A Choice for the South Pacific
The Small Island Developing States (SIDS), or “Big Ocean Sovereignty States (BOSS)” as I like to call them, have a choice before them.
They can either increasingly reap the rewards of a sustainable ocean ecosystem for the long-term benefit of their communities, or they can continue to sell out their fisheries resourceson the short term to the Distant Water Fishing Nations (DWFN) like China and Taiwan. Lately, the trend has been toward selling out those resources in favor of short term economic gains and it does not have to be that way.
The tuna fisheries of the Western and Central Pacific region where the BOSS countries are located are some of the most abundant and lucrative of the world’s fisheries. The landed value of the tuna fisheries from the Western and Central Pacific region is around USD$4 -5 billion and rising. For some BOSS countries, tuna represents one of the only sources of economic revenue for those countries, providing funding for schools, hospitals, roads, and even general government operation. Thus, as a source of economic and food security, the tuna fisheries are unmatched in the region.
Yet BOSS governments continue to sell access to their highly valuable tuna fisheries at a fraction of their true value to distant water fleets from around the globe.Over the past 50 years, DWFN, including the U.S., China, Taiwan, Korea, Japan, and the EU, have heavily exploited the tuna resources of the region at a tremendous discount to their value. This is a tragedy because the local communities not only lose out on license and access revenues, but more often than not from the potential associated benefits of landing and processing the fish on shore.
More recently, the BOSS states have been losing additional revenue to illegal, unreported, and unregulated (IUU) fishing that DWFN have been prosecuting more frequently in their waters as well. There is no reason for this to be happening because these resources belong to the people of the South Pacific and the people should be accruing the full benefit of the fisheries resources within their resources.
The United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), concluded in 1982 and effective in 1994,created an international standard that gave each country exclusive rights to the living marine resources in the waters surrounding its borders out to 200 nautical miles. This essentially means that each nation can exclude or grant access to harvest those living marine resources exclusively within that zone, lending this provision to the name of the 200 nautical mile area designation as the “Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ).” As signatories to this agreement, the BOSS countries control their sustainable economic future through their control of the fishery resources, including tuna, within their EEZs.
Unfortunately, many of the BOSS countries are developing nations struggling to achieve political and economic independence from not only a history of actual colonialism, but also, more recently, an insidious form of economic colonialism. For decades, the BOSS countries have received promises from the DWFN of development support over time that would ostensibly allow the BOSS countries to independently prosecute and further develop their fisheries and, in turn, capture more of the wealth generated by those fisheries leading to greater development and independence.
This development assistance has been elusive, circumspect, and slow to materialize, with DWFN continuing to dominate not only the prosecution of the region’stuna fisheries, but also the regulatory processes of the Western and Central Pacific Fisheries Commission, the regional fisheries management organization charged with conserving and managing the tuna resource in the region.
Furthermore, when development projects are proposed, there are always strings attached. Moreover, if the offers of development assistance were truly genuine, the DWFN fleets would be decliningwhile the local fleets steadily replace the foreign vessels, not the reverse as it has been over the last several decades. At the same time, the increasing DWFN fleet size, particularly from China and Chinese Taipei, has driven the decline in many of the tuna stocks in the region to increasingly alarming levels with too many boats simply chasing too few fish.Lastly, extensive graft and government corruption in some cases only complicates the situation.
However, there are some promising developments in the region with sub-regional organisations exercising increasingly more influence over fisheries management in the region, seeking sustainable solutions for their tuna resources and, in turn, their economies. Coalitions such as TeVakaMoana and the Melanesian Spearhead Group provide an improved forum for member nations to coordinate and strengthen their voice. The Parties to the Nauru Agreement (PNA), a coalition of eight BOSS countries seeking to improve control over their skipjack tuna fisheries, represents the future of the region with respect to control over their resources. By creating discrete allocation in the skipjack tuna fishery, the PNA nations have been able to dramatically increase their control over the management of the tuna resource within their waters at the same time they have dramatically increased their revenue. This would not have been possible without the collective engagement and action of the PNA countries.
Despite positive momentum such as that with the PNA, a tremendous amount of work remains to be done. China continues to grow in economic and political strength in the region and claims of development aid are underpinned with an assumption of access to natural resources; no different than the actions of any other foreignnation from the South Pacific’s past. However, the fishery resources are already stretched to their limit without China’s rapidly increasing political influence, burgeoning economy, and insatiable demand for food resources such as tuna. With all this political and economic pressure coming to bear, the BOSS countries must recognize that they own the “keys to the castle” and sit within a “seller’s market” where they can essentially name their price.
By international law, these resources belong to the BOSS countries and the people of the South Pacific. Thus, the wealth generated by these important fishery resources should be directed toward and to the benefit of the South Pacific peoples.
With a multi-billion dollar fisheries resource easily within grasp, should the BOSS countries reach for it, there is absolutely no reason that there should be any need for development aid in the Western and Central Pacific region. It’s time for the South Pacific peoples to stand up, take ownership, take responsibility, and sustainably manage their tuna resources for future generations instead of simply giving it away to others for a fraction of its value.