATA to fish in their waters.
Tuna is a big business, pulling in over $3 billion annually, but until recently Pacific Island countries have only seen approximately 14 percent of that value despite being the source of more than 60 percent of the world’s tuna. This year, led by the Parties to the Nauru Agreement (PNA), some of the poorest nations in the world such as Papua New Guinea and the Solomon Islands have demanded a cut of the tuna wealth. Without their portion of the tuna treaty funds, which are divided among 17 member states, funding for capacity-building across many sectors including fisheries and health will suffer. To recoup losses the sale of vessel days to countries with irresponsible fishing practices in their own waters may hasten the depletion of Pacific tuna stocks.
Since the South Pacific Tuna Treaty was first established in 1987 the United States government has subsidized the tuna industry by providing $21 million toward the treaty. This money has served as the U.S. government’s only significant economic assistance program in the Pacific Region and yet it is also one of Washington’s most modest appropriation of foreign aid funds. Over the past five years while the tuna treaty squabble has gone on, the same four Pacific Island countries – Solomon Islands, Papua New Guinea, Vanuatu and Tonga – have consistently been ranked in the top 11 most at-risk countries by the World Risk Report. During the same timeframe two of these countries; Solomon Islands and Papua New Guinea, have been consistently ranked by the United Nations Human Development Report as low human development countries alongside Sub-Saharan African countries.
In 2008, U.S. President Barack Obama announced that his presidency would “rebalance” or “pivot” toward Asia and the Pacific. The Asia rebalance has clearly happened but the Pacific pivot has, like the tuna treaty, stalled. In 2012, the U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton attended the Pacific Islands Forum in Raratonga, Cook Islands and promised increased U.S. relations with Pacific Island Nations. In 2014, her successor John Kerry visited Solomon Islands following a deadly flood and reiterated that United States and Solomon Islands relations remain strong.
Yet in the 10 years the Millennium Challenge Corporation has been granting compacts, it has only granted one to a Pacific Island Nation, Vanuatu, despite the steep adaptation development challenges these countries face. With the exception of $24 million dollars over five years allotted to The Pacific-American Climate Fund, no substantial change in foreign engagement, aid or adaptation development has come from these Pacific Islands visits.
The people of the Pacific Islands remain highly vulnerable to the effects of extreme weather brought on by a changing climate and sporadic infectious disease outbreaks such as dengue, zika and rotavirus diarrhea that kill.
With the collapse of the arcane South Pacific Tuna Treaty the U.S. government has an opportunity to make good on its recent promises of deepening engagement in the Pacific region. United States-Pacific Island relations need a new pivot that focuses on helping some of the worlds least developed countries to adapt their urban areas during rapid growth, to relocate their seaside health infrastructure to less vulnerable locations, and to establish public health laboratories that can provide disease surveillance in a region where infectious disease outbreaks could wipe out whole communities as well as economic growth.
From the ashes of the outdated South Pacific Tuna Treaty, it is time for the U.S. to craft a new, long overdue foreign aid partnership with its Pacific Island neighbors.
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.