Development, Economics and finance, Environment & energy, Government and governance, International relations, Food & water | The Pacific

23 July 2020

Dr Transform Aqorau discusses his new book examining Pacific fisheries, regional cooperation and the way forward for sustaining a crucial industry.

Fisheries are one of the most important sectors in many Pacific economies, and are crucial to the wellbeing of the region as a whole. However, for a number of years the industry has faced dual challenges of unsustainable overfishing and underutilised regional cooperation.

In this special interview Dr Transform Aqorau explores the progress of regional cooperation in controlling the Pacific fisheries trade. He also gives an overview of his new manuscript published by the ANU Department of Pacific Affairs (DPA), ‘Fishing for Success: Lessons in Pacific Regionalism’ which describes the journey of the countries belonging to the Parties of the Nauru Agreement (the PNA) – Federated States of Micronesia, Kiribati, Marshall Islands, Nauru, Palau, Papua New Guinea, Solomon Islands and Tuvalu – in fighting for control of their tuna resources.

What motivated you to write this?

There are a number of things that motivated me to put the book together but the main one was I felt strongly that this was a story that had to be told, as it is one of the happiest stories to come out of the region and I feel it is important to share the lessons that we learnt from the process. I wanted to show that while we have been dependent on aid, and donors and external consultants, we were still able to demonstrate that with the right business model and design of the right structure for the fisheries arrangement we can do so much more.

More on this: COVID-19 in Papua New Guinea

The huge increase in revenues, from our work in getting hard limits for the Vessel Day Scheme (VDS) and in restructuring the VDS and running it as a business, demonstrated that we can manage our resources more effectively. I wanted to share this story of success because for a long time we were really played off by the foreign fishing operators. It was quite unfair how distant water fishing nations, for the better part of 30 years, did not pay us for the true value of our tuna. 

Moreover, I wanted a Pacific Islander to write about our success story and not some outsider who was not a part of this story. I think that we are still fighting these inequalities, but what we have been able to demonstrate is that with the right motivation we can do it for all our shared resources.

How important is the PNA story for the future of cooperation in the region?

I think where we have a common currency, it is easier for us to come together. So, for the PNA, the skipjack tuna resource and the Vessel Day Scheme are some of the interests that we share.

This cannot be said for everything. For example, in aviation and other things, we tend to compete against each other. Having said that, COVID-19 has shown us the Blue economy and our shared identity is more important than ever. If we do not realise this then we will live to regret the missed opportunities. 

I would venture to argue that indeed we should be looking to integrate ourselves a lot more in exactly the way the PNA have done to achieve more economic efficiencies. It is important now more than ever in a post-COVID-19 world.

How important is leadership and the right set of ‘personalities’ in this process of regional cooperation?

Leadership and the right set of personalities is everything; leadership that puts the interest of the countries and region above your own – selfless leadership – is critical. I have no doubt about that. When we have had phases of excellent progress in the region, it has been because we have had leaders who have put the interest of others above their own.

What are some of the challenges that you see ahead for the Pacific tuna industry?

COVID-19 has impacted the supply chain significantly and has disrupted business, but those who have been most affected are those who simply tranship their catch. While COVID-19 has created many challenges, there are also some opportunities to reset and redirect the tuna industry, by phasing out foreign involvement and putting the industry in the hands of Pacific Islands nationals and governments. We should encourage more cross-border investments within the region. This would be a huge game-changer for the region.

Do you have any lessons that other regions in the world might take away from your experience?

In terms of fisheries management arrangements, the purse seine Vessel Day Scheme is the largest and most complex in the world and there are lessons for other developing countries to learn from how we were able to develop and apply such a system.

This article is based upon an interview carried out by the ANU Department of Pacific Affairs. The original transcript can be found here.

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