It’s fair to say that when it comes to getting access to the Pacific’s fishing resource, power trumps beauty almost every time. Take for example Kiribati—a stunning island atoll in the Pacific —and one with little land mass but surrounded by waters that contain the region’s most valued fish – tuna. Kiribati relies heavily on income from fishing licenses to keep its schools and hospitals running.
Enter the negotiators from the European Union (EU) – and in their wake the businessmen and fishing association representatives from Spain and other EU countries. They come to Kiribati because their own waters are so depleted. The Spanish fishing fleet includes some of the largest and most advanced fishing vessels in the world. These vessels are capable of catching more in one trip than some island nations with their local fleets catch in a year.

When it comes to negotiations the EU fishing industry wants a deal where they pay a little and get a lot. The EU negotiators oblige and often pay less then the going rate per tonne of tuna caught and little of the profits stay in the coastal state. In fact until recently, most fisheries access agreements only yielded 6% return to coastal states of the Pacific.

Fortunately this has now increased thanks to the united front of the Pacific Island Nations demanding a higher and fairer return. A regional agreement to limit fishing effort is also new and should be respected by everyone wanting to fish in the region. But good news for the island states is seen as bad news for the EU fishing industry, which is why the industry continually looks for new ways to dodge paying a fair price.

In the latest twist of this story of the plundering of tuna fishing grounds, the EU negotiated a fisheries agreement with Kiribati last year, which allows in total 10 Spanish flagged vessels to fish in Kiribati (4 purse seiners and 6 longliners). As always, the details of the agreement are complex, and contain more buts and ifs than you probably care to know about – see below for details. However, the EU’s deal makes no explicit reference to the regionally agreed vessel day scheme (VDS), which has been adopted by eight Pacific Island Nations called the PNA of which Kiribati is a member. The VDS is important because it limits fishing days and allocates the days according to sustainably available tuna numbers. Once each country or fishing zone reaches their allocated days they have to close that area to fishing in order to not overfish the tunas.

However, the EU fishing agreement with Kiribati does not require that their vessels apply the regional scheme. And because Kiribati has also not (yet) translated the scheme into their national framework of laws, Spanish purse seiners are allowed to fish as many days per year as they wish to, with no requirement to comply with sustainable limits on their fishing effort.

Nor do they have to comply with other regional and national conservation measures such as the requirement not to fish in the high seas, or in the marine reserve in the waters of Phoenix Islands in Kiribati.

As if this is not bad enough, the fact that EU vessels are not limited in the number of days they can fish or in practice the amount of fish they can catch, means they walk away with a bargain price for the opportunity to fish. Countries in the region recently agreed a regional benchmark price of US$6,000 for every day at sea. But if the fishing activities of EU vessels in recent years were converted into a days-at-sea equivalent, EU vessel owners would only be paying an estimated equivalent of US$3,600 per fishing day.

One can only speculate about what happened in the negotiation room to convince Kiribati to sign such a disadvantageous agreement: Either the pressure on Kiribati’s officials by the industry or EU officials was too much to bear or other perks sweetened the deal tempting Kiribati’s officials into underselling the value of their nation’s tuna resources.

Recognising the flaws that had been negotiated into this deal, the European Parliament’s development committee this week recommended against the EU-Kiribati agreement , arguing that it goes against the EU’s broader obligations as a development cooperation agent. Members of the European Parliament have also been scathing of the deal, urging that the EU should pay for every day of fishing in the Pacific.

The European Parliament’s fisheries committee is expected to give its opinion in October. We think it should reject the deal, unless the EU and Kiribati agree to apply the vessels day scheme and set an appropriate price for the opportunity to spend days at sea in this lucrative fishery.

The ball is equally in the court of Kiribati, which needs to ensure the fleets they license pay the regionally agreed minimum day rates and firmly abide by regionally and internationally accepted rules such as the VDS and PNA high seas closures to purse seine fishing.

Kiribati/EU deal at a glance:

– the EU pays   € 1,325,000 per year – which is around $ 1,895,000 Australian, the local currency of Kiribati.

– 26 % of this (i.e. € 350,000 /year) is earmarked for the support of the Kiribati sectoral fisheries policy. The rest of the money, i.e. € 975,000 is linked to a proposed catch of 15,000 tonnes per year and can be used in whatever way Kiribati wants.

– If the total quantity of catches by the EU exceeds the proposed 15,000 tonnes, the EU’s annual financial contribution increases by €250 per tonne for the first additional 2,500 tonnes and by €300 per tonne for any further tonne above these additional 2,500 tonnes.

– In addition, vessel owners have to pay a fee for their fishing license, which is fixed at 35 € per tonne caught.

Blog by Seni Nabou, Greenpeace Australia Pacific Political Adviser