US Ambassador to PNG Walter North signed the deal on behalf of the US government in Honiara, Solomon Islands last week.
Presenter: Geraldine Coutts
Speaker: Walter North, US Ambassador to PNG
NORTH: Well essentially this carries on a commitment that we've had for the last 25 years to work in partnership with the Pacific Island parties to find a way to sustainably tap into the tuna resources that are so rich in this region in a way that's mutually beneficial.
COUTTS: And what are the specifics of that though, particularly from the US point of view and fishing in the Pacific region?
NORTH: Well we have a sort of a limited number of fishing vessels that in that limit will be maintained under the ongoing arrangements. And they are given a limited amount of access so that the resources can be managed sustainably. This is done in cooperation with the Western and Central Pacific fisheries commission, and the fisheries programs of the Secretariat of the Pacific community. So the agreement is access for a certain amount of time and setting a limit on the catch if you will, and to manage the resource in a sustainable way and to get the benefits to re-flow back to the Pacific communities.
COUTTS: Can distant water fishing nations still expect to continue to work in this region considering the scarcity and perhaps the questions about the sustainability of tuna in particular in this region?
NORTH: I think the short answer is yes, I think though that we need to do a lot of work to make sure that the resource is being managed sustainably. I think also we need to recognise that there are a lot of moving parts involved in this, it's not just one kind of tuna, different tuna have different values in international markets. And so sometimes we have to be careful about the way we characterise the status of the underlying resource. But I applaud the work of the FFA, the PNA and the Western and Central Fisheries folks who are really working very assiduously to try and improve the understanding and the management capability of our Pacific partners, so that we do get it right.
COUTTS: There was a protracted set and series of meetings with the US and the PNA and the FFA fishing agreements on the amount that the USA felt that they should have to pay for the fishing agreements and the fishing rights. Why was that so drawn out and is there a happy ending to that?
NORTH: Well I think there's a happy ending and we definitely have an agreement and I think we've had a meeting of the minds. And I think the mechanism that is under consideration, it hasn't finally been ratified for a formal extended extension of the treaty, is one which provides for adjustments as we move along depending on how the prices of fish internationally, and to also maintain the sustainability of the underlying fishing resource so that you get the balance right and you ensure that the benefits continue to flow to the people in the Pacific, but that there's also an opportunity to maintain fishing.
COUTTS: Back on the pricing and the money that the US is paying, the US felt that they didn't want the price to go up and the Pacific felt that they weren't getting value for their bucks. Who won that deal, I mean is there a meeting of the minds on that as well? Are you paying more and the Pacific are now happy with the amount that the US is paying?
NORTH: Well I think over the 25 years there has obviously been a change in the pricing structure for fish internationally, and I think the new agreement and the extension provides a way to adjust as those changes take place, whether it's an increase in price or a decrease, but to maintain an underlying commitment to the people in this region.
COUTTS: Now we've been hearing also about subsidies that have been paid to some of the distant water fishing nations, particularly in the albacore industry. And those subsidies are basically putting the local fishers out of business. Is this something that you're mindful of?
NORTH: Well we are and of course tuna are not near shore fish predominantly so that's not an issue that really affects local fishermen. And it is an issue of concern, and I think that's one of the great advantages of the arrangement that we have, it's completely transparent, it's publicly accessible, people in the recipient nations know what's being done. Anyone who's interested, journalists like yourself Geraldine or others can look at it. I challenge our other partners in the Pacific who are fishing to meet our standards of transparency. I think it would be better for all of us if they did.
COUTTS: The assistance that the Pacific's getting through an economic assistance package is not necessarily with fishing, it's sort of more infrastructure and things like that. Is that the package that's being offered?
NORTH: Well the package is both a contribution from my government but also from the industry, and the real important aspect of it is the transparency so that people know what is actually on the table, what stocks are being fished, what are the terms of the agreement, what are the payments that are being made, who is getting those payments and how are those resources going to be used.
COUTTS: Illegal fishing is still a huge issue right across the region, north and south actually, so is there enough being done on monitoring control and surveillance standards for the region's fisheries?
NORTH: I think there's been a lot of progress in that area, I'm not an expert but I understand from the FFA folks and the Western and Central Pacific Fisheries Commission that our ability to track ships and to know what's happening, the surveillance that's going on, particularly in the tuna industry has gotten much, much better. I wish it was more widespread, but I think it's something that's still evolving, but it's evolving in a positive direction.
COUTTS: Now the agreement signed in the Solomon Islands is for 18 months. What happens after that?
NORTH: Well I hope that we will be able to use this as the basis for some fruitful discussions with our partners so that we can ink a deal for the longer term.
COUTTS: Having signed the treaty are there other areas that are still negotiable that you aren't completely happy with that still need to be discussed?
NORTH: The elements of the agreement are not really binding on all the parties beyond the extension, but I think that there has been a good open discussion and I hop that that can frame the next round of negotiations in a positive way.