At the end of our talk, I ask Remengesau why Palau and the PNA are moving so quickly.
"Well, to me, we're talking about livelihood," he says. "Our very existence, our very future as Palauans. We have to always be mindful of the fact that we're very small, very fragile. We always ask ourselves, 'Why are we doing this? Who are we doing this for?' Will our children be able to see Palau as we have been blessed?"
The body that sets the laws in this part of the Pacific is the Western and Central Pacific Fisheries Commission. It held its December meeting at the giant International Convention Center in Manila, Philippines. The heavyweight conference draws more than 600 furrow-browed delegates from the European Union, the United States, Japan, China, Taiwan, the World Bank, and dozens of other nations all gathered, United Nations-style, with nameplates and microphones. The commission regulates almost 20 percent of the world’s surface and more than half of the world’s total tuna.
Although this is a fisheries commission, no one even tips a hat to other fish. Wrangling here is 100 percent about tuna, which might be a head-scratcher—except that tuna in the Pacific is about more than tuna.
The Pacific is key to America's positioning vis-à-vis China, and the two nations are locked in an escalating game of checkbook diplomacy. Last year, Hillary Clinton became the first U.S. secretary of state ever to visit the Pacific Islands Forum, the major political body in the region. She jubilantly declared this century "America's Pacific century—emphasis on the Pacific" and announced $32 million in investment and aid to the region.
“The ‘Pacific’ half of ‘Asia-Pacific’ doesn’t always get as much attention as it should," Clinton said. "But the United States knows that this region is strategically and economically vital, and becoming more so." The Obama administration, it seems, sees the Pacific as a counterbalance to Asia.
Meanwhile, China is also aggressively moving into the region and, according to the Center for Strategic and International Studies, China likely became the region's largest donor of aid and investment last year, beating out even Australia. (However, the grants are not available to nations such as Palau that recognize Taiwan.)
While American and Chinese largess is, of course, about things far bigger than fish, tuna does play a surprisingly central role. Tuna is America’s biggest economic interest in the Pacific, and joint tuna treaties are the cornerstone of U.S.-Pacific relations. As the CSIS points out, "Anyone concerned with the United States' ability to follow through in its 'rebalance' towards Asia should pay attention to the [tuna] negotiations."
Those negotiations are under way right now. The last U.S. tuna treaty was negotiated 25 years ago, before the PNA-dominated era. So far, the PNA has successfully used its strength to triple America's annual tuna fees from $21 million to $63 million, but the U.S. is balking at the vessel day scheme to limit boats and hours. The PNA isn't backing down.
"This is probably the first time that the distant-water countries [like the United States] have run into a group of island countries who believe they owned their [fishing] rights," says Glenn Hurry, executive director of the WCPFC. In the Atlantic, he says, tuna rights generally go to powerful fishing countries that claim "historic rights" to fishing grounds far from their own shores. "This one's different because these guys said, 'Hey, if you want to fish here, you have to fish under our rules.' "
The fisheries commission gave the PNA a major victory, closing two of the four high-seas pockets to purse-seine vessels and making the PNA's regulatory sleight of hand the law of the sea. The move continues to be highly controversial, and the rules shift from year to year, but the high-seas pockets remain, largely, off limits for purse seiners.
"Other developing countries are genuinely surprised," Hurry says. "Now countries off the African coast are thinking, 'Why can't we have one of those?' "