Tuna protection and piracy: PNA changed the rules of the high seas.

Tiny Pacific Island Nations Take on the United States, Japan, Europe, and Pirates

Tiny Pacific Island Nations Take on the United States, Japan, Europe, and Pirates

The state of the universe.
April 2 2013 2:58 PM

The Saudi Arabia of Sashimi

Eight tiny Pacific island nations banded together to fight pirates and change the rules of the sea.

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This move, Remengesau says, was highly unorthodox. "But," he says, smiling, "I've been in leadership long enough to understand that if you think inside the box, very little meaningful change will happen." From this new position of strength, the PNA began making a lot more changes.

Big Move No. 2 came in 2007, when the PNA flipped the divide-and-conquer game through their "vessel day scheme.” The plan limits both the number of boats in their collective waters and the total number of days those boats are allowed to fish. The PNA then auctioned off fishing days to the highest bidder. The vessel day scheme put the PNA in a position of power: Tuna-fleet nations suddenly had to outbid one another instead of playing the islands off one another, and capping the boats and days meant less tuna caught for more money.

"Because everyone will tell you," Remengesau says, "that at the rate we're going, there won't be any big-eye tuna or bluefin in the near future." (In fact, in early January, scientists released data showing that bluefin tuna in the North Pacific will soon be effectively extinct.) Remengesau leans back and takes a long sip of water. I take the moment to make sure the alligator is nowhere in sight. When he's done, he leans in a bit and tells me how the PNA created the world's largest certified sustainable purse-seine fishery.


Purse seining uses giant nets slung between boats to scoop up entire schools of tuna and, often, everything else—so-called by-catch that can include anything from sea turtles to whale sharks. Purse seiners rely heavily on the territorial waters of PNA nations, which means those vessels need fishing licenses. So the PNA made these licenses contingent on the boats following strict rules designed to limit both tuna catch and by-catch.

In effect, the PNA used its fishing licenses to create the world's largest sustainable purse-seine fishery. So sustainable, in fact, that the fishery was certified by the Marine Stewardship Council, a nonprofit organization that sets standards for sustainable fishing. Bill Holden, the MSC's Pacific fisheries manager, later told me it's rare for the nonprofit to certify a nation—or eight nations, for that matter; usually, they certify only individual boats or companies. But, he said, it's also rare for a fish-rich nation to influence the behavior of the foreign fleets plying their waters. Big Move No. 3.

Tuna's Last Stand.

But then, Remengesau says, came the Biggest Move of all.

One of the challenges the PNA faces in protecting its tuna is that tuna moves. Unlike most fish, tuna are warm-blooded, and their warm muscles make them incredibly strong swimmers. Yellowfin can reach speeds of up to 50 miles per hour and navigate enormous distances, sometimes crossing entire oceans.

"The key word here is migratory,” as Remengesau puts it. Trees, rare earth minerals, and oil don’t move, but the biggest natural resource here darts in and out of protected PNA waters, into other nations’ waters, out into lawless open ocean, and back again. “If you really understand that, you understand why international waters have to be part of the equation."

To really protect tuna, the PNA needed to somehow section off vast swaths of international waters, something that, technically, a small clutch of island countries should not be able to do since the open ocean belongs to all states.

So the PNA pulled a highly controversial move. In 2010, they again leveraged their power through their fishing licenses, telling foreign companies that if they wanted to fish the PNA’s teeming, tuna-rich territorial waters, they had to agree to not fish the international waters in between territories. Once again, purse seiners had little choice but to agree.

In one audacious act, the PNA established the world’s first protected pockets of international water—four of them—that, together with the nations’ own waters, create a 1.7 million square mile tuna highway, roughly half the size of Europe. Big Move No. 4.

In a few short years, the PNA managed to upend traditional power relations between the distant-water fishing nations and host countries, establish the first country-run MSC-certified sustainable tuna fishery, and establish vast tuna highways for the migratory fish. Not bad.