The United States has given Pacific Island nations notice that it plans to withdraw from the South Pacific Tuna Treaty, one of its most important aid, trade and geopolitical arrangements with the region.
The 27-year-old treaty is set to expire 12 months from the date of the withdrawal notice.
The announcement came after Washington agreed to pay $128 million ($US89m) for its 2016 fishing days, but within months reneged on the deal saying its fleet could not afford to pay.
The US action risks its boats being shut out of hundreds of thousands of square kilometres of ocean as other global fishing powers, including China, gain more access.
In a letter to the 17-nation Pacific Islands Forum Fisheries Agency (FFA), which controls the world’s biggest tuna fishery, the US State Department said under current conditions the treaty is “no longer viable”.
“Rather than serving as a means of facilitating opportunities for the US fleet to fish in the region, the treaty itself prevents the fleet from doing so,” said William Gibbons-Fly, the State Department’s director of marine conservation.
The South Pacific Tuna Treaty governs US access to the 322-kilometre exclusive economic zones of Pacific Island nations as well as providing aid and fisheries surveillance by the US military.
Pacific nations are angry about Washington’s repudiation of its agreement – signed in August – to buy 8,250 fishing days.
They have described the official notice of withdrawal from the South Pacific Tuna Treaty as “disappointing”.
For some of the smaller Pacific states, such as Tokelau, the impact of the US reneging payments for its 2016 fishing days is frightening.
Almost half of Tokelau’s Government budget is provided by fishing fees and three quarters of its days were allocated to the US. Funding for schools, health clinics and roads is now at risk.
US open to talks on ‘restructuring’ treaty
The usual season for negotiating annual fishing access is over, so Pacific nations are likely to be forced to offer the unwanted US fishing days in a fire sale, costing them dearly.
Despite the dispute over the US fishing days, the Pacific countries are keen to see the treaty continue.
“We still see a very, very strong role for having the treaty between the Pacific countries and the US,” FFA deputy director general Wez Norris told the ABC’s Pacific Beat program.
“It is just a matter of modernising it and making sure it reflects the real situation both in terms of the geo-political arrangements and the way that the fishery is managed and access is sold these days.”
Washington has left the door open for negotiations on a new arrangement.
“The United States valued deeply its relationship with the Pacific Island parties over the life of the Treaty,” Mr Gibbons-Fly said in his letter.
“The United States stands ready to engage in discussions to determine whether the treaty can be restructured to provide benefits to both sides in the long-term.”
Pacific nations are due to meet in early February to prepare a response for the US Government.
ABC Pacific economic and business reporter