From Aspirations to Inspirations: The Marshall Islands Fishing Story

The story of how the Marshall Islands went from being a bystander in commercial fishing in the Pacific to operating the world’s busiest tuna transshipment port, two fish processing facilities, a purse seine vessel net repair yard, and a fleet of locally-flagged and -based fishing vessels is documented in Giff Johnson’s new book, “Our Ocean’s Promise: From Aspirations to Inspirations — The Marshall Islands Fishing Story”.

We publish an extract of the book with Giff’s permission here.

A new era for fisheries management

When President Amata Kabua launched his government’s aggressive move into the commercial tuna industry, with the purchase in 1988 of the Koorale purse seiner, he saw the potential gains for the country by going beyond selling fishing licenses to distant water fishing nations. The primary goal was finding a way to develop a domestic tuna industry to increase the piece of the fishery “pie” for the Marshall Islands. The concept of participation in the tuna “value chain” wasn’t then a term used widely. But the idea of domestic development and greater engagement in the industry by island countries was a vision that would underpin the program pursued by the Parties to the Nauru Agreement and lead to its later success in implementing its Vessel Day Scheme that fundamentally altered management and control of the purse seine tuna fishery in PNA waters.

In the late 1980s, however, there was little more than a vision. None of the pieces were in place. The Marshall Islands government wanted to establish a domestic tuna industry. It was intent on investing, it had US Compact of Free Association funding available, and it was encouraged by Washington and industry authorities to do so. All the pieces had to be put together to make it work: purse seine and longline fishing vessels willing to base themselves in Majuro had to be located or purchased, the fish base built by Japan but largely unused in its first few years had to be set up with competent management to supply locally-based fishing boats and to process fish for export, and air cargo service had to be developed to export fresh tuna to international markets. All of this the government did with, for the most part, direct investment. By the mid-1990s, unable to sustain heavy subsidies to the Air Marshall Islands jet service and for fishing vessels that were all losing millions of dollars, the government was forced to pull the plug on everything. Purse seiners were sold, the jet service was discontinued, the locally-owned longliners sputtered along for a while and then were converted to training or cargo vessels or became a permanent part of the Majuro shoreline.

In surveying the financial wreckage of the late 1980s to mid-1990s, an essential point to acknowledge is that these failed attempts to kick-start a domestic tuna industry laid the groundwork for influencing later, more effective developments in the fishery sector. They underlined the fact far more effectively than any consultant-prepared study could about the folly of government-financed business initiatives. And not only government-funded initiatives best left to industry, but also the near total absence of a fisheries governance structure, including fisheries advisors and a fisheries department skilled in the wide range of industry issues — these were the details that were critical to long-term success but were missing at this embryonic period of domestic fisheries development in the Marshall Islands.

In 1996, a report for the government confirmed what the earlier report had said about the fisheries environment in the Marshall Islands: “…It is not attractive for foreign vessels to use the RMI facilities.” “Not attractive” in part because of heavy government subsidy in some areas, and because of the lack of good governance and transparency in the process of fisheries development. This observation was from the Inception Report of the National Fisheries Development Plan for the Marshall Islands. By 1996, as Air Marshall Islands halted jet service for tuna exports to Hawaii, the Marshall Islands with the aid of a skilled team of fisheries experts provided through an Asian Development Bank grant, identified the essential missing link: The Marshall Islands Marine Resources Authority, the fisheries department, was simply not involved in managing the oceanic fishery for the nation.

This ADB supported work with the Marshall Islands Marine Resources Authority and the wider national government operation laid the foundation for the future. From the start of the two-year project to reinvent the fishery sector, it explained: “The situation can be changed for the better by the government adopting welcoming and enabling policies which recognize that the private sector and not the public sector should power investment and development. The foreign fleet should be viewed as valued and regular customers, not as targets for opportunistic plunder. Their long-term presence and their alliances of mutual benefit with the Marshall Islands private sector underwrite many of the programs and investments needed if the objectives set for the Marshall Islands economy are to be achieved.”

This led to the drafting of a revised and expanded MIMRA Act that was adopted by Nitijela (parliament) in 1997, confirming and detailing as never before MIMRA’s mandate as the government entity in charge of fisheries. Just as the conclusion of negotiations for a United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea was a watershed event for the world in 1982, the adoption of the Marshall Islands Marine Resources Authority Act by the Nitijela in 1997 was a similarly groundbreaking development for the Marshall Islands. MIMRA had been relegated to the sidelines with little role in managing oceanic fisheries development in its first two decades of existence. The MIMRA Act changed this dramatically, placing MIMRA front and center in fisheries management. The 1997 legislation and the follow-on establishment of MIMRA’s Oceanic and Coastal divisions began increasing MIMRA’s clout within government and with the private sector for implementing fisheries initiatives and policies.

PNA membership is the game-changer

Just as the 1997 MIMRA Act was essential for changing the fisheries management structure in the Marshall Islands, the Marshall Islands membership and active participation in the Parties to the Nauru Agreement (PNA) has been the game-changer for shifting the country’s oceanic fisheries program from being a seller of licenses for distant water fishing fleets to a rights-based resource manager that allows for island participation in many aspects of the tuna “value chain.”

PNA was established in 1982, with eight members or “Parties” including the Marshall Islands, and Tokelau, leading the PNA to describe itself as “eight + one.” The primary aim of the PNA is to maximize economic returns from tuna resources while managing them in a sustainable manner. PNA’s Vessel Day Scheme (VDS) was two decades in arriving. The VDS established a “Total Allowed Effort” for the year, with a set number of fishing days that were divided among PNA members to sell. Although PNA faced opposition and resistance to the rollout of the VDS from some distant water fishing nations, by the early 2010s, the VDS engineered a paradigm change in PNA waters, shifting control of everything from the cost of a fishing day to conservation management requirements from distant water fishing fleets to the PNA.

The opening of the PNA Office in Majuro in 2010 led to improved coordination among PNA members, the first-ever Presidential Summit on fisheries in the PNA region, development of the VDS and its revenue-generating capability, expansion of the Fisheries Information Management System that underpins the VDS and PNA control of its fishery, and numerous other initiatives including FAD tracking and management, and achievement of Marine Stewardship Council sustainability certification of the “free school” skipjack tuna (and later yellowfin tuna) fishery in PNA’s waters.

“The importance of the VDS is that while it is conservation-based, it places control of this fishery in the hands of the PNA, establishing sustainability limits and leaving it to the PNA members to decide who fishes in their waters and what the conditions of fishing will be,” wrote PNA consultant Les Clark in 2009.

1980s brings global, regional and country changes

The number of global, regional and individual country factors shaking up distant water fishing nation (DWFN) control of the tuna fishery in the western and central Pacific was unprecedented in the 1980s. These included:

• UN Law of the Sea negotiations that wrapped up in 1982. The LOS for the first time recognized a nation’s authority to enforce control over a 200-mile ocean economic zone around its territory.

• Successful push by individual island countries to break up the one-nation (Japan) control of the fishery by engaging with other DWFN fleets to expand the number of countries fishing in the Western and Central Pacific Ocean.

• Political emergence of self-governing and soon-to-be independent nations in the Marshall Islands, Federated States of Micronesia and Palau. The Compacts of Free Association provided the government autonomy and the resources for these countries to launch their own domestic commercial tuna fishing operations, as well as to begin playing a role in regional and international organizations.

• Establishment and early days of the Forum Fisheries Agency as a regional force for all independent nations in the Pacific.

• Establishment in 1982 of the Parties to the Nauru Agreement, bringing together the islands that controlled waters where over half of the world’s supply of skipjack tuna is caught.

• Short-lived Soviet Union fishing access in Kiribati and the US-FFA tuna treaty negotiations that resulted in a multilateral agreement giving American purse seiners access to the region.

Not all of these were complimentary, of course. And for the Marshall Islands, fisheries negotiations and engagement with multiple DWFNs, participation in the PNA, FFA and the Secretariat of the Pacific Commission, and political status change from a UN Trust Territory to free association status with the United States taxed the country’s limited capacity.

Our Ocean’s Promise: From Aspirations to Inspirations — The Marshall Islands Fishing Story is available at amazon.com.

This article first appeared in our November 2021 issue.

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