The Pacific scheme gatekeeping fish stocks and raising livelihoods

By Melissa Coade

Thursday June 17, 2021

The Vessel Day Scheme delivers half a billion dollars annually to eight ASEAN nations,. (Adobe/DoubletreeStudio)

The Vessel Day Scheme is delivering a fair share of fish stock profits to the members of the Parties to the Nauru Agreement (PNA) and managing sustainable fishing practices in the Pacific.

The regional Pacific program developed under the PNA, which controls the world’s largest sustainable tuna purse seine fishery, and has evolved through a process of trial and error over almost four decades. It has garnered praise as one of ‘the most remarkable achievements of the Pacific island countries in the last 50 years’.

Writing for Foreign Policy, journalist Christopher Pala outlined how the regional program has delivered an equitable system for eight island nations in the Pacific to get a fair share of profits international fleets earn catching their local tuna stock.

The Lowy Institute’s Jonathan Pyke characterised the starting position of six microstates (Kiribati, Marshall Islands, Tuvalu, Nauru, the Federated States of Micronesia and Palau) plus Papua New Guinea (PNG) and the Solomon Islands as a ‘David and Goliath situation’ from the get go. Years of overfishing of international fleets had all but depleted tuna stocks in the exclusive economic zones (EEZ) of some of the world’s poorest countries.

In 2011, the numbers of slowly reproducing fish called bigeye began to drop and PNA member nations needed to figure out how to deal with gross underreporting of fish catch volumes. This is when the winning formula of the Vessel Day Scheme emerged.

The scheme introduced a new system where international vessels would bid for each day they wanted to fish. It is based on a calculation of how much tuna fishing is sustainable and divides that number into fishing days, which companies bid for. 

“We set the minimum price of a day at US$8,000 a day, up from $2,500 at the beginning, but demand was so high that we’ve been getting $12,000 to $14,000 a day,” the PNA’s acting chief executive and PNG national Ludwig Kumoru said.

The new model replaced an older arrangement that saw nations undercutting one another to sell fishing rights to international fleets. This collaborative shift meant that when fish stocks moved into other areas of the ocean, some countries could sell their days to other nations where the fish were actually located — this system evened out the yearly revenues of each member.

According to Transform Aqorau, the first PNA chief executive who was largely responsible for introducing the scheme, this kind of trading led to healthier fish stocks and increased the daily value of fishing rights.

“Now we’re getting 25% of the dockside sale price of the skipjack, up from 2% or 3% a decade ago,” Aqorau said. 

Today the Vessel Day Scheme delivers half a billion dollars annually to the eight nations, delivering real benefits to the communities of these island countries from student funding to supporting people living with a disability. 

For PNG, the largest economy in the Pacific Islands, the annual fee income from the scheme has reached approximately $80 million. Most of that revenue has been allocated for reinvestment in cooperative fish farming and sustainable coastal fisheries management. 

“It’s made a big difference in coastal communities,” Kumoru said.

Kiribati has the largest EEZ of all the scheme members and one of the smallest economies. The revenues raised from the scheme equate to $1,400 per capita in Kiribati and have enabled the country to implement social spending programs for essential capital works, the elderly and unemployed.

“It’s hugely improved the life of the people,” former president Teburoro Titos said.


This article was adapted from a report ‘How eight Pacific Island states are saving the world’s tuna’ by Christopher Pala, published in Foreign Policy.


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