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.

A week after encountering the tuna-laundering boats, officer Earl Benhart of Palau's Marine Police prepares to board the Sal 19, a fishing vessel transiting through Palauan waters.
Palau marine officer Earl Benhart prepares to board the Sal 19, a fishing vessel transiting through Palauan waters. The Sal 19 was one of the three boats caught unlawfully moving tuna.

Courtesy of Shannon Service

In the ice-cold cargo hold of a pirate tuna vessel in the Pacific, I have somehow lost my shoe. Frozen tuna fins slice my unshod foot as I fumble around on all fours, reaching into the gigantic, frigid pile.

I had boarded the pirate ship Heng Xing 1 with the crew of a Greenpeace vessel, the Esperanza, which is helping the island nation of Palau patrol the ocean. We caught the Heng Xing 1 and two other ships on the high seas laundering tuna. Illegally moving tuna from one boat to another hides the fish's origins, making it impossible to know who caught it and where. The tuna itself is mainly skipjack, the kind in cans that America eats at a rate of 2 1/2 pounds per person per year.  

Farah Obaidullah, the Greenpeace expedition leader, stands nearby with one leg jauntily propped on a pile of frozen fish as her crew speedily documents the plunder.  They take a lot of flash pictures, and I use each burst to look around, making sure I'm at least retaining the rest of my clothing as I flail about in tuna. For Obaidullah and Earl Benhart, Palau's marine officer on board, it's a typical day in the struggle to protect the world’s last healthy tuna populations from the perils of the lawless sea.

Advertisement

Tuna is the oil of the Western and Central Pacific, with the region’s stock worth $5.5 billion. As unregulated fishing collapses tuna stocks elsewhere and global demand for tuna grows, the value of the fish here continues to climb. One Pacific bluefin recently sold in Japan for $1.76 million, and over the past four years, the cost of licenses to fish tuna in this region shot from $400 per day to $6,000. High prices and healthy stocks are a huge magnet for pirate fishers who flock to this part of the Pacific. In 2010, Palau recorded about 850 pirate fishing vessels plundering its waters. Keeping the fishing regulated and the pirate fishers at bay is a massive and economically critical job.

To do it, Palau and seven of its Pacific neighbors, collectively called the Parties to the Nauru Agreement,  are going to extraordinary lengths to protect their tuna economy, taking on not only the high-seas mayhem but also distant fishing powers who want more and more fish. And if the PNA’s revolutionary methods catch on, they could have far-reaching repercussions not only for the beleaguered tuna but also for the health of our oceans.

Palau is a string of emerald islands jutting up from the kind of impossibly clear waters that beckon from posters on corporate walls. It's one of the world's premiere dive sites, so tourists abound, but Palau has only around 20,000 inhabitants. When I asked locals how to reach their president, they gave me directions to his house.

President Thomas Remengesau Jr. greets me in a tracksuit and aviator glasses, looking more like the guy who should protect the president than the president himself. He leads me to his backyard, and we sit in the shade near his pet alligator and parrots. He leans back in his chair and asks me to call him Tommy.

So I ask Tommy how this tuna revolution started.

"Well, first," he says, "everybody had to realize that the whole issue was a game of divide-and-conquer."

For a long time, he tells me, Pacific island states were losing out to distant-water fishing powers like the United States, the European Union countries, Taiwan, and the Philippines. The island states, by and large, don’t have their own fishing fleets or canning facilities; instead, they make money by leasing the right to fish their waters to rich countries with big boats. Until the PNA came together, powerful fishing nations simply played one island-state off the other to get the lowest-priced lease. This was obviously bad for the Pacific states, but it was also bad for tuna, since there was no real, orchestrated effort to sustainably manage the fish. This, by the way, is how things generally go around the world for commercial fishing.

Remengesau takes a long sip of water. "So it became evident that we needed to really take stock of our resources and that there's strength in numbers. That it would be a move in the right direction to begin to address the problem together," he says.

The first move came 10 years after the eight nations—Micronesia, Kiribati, Nauru, the Marshall Islands, Palau, the Solomon Islands, Papua New Guinea, and Tuvalu—formed the PNA. In 1992, they signed an agreement stating that they'd work collectively to manage their tuna stocks and limit fishing in their waters. This was a really big deal. Once the PNA decided to act as a block, they suddenly had nearly half of the world’s skipjack tuna—America's favorite fish—and nearly one-third of the world's total tuna inside their joint territorial waters. They became the Saudi Arabia of sashimi.

  Slate Plus
Political Gabfest
Dec. 18 2014 9:03 AM We Were Doing It Wrong: The Very First Political Gabfest Watch Emily, John, and David review their inaugural Gabfest from 2005.