Ocean Equity Research

The US Treaty on Fisheries: Geostrategic Interests in the Pacific

By Professor Transform Aqorau

Professor Transform Aqorau is the Vice-Chancellor of the Solomon Islands National University and widely respected for his thoughtful and visionary leadership. Ocean Equity Research is delighted to re-post his occasional blogs on Pacific development. These blogs provide important insights into the Pacific development context and look beyond global geo-political narratives. The originals of these blogs can be found on Prof. Aqorau’s Linkedin profile at https://www.linkedin.com/in/transform-aqorau-2b673420/ 

In June of 1988, I stood as a witness when the US deposited its instrument of ratification to the Treaty on Fisheries between the United States and the Pacific Island States. This agreement allowed 60 US flagged vessels to fish in the waters of all the Pacific Islands for five years, for a sum of US$60 million, that is, US$12 million a year. There have been several iterations of the Treaty over the intervening years.

Fast forward to today, the Treaty’s dynamics have shifted considerably. It now costs the US $60 million annually to allow fewer than thirteen of its boats into the Pacific Island waters, with an agreement that stretches for the next decade.

Over the years, the robust US tuna fleet has dwindled. A mix of economic dynamics, surging costs, revisions in US laws, the introduction of the vessel day scheme by the PNA (Parties to the Nauru Agreement) countries, and competition from Asian operators have collectively weakened the US’s stronghold in the tuna industry.

However, it wasn’t until China’s rising influence in the Pacific, exemplified by the Solomon Islands’ Security Agreement with Beijing, that the narrative began to change. Until this geopolitical shift, attempts to persuade the US Government to upscale its contribution to the Treaty were largely unsuccessful.

This evolving situation underscores the intricate dance of international fisheries diplomacy. Fishing opportunities, it turns out, aren’t the sole determinant in these negotiations. The US’s willingness to pay, even amidst a declining tuna fleet, highlights deeper interests at play. Such motivations go beyond just fishing rights – they hint at broader geostrategic aims and vested interests.

For Pacific Islands fisheries negotiators, this presents a valuable lesson. When deliberating on fund distribution, it’s crucial to understand that some nations might pledge to the region for reasons extending beyond tuna. They may aim to safeguard their vested interests, influenced by larger geopolitical currents.

As the Pacific Islands look ahead, their representatives must remain astute, leveraging not just their rich marine resources but also their unique position in the geostrategic landscape. The evolving narrative of the US Treaty on Fisheries serves as a potent reminder of the multi-dimensional facets of international diplomacy and the need for foresight in negotiations.

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