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The Geopolitics of Tuna: How Pacific Island Countries Changed International Standards

Source: Unsplash

Declan Hourd

The geopolitics of fish and fishing rights is an issue that cuts across many important spheres of interest for coastal nations across the world. Conflicts over international trade, sustainable development, climate change, and state sovereignty are tied to access to fish. Control over the oceans, and the resources within, has seen unlikely countries win disputes against far larger states.

In the South Pacific, tuna is the main catch giving small island states outsized diplomatic leverage and spurring both political and economic development in the region. Tuna diplomacy conducted by the Parties to the Nauru Agreement (PNA) countries is one example of the emerging political character of the region which is coming to be defined by its ability to work jointly on issues to achieve world-changing results. The PNA comprises eight Pacific Island nations that collectively administer 14.3 million square kilometres of ocean within the purview of their exclusive economic zones. Together, these nations negotiated the Vessel Day Scheme of 2007 which changed the way international fishing fleets access the warm waters of the South Pacific, and rewrote international trade practices of the South Pacific Tuna Treaty (SPTT) to effectively force the United States into a better tuna-for-aid type agreement.

South Pacific regionalism has emerged relatively recently within the international system because many Pacific Island nations were American or European colonies for much of their modern history with the process of de-colonisation taking place across the region starting in the 1960s and continuing through to the 1980s. For reference, the Pacific Island Forum (PIF) – the premier regional institution – was founded in 1971 and its membership grew in the coming years as more Pacific Island Countries (PICs) achieved independence. The Pacific Island Forum Fishery Agency (FFA), an organ of the PIF, works to build up the capacity of PICs to effectively manage, control, and develop native tuna industries (an important source of power) across the South Pacific.

Multilateral institutions, like the PNA and the PIF, are important fixtures of South Pacific regionalism. They help small island nations to coordinate and incorporate expertise in a range of international policy fields from technical solutions to matters of international law beyond the capacity of any individual member. When it comes to tuna these multilaterals are irreplaceable. Many PNA countries are dependent on incomes from tuna for large portions of government revenues making sustainable management of ocean resources a necessary component of all national interests in the region.

International Law, the Tuna War, and the Cold War

As these Pacific Island states were entering into their post-colonial period, a major development of international law transpired – the signing of the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) in 1982 and its ratification in 1994. UNCLOS is an extensive document that consolidated previous treaties on maritime law and established the legal definition of the exclusive economic zone (EEZ), which is a 200 nautical mile extension of a country’s maritime territory and outlined the rights of the sovereign state regarding its development. When it comes to the tuna trade, the definition of the EEZ grants every PIC an expansive resource that can be exploited for economic development.

A fundamental truth of international law is that it only binds parties that agree to the convention, and non-signatories are not obligated to respect it. The United States did not ratify UNCLOS, and consequently, American fishing vessels operated inside the EEZ’s of various small island states. From the perspective of PICs, all of whom were signatories to UNCLOS, this was a violation of their sovereignty and economically harmful. In order to rebuke the illegal American presence in their maritime territory, US fishing vessels were confiscated in the waters of Papua New Guinea in 1982 and Solomon Islands in 1984, the latter incident saw the imposition of a retaliatory US embargo.

In the midst of the Cold War, the surest way to get Washington’s attention as a small state was flirtation with Moscow. In 1985 Kiribati struck a commercial fishing agreement with the Soviet Union. This was a deft geopolitical decision that also scored economic returns for Kiribati. It also created an opportunity for other PICs to publicly express their interest in striking similar deals with the Soviets, motivated by their displeasure of American fishing operations. The potential for a larger Soviet presence in the Pacific, a sphere of American influence, triggered security anxieties in Washington. This possibility brought the United States to the negotiating table, ending the so-called ‘Tuna Wars’.

In 1988, the South Pacific Tuna Treaty (SPTT) was ratified involving 17 Pacific countries, including Australia and New Zealand. The SPTT granted the countries US$ 12 million per year with US$ 10 million paid from the US government and 2 million from industry. Eighty-five percent of this sum would be distributed to countries based on the amount of tuna caught within its waters, and the remainder would be distributed equally in the form of aid and other technical assistance programs. In return, Pacific states would guarantee US vessels time on the water. The geopolitics that brought the United States to the negotiating table is a credit to the political acumen of PICs, however, the collapse of the Soviet Union was detrimental to the negotiating power in future engagements.

A Growing Appetite And Unsatisfactory Returns

On top of deteriorating political bargaining tools, the value and size of the global tuna market grew incredibly after the signing of the SPTT. In the 1980s, the global tuna industry began to move into the Pacific due supply constraints caused by overfishing in the Atlantic and Mediterranean, and an increase in demand from consumers in Europe and the US. At the beginning of the decade, global tuna and tuna-like catches weighed in at approximately 2.5 million tonnes. In 1990, this grew to approximately 4.5 million tonnes, and by 2009, a monumental 6.5 million tonnes. In 2008, the contribution of the SPTT had grown to US$ 18 million plus a US$ 5.7 million contribution from industry. This arrangement was incongruent with the growth trajectory of the tuna industry.

According to a 2020 evaluation of the tuna industry by PEW, commercial fisheries contribute US$ 40 billion to the global economy. A FFA study from 2011 highlighted that 60% of the global catch come from within the EEZs of PICs, however, much of the profits generated from these catches escapes the region to foreign canning facilities in Southeast Asia and Latin America and distribution for consumption in the European Union and the United States.

In 2007, the PNA developed the Vessel Day Scheme (VDS) as a mechanism to generate more control over their vast natural assets by changing how their main clientele, the international fishing industry, gained access to their waters. Prior to the VDS, international fishing fleets would pay a fee proportional to the weight of their expected catch. This method of payment resulted in inconsistent levels of income received which is problematic for Pacific economies that are dependent on the revenues generated by tuna.

The VDS limits the number of fishing days per year that industry can operate inside PNA waters and forces international fisheries to bid for these time slots in order to fish. This change has created consistent and higher incomes for the tuna-dependent economies of the Pacific. Initially, prices were set to US$ 1200 – US$ 2500 per day in the 2007-2011 period, however, with the early success price floors grew to US$ 5000 in 2012, then US$ 6000 in 2013, and to US$ 8000 in 2014.

Beyond the financial gains, the VDS also serves as a mechanism to restrict overfishing because it sets a cap on the total number of boats on the water per day. The immense success of the VDS saw the PNA implement a ban on FADs – devices that capture non-tuna sea life, like dolphins and sharks, with unacceptable frequency. Furthermore, to capture more of the tuna industry in the Pacific, canneries were established to develop local capacity to export canned tuna abroad. Between 2010 and 2020 the income generated by VDS rents and associated programs has grown from US$ 50 million to US$ 500 million.

The VDS was built upon the legitimacy of UNCLOS, which in turn gave PNA countries the legal justification to implement the scheme and use the convention block access to EEZs in response to non-compliance. This strong internal enforcement mechanism vastly strengthened the ability of these countries to negotiate terms and force businesses to them, except for the United States.

The SPTT transformed from a document that was suboptimal in the context of market development into legislation that actively undercut the advancements of the PNA because it guaranteed American vessels time on the water far below VDS rates. In 2011, Japanese fleets were paid an average of US$ 6050 per fishing day whereas its American equivalent, through the SPTT, paid US$ 1800 per fishing day.

This discrepancy brought the renegotiation of the SPTT to a halt in 2011 when Papua New Guinea unilaterally withdrew from the process and triggered the process for the nullification of the treaty in 2012. From the perspective of the United States, the SPTT was the backbone of its commercial and development relationship with the region outside USAID and, in the wider geopolitical context, the Obama Whitehouse was developing its pivot to Asia foreign policy. In order to restart negotiations, Washington offered US$ 58 million for 9000 fishing days – which was much closer to the demands of US$ 60 million for 7000 fishing days. With communications restored and a motion passed to extend the negotiating period, an agreement was finalised in 2016. The PICs received US$ 21 million in aid and agreed to pay US$ 12500 per fishing day through the revised SPTT.

Concluding remarks

The Pacific is growing its influence across the world, and the geopolitics of tuna provides a window into this development. A defining feature of Pacific regionalism is its adept intra-regional cooperation which lends itself to multilateral negotiations and applying pressure to enforce international norms. It is also clear that PICs are savvy political operators, able to identify and adapt to changing international environments to advance national agendas and make the most of their unrivalled access to powerful ocean resources like tuna.

Comparing the two periods of negotiating the SPTT in 1988 and 2011 show small island states grappling with the United States to respect issues of sovereignty, trade, and international law deftly using the tools at their disposal. In 1988, the Pacific Islands had weaker institutions and little negotiating power beyond sovereign control over waters, therefore, they had to use the external threat of extensive Soviet collaboration to coerce the Americans into discussing a trade agreement. In 2011, the success of the VDS signalled the cultivation of strong internal networks that could be used to bargain as a regional bloc of united Pacific actors, strengthening their position against large entities like the European Union and the United States.

Perhaps, with the success of the PNA and other positive recent developments, the South Pacific can assemble a unified regional or subregional response to address a range of other important policy concerns like peacekeeping, human rights, nuclear proliferation, and climate change.


Declan Hourd is a recent Master of International Relations graduate from the University of NSW. He is interested in exploring the geopolitics of the Indo-Pacific and what that means for the people who live there. He is also the YDS Regional Correspondent for New Zealand and the Pacific.