HONOLULU, Hawaii - Eight Pacific island nations that are leveraging their contracts with foreign fishing fleets to save the world's last great stocks of tuna are getting little sympathy from the countries representing those fleets.
The islanders, gathered in the Parties to the Nauru Agreement, have told the fleets that get 85 percent of the region's canned tuna from their Exclusive Economic Zone, which extends out 200 nautical miles from their coast, that starting next Jan. 1, they can no longer fish in an m-shaped body of international waters south of Hawaii.
The measure applies to purse-seiners, which scoop up about three-quarters of the Pacific's tuna in their nets - up to 200 tonnes at a time - and sell them to canneries, mostly in Asia. Long-lining vessels, which use baited hooks to catch different tuna for the fresh and sashimi market, are to be phased out of the area, called the Eastern High Seas pocket, in a few years.
The combined moves will create a no-fishing zone the size of India, by far the biggest in the world, which scientists say will become a magnet for overfished species. This will help stem the decline of the Pacific tuna, which are increasingly targeted by the international fleets that have depleted the species in the Eastern Pacific, Atlantic and Indian oceans.
Earlier this month in Honolulu, at the yearly meeting of the Western and Central Pacific Fisheries Commission, the United States, already under criticism for its fisheries policies in the Pacific, declined to support the measure, reserving for itself the right to be the only nation to fish in the area, which is 3.2 million square km.
The U.S. has the right to do so, even while other fleets are forced to reduce their catch, under a treaty that expires in two and a half years.
"We will be very disappointed if the United States does not cooperate with us," said Sylvester Pokajam of Papua New- Guinea, the spokesman for the Nauru group. Its members are the Federated States of Micronesia, Kiribati, Marshall Islands, Nauru, Palau, Papua New Guinea, Solomon Islands and Tuvalu.
Charles Karnella, the chief delegate to a fisheries meeting here, said the United States had not decided what to do because it is negotiating an extension of the South Pacific Tuna Treaty with the island nations. "How the closure is dealt with is part of the negotiations," he said.
Two years ago, the United States had strongly backed the closure by the Nauru group of two pockets of international waters further west totaling 1.3 million square kilometres. As a result, the members of the fisheries commission, which include the Nauru eight as well as distant fishing nations like Japan, China, Taiwan, Spain and the U.S., unanimously approved the closure, along with other measures to stem the decline of the world's last major stocks of tuna. The U.S. has abided by that closure.
But this year, according to fisheries scientists, the situation of the tuna has worsened. Not only have the 2008 measures failed to stop excessive fishing, the catch rose by over 30 percent.
The stocks of bigeye tuna, which can reach 2.5 metres and weigh 180 kg, are particularly depleted: experts estimate that there are only 17 percent left of the original stock's breeding-age population. The bigeye is, after the fast- disappearing bluefin (which swims in colder waters), the most valuable because it is prized by sushi lovers for the fattiness of its flesh.
Young bigeyes like to swim with adult skipjack, a smaller, more abundant species preferred by canneries. In the new closure area, the proportion of bigeye caught in the nets of purse seiners is about 30 percent.
"The closure is first a measure to save the bigeye," explains Pokajam, the spokesman for the Nauru grouping.
This year, the Nauru group reduced the number of days of purse-seiners can fish in their waters in 2011 by a third in another attempt to curb overfishing.
Scientists say that while the long-line fishery of bigeye might be sustainable alone, the 80,000 tonnes of bigeye yearly caught by the purse seiners is what's driving the species to collapse. They have been calling since 2008 for a reduction in the total catch of bigeye of 30 percent, with no success.
It is against this backdrop that at the commission meeting, South Korea and the European Union voiced strong opposition to the fresh measure, which New Zealand supported while the United States remained silent. As a result, a decision on the measure was simply pushed to next year.
The United States now has 36 purse-seine ships in the Pacific. About a dozen are based in the Central Pacific and bring their catch to a cannery in American Samoa. The others are Taiwanese ships operating entirely near Asia that were allowed to take up the U.S. flag a few years ago, freeing them from the constraints the Nauru group imposes on its clients.
The U.S. benefits from the move have never been explained, and the U.S. representatives have declined to discuss the matter.
Under the treaty, U.S. taxpayers cover most of the license fees paid to the island nations, a subsidy unmatched by any other nation. In exchange for unfettered access of the 40 ships, the U.S. distributes $18 million in development aid to 14 pacific nations.
The treaty, signed in 1997, has been denounced as outdated and unfair by most island nations.