Thriller in Manila: Popping the Pacific’s US$22 billion ‘tuna bubble’

by Fatu Tauafiafi | 9 January 2018 | News

The two principal priorities for Pacific small island states are climate change and fisheries. One seeks finance and redress from rich developed countries for whose industries and lifestyles are the root causes of human-induced climate change. The other aims to manage, preserve and fight for equitable benefits from its vast fisheries and ocean’s wealth currently exploited and robbed by rich developed and developing countries on the seas and in the boardrooms.

By Lealaiauloto Aigaletaule’ale’a F. Tauafiafi

A typical day in the Tokelau village of Nukunonu. Charley Pasilio and Tiso Fiaola go fishing, November 2017. Photo: F. Tauafiafi.


The high drama in Manila at the December 2017 Pacific tuna negotiations resulted in decisions with far-reaching implications for the ordinary weavers, planters and fishers across the Pacific.

As we start down the road of 2018, it is now just under a month since the Pacific Tuna Commission’s 33 member nations and affiliates negotiated what was termed in ‘bubble-speak’ a ‘mixed bag’ of ‘conservation and management measures’.

‘Measures’ are sets of complex rules to achieve the goal of sustainably managing fishing activities. In this case, members were negotiating access and rights for the world’s largest and most abundant tuna fisheries, those in the Western Central Pacific Ocean (WCPO).

Held in the Filipino capital of Manila, this was the 14th meeting of an annual series that started in 2004, when the WCPF Convention establishing the Commission entered into force. The 2017 meeting achieved a dubious historical first: the first negotiations to go past midnight on the very last day.


The contentious issue: bridging measure for tropical tuna

The contentious issue was an all-important ‘bridging measure’ for Tropical Tuna (TTM) – skipjack, bigeye and yellowfin – worth around US$2.1 billion to Pacific nations in 2015 alone. With the current rules for tropical tuna set to expire at the end of December 2017, the ‘bridging measure’ was needed to establish how much fish can be caught, whether fishing is sustainable, and how benefits are allocated. Failure to agree would have meant no conservation rules, no fishing rules and the potential for a free-for-all by industrial fishing nations.

Delegates at the plenary session of the Tuna Commission held at the Philippines International Convention Center, December 2017. Photo: F. Tauafiafi.


And there it was, despite an expected sign-off of 4pm on Thursday, 7 December, delegates were still fighting over new issues into the early hours of Friday morning.

There were a number of times when the whole process was going south with many delegations admitting defeat as they saw no way out. But through the determined leadership of Commission chair Ms Rhea Moss-Christian and efforts, in particular, from the Tokelau and Japan delegations, the deadlock was finally broken and the deal signed at 2:42am Friday morning.


Tokelau may be the smallest member but Feleti Tulafono and Stan Crothers were huge in pushing the negotiations to a successful outcome. Photo: F. Tauafiafi.


And something else that had never happened before, happened. A chorus of applause, high-fives and back-slapping by tired delegates, Tuna Commission staff and die-hard support officials from the Forum Fisheries Agency (FFA) and various other agencies who never gave up.

And that was because the stakes were never higher for Pacific countries and territories. This was evident in the fact that the ‘bridging measure’ had been nearly two years in the making and was needed to govern the vast bulk of the Pacific tuna catch.

The Chair herself had taken it on as a special mission over the past 18 months with the aim of ensuring members endorse the ‘bridging measure’ in December 2017. Now that it’s approved, the new rules take over for up to three years to give breathing space for negotiations of a more comprehensive long-term measure for tropical tuna.



Two other details are worthy of note from this Commission meeting. First, that the 11th-hour resolution was largely made possible by the strong leadership and unconventional approach employed by Chair, Ms Christian-Moss, which gained the respect and confidence of members.


Tuna Commission Chair, Ms Rhea Moss-Christian, and Executive Director, Mr Feleti Te’o, driving the negotiations.


And secondly, the importance of the fisheries to Japan and Pacific small islands countries who stood united in negotiating for strong ‘conservation’ measures.

To them, sustainability of the stock is critical.

For Japan it’s simple: they are the ‘end market state’ for many tropical tuna products so they need the raw material to be sustainable. On the flipside are Pacific countries, but more so the eight countries plus Tokelau that make up the Parties to the Nauru Agreement (PNA) bloc. Economically, they are largely dependent on their waters that produce most of the raw material and, secondly, come from cultures that place a high priority on being good custodians of the ocean environment.

They were up against the United States of America and China who were demanding increases in their fishing limits above recommended levels. Opposition also came from some Pacific countries that are not members of the PNA.

If the negotiations had broken down it would have been a sorry day for Pacific island countries, whose future food security and aspirations of economic independence rely heavily on the tuna caught in their sovereign waters – aspirations that include ambitions to develop their own domestic commercial fisheries to keep a greater share of the tuna resource – the majority of which is caught in their back yard.

And these have been the ‘pointy’ issues at these annual gatherings.


Pacific’s three tuna issues from Day 1

Of the estimated 2.5 million tonnes of tropical catch in the Western Central Pacific Ocean, more than half – 2.4 million tonnes – comes from the sovereign waters of Pacific island countries. However, the lion’s share of revenue is taken by overseas fishing nations. The Pew Charitable Trust estimates that once tuna caught in Pacific waters (WCPO and Eastern Pacific) is processed and gets to market, it is worth an estimated US$22.7 billion per year.



Which is why Pacific countries focus on three key issues at the annual Tuna Commission congress:

  • As major owners of the resource, they want a bigger portion of the US$22.7 billion ‘end value’ of tuna.
  • They get lumped with a higher burden to implement ‘conservation’ obligations for measures negotiated by members. They want an equitable share of the burden amongst members.
  • Their rights and allocation to fishing in the high seas (where there are no national jurisdictions) have been ignored from day one, when the issue has been brought up at the Commission year after year. They want the Commission to come up with a process that will address the special circumstances of small island states.

On top of all that, there is another double negative for Pacific countries.

The status of the WCPO fishery as the largest, most abundant and healthiest in the world makes it even more attractive in today’s climate where tuna stocks in other global fisheries continue to be depleted and overfished. It has led to increased pressure on the Commission with a constant stream of countries applying for participatory status every year.

This presents a number of potential challenges for the Commission, all of which have direct impacts on Pacific country members.

That if the Commission bows to the pressure, it will bring more fishing vessels to fish in Pacific island countries waters. And worse, the increased membership will bring more diverse interests into the Commission, making negotiations and agreement even more challenging than what went down in Manila last month.

Secondly, it needs to seriously consider its mode of operation for achieving its mandate. Now 14 years old, the Commission has used an ad-hoc process and consensus decision-making to address each conservation measure. The results so far show that this decision-making process is not suitable to handling the deeply political and economic arguments that take place within the Commission.

As the Manila 2017 congress showed, the framework ended up politicized as members proposed conservation measures that best protect their own interests, while easily ‘putting a spanner’ in the process by opposing conservation arguments that don’t. And that way of operating nearly wrecked the 2017 negotiations.


Sigh of relief, glimmer of hope

So, as I look back at the Tuna Commission week that was, two outcomes stood out: relief for Pacific countries and a silver lining for the Commission:

  1. relief that the bridging TTM was agreed to; and
  2. hope, via a silver lining that appeared in the form of two provisions: (i) target reference points to enable long-term harvest strategies for tropical tuna; and (ii) a high-seas allocation process to equitably distribute rights to the high-seas fisheries, that will eventually deliver some of the Pacific’s long-term goals.

The two provisions in 2) above could spark a shift, one that could evolve and modernize the Commission’s ad-hoc framework, empowering it to resolve ongoing conflicts and answer important equity questions that are fundamental to conservation negotiations in the Pacific.

From where Pacific countries have positioned themselves, such a framework will need to spell out the conservation burden each state shall carry, dependent on their development characteristics and political status.


3 key things from a Pacific perspective

Looking back at the Manila meeting but this time from a Pacific perspective, three key things stood out.

That the Tuna Commission and negotiations have real and significant impacts on the lives and futures of ordinary Pacific islanders – not so much the officials and jet-setting diplomats in the midst of the negotiations – but the weavers, planters and fishers. Direct impacts affecting their today, and their children’s tomorrow – right now!

The reality inside the negotiations process was aptly stated by deputy Director-General for the FFA, Mr Wez Norris, “At the end of the day, we are talking about national interest; we are talking about very significant commercial interest in the private sector so it’s not surprising that it comes down to those fairly pointy discussions at the end of the day.”

Second, how critically important the Pacific’s fisheries officials and staff of the FFA are, in fighting and negotiating the rights of Pacific islanders as majority owners of the WCPO’s tuna and fisheries resource.

“Our big concern at the FFA secretariat is that the concessions that FFA members gave to developed fishing fleets may come back to bite us in the future in terms of the need to take cuts in the future, or in terms of increased difficulty to develop our own fishing fleets and our own fishing industries.”


Wez Norris at plenary, always on the alert, guarding the interests of Pacific members.


And the lack of context and understanding by Pacific weavers, planters and fishers of Mr Norris’ above comments lead us to the ‘third observation’: the dearth of easy-to-understand information available to Pacific communities at the national, grassroots and diaspora about the nature, history, importance of the negotiations and what exactly is at stake.

Rev. Francois Pihaatae, Secretary General for the Pacific Conference of Churches.

For the growing number of Pacific weavers, planters and fishers wanting to know more, there is no channel nor a customized Pacific medium for them to hear; and to voice their position on a topic that is critical to fund their livelihoods, food security, developments, and a better future for their children.

For some of them, the following statement explains their understanding, and lack thereof, which is due almost wholly to the lack of information:

“Our tuna is exported either here in Japan or the Philippines or Europe or in the US and then came back to us in a can, how was this processed?” cried Rev. Francois Pihaatae, Secretary General for the Pacific Conference of Churches attending his first Commission meeting all the way from Maohi Nui (Tahiti).

“The guy in the village, he didn’t know that the tin fish he is eating is his fish. First it was with him and then it went out to all those who have a processing plant and then came back to him in a tin. That’s the kind of mechanism/process that we need to explain to our own people, that this is how it happened: the fish that you are eating is your own fish, but came in another aspect, that’s in a tin.

“What is going on here at the international level and even in the [Pacific] region are all technical terms. These people are not talking in a language for the ordinary people. It’s like another world, so that’s one of the issues I raised because the whole preparation before we came here: how can we translate all these technical mechanisms and all these kind of things into the language of the people so they will be aware of what is going on?”


The ‘tuna bubble’

And this is the conundrum that exists in what I call the ‘tuna bubble’.

That what goes on inside the bubble is far removed from the reality outside. With the lack of information and knowledgeable commentary, the view from outside the bubble is riddled with confusion, misunderstanding, mistrust, sometimes anger but most times it’s ignorance and disinterest.

As fellow journalist Mr Michael Field aptly describes it, “…it’s such a complicated issue because the management of fisheries is surrounded by jargon and dressed up science. It’s hard to make sense of.”

Even fisheries experts at the United Nations admit to it in their Fisheries Management Handbook, “There is a lot of terminology floating around in fisheries management that, unless clearly understood, can cause further confusion in an already confusing environment.”

But therein lies the ultimate danger for Pacific countries. That not only is the lack of information blinding ordinary Pacific weavers, planters and fishers to what is at stake, it is equally blinding officials, and delegations operating in the Bubble because they can easily forget that bubbles don’t just conceal reality, they distort it, and it is so very easy to imagine they aren’t there.

Officials inside the bubble forget that stakeholders outside need to know what is really going on because in order for the very measures and outcomes they are negotiating to be effective, it is the resource owners outside who are impacted directly.


Why tuna is important to people of the Pacific

The reality of the Tuna War being fought at the Commission is incredibly important to the peoples of the Pacific – they depend on fisheries for their food and incomes. They don’t have many other alternatives. If the fish go, they are in trouble.

But that is not all; there is so much more than just wealth at stake. Even non-Pacific islanders are fully aware of the ocean’s importance to the heritage, cultures and sacred traditions of Pacific islanders.

“The ocean defines the people of the Pacific,” claimed Mr Ian Campbell, WWF’s Manager for Global Shark and Ray Conservation.

“The tuna, shark, whale, dolphin, rays – they have shaped cultural heritage. It is not just about managing the resource for wealth; this is about protecting cultural heritage everywhere from aboriginal, Maori right through to French Polynesia. It has shaped the people of the Pacific and yet the people of the Pacific are being excluded from the process.”

Whether by purpose, stealth or plain officials’ ignorance, Pacific islanders must be made aware of the fact that theirs, and their countries’ rights, to the fisheries resources in their sovereign waters, and the high seas, are being negotiated right now, legally.

It almost didn’t go well this year. What if it doesn’t go well next year or any of the years after that? The reality inside and outside the bubble may well be that by the time future generations lose the blindfolds, it will be too late.

Their rights may have been legally taken, through their silence, ignorance, disinterest taken as agreement – a scenario where they could be powerless to redress or do anything about it in the future.

The case of Tokelau and its continuing claim to a fourth atoll, Olosega (Swains Island), is a reminder about vigilance and the importance of informing weavers, planters and fishers.


Banners line the streets announcing the 14th congress of the Pacific Tuna Commission in the Philippines.

Thriller in Manila

In Manila, around 700 delegates fought the Tuna War. Inside the Tuna Bubble, delegates found familiar surroundings, their positions relatively the same entrenched along well-worn battle lines over the past 13 years. The rules of engagement: tightly scripted, where the tiniest nuanced change was quickly captured, absorbed and digested ready for a quick-fire retort.

On the one side are the 14 developing Pacific small island states (SIDS) in whose sovereign waters 85 per cent of the tunas are caught.

On the other side, developed distant-water fishing nations (DWFN) come armed with the principal goal of fishing for as much as they possibly can while offloading as much of the conservation burden onto Pacific SIDS they can get away with – after all, these are not their waters.



On the margins but just outside the bubble are observers. Civil and non-government organizations (NGOs), industry, various interest and advocacy groups, and the media. These groups are not allowed to participate or intervene directly in the negotiations.

And when closed sessions are called, they are completely locked out. Kept at arms lengths where their best guestimates are many times thwarted by the fluidity of positions or key statements missing marks because of a sudden change of pace.

International NGOs like the Pew Charitable Trust justify their role and call for participation inside the bubble as they can help take the discussions onto common grounds.

“The things that the NGO group as a whole offer is the perspective of being able to sit back and look at the whole region because we are not involved in any one regional grouping or in any one government,” said Ms Amanda Nixon, Pew’s Director for International Fisheries.

“And because we are not constrained by a need to maintain loyalty to a set of national interests, it gives us the perspective to look and say where can we see some common ground and how can we try and encourage discussions towards that common ground.”


International NGOs, WWF and Pew Trust face up to Pacific media ahead of the 14th Tuna Commission opening.


View inside the bubble

But the bubble does have a small permissible hole for an NGO observer to enter and participate fully in the negotiations.

Mr Bubba Cook from the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) used such an avenue at last year’s Tuna Commission congress in Nadi, Fiji.

“We don’t get to be parties to that conversation as NGOs,” Mr Cook explained during a media briefing in Manila. “But we are allowed, if we choose, to be part of a national delegation. And in this case last year [negotiating the Observer Safety measure], I joined the New Zealand delegation and sat in on the Compliance Monitoring and Review (CMR) process.”


Mr Bubba Cook (R) with Ms Amanda Nickson and Jamie Gibbon from the Pew Trust.


However, in order to become an official member of the New Zealand delegation Mr Cook had to sign a Non-Disclosure Agreement (NDA) which meant he could not tell media about the details of what transpired in the bubble in Nadi. But, there was nothing in the NDA that prohibited him from “divulging” his impressions based on existing publicly available information and understanding of the process  from an outside perspective.

“My impressions are that the CMR process is woefully deficient. That it doesn’t create a penalty so you can have repeat offences or ongoing offences that go on and on and on with little or no consequence.

“The other impression I had was that I didn’t feel that anything they discussed inside those doors under the purview of confidentiality was truly confidential. With the exception of a number of minor issues, I felt that most of what they were discussing should have been public domain. And I know that there are other people that are part of that process who would agree with me on that count.

“So it really boils down to countries not wanting to air their dirty laundry.”

He explained some of the dirty laundry that could be revealed at the Compliance Monitoring and Review.

“They might not want the public to know, for instance, that they have been violating observer infringement, that they have been engaged in observer interference or they have been dumping trash at sea continuously for the last ten years or that they had the highest number of sea turtle captures.

“So it really requires that public push to get the Commission to open up that process and make it so that people get to know what is being done with their resource.

“At the end of the day, it is a public resource. It belongs to the people. They have a right to know what is being done with their resource.”


How to get the story to weavers, planters and fishers?

Moving further out from the bubble are found the ordinary weavers, planters and fishers – the real resource owners – and it’s clear they know very little about what is going on. No story, no base narrative on the history of the Tuna Wars for them to go on. Even less, apart from the #Tunanomics media work by FFA, there is no channel from which to listen or participate if interested.

As a Pacific journalist and a Media Fellow for the FFA, I was invited with a number of my Pacific colleagues to cover the Manila congress as part of the #Tunanomics – Pacific Editors Dialogue program funded by FFA, Australia through the Pacific Media Assistance Scheme (PACMAS) plus various others like WWF and the Japanese government. This was my second time. The first was last year at the 13th Tuna Commission in Nadi, Fiji.


FFA Media Fellows discuss story angles (L-R): Pita Ligaiulu (Fiji), Bernadette Carreon (Palau), Leanne Jorari (PNG), Netani Rika (Fiji), Ronald Toitoona (Solomon Is), Emmanuel Samoglou, Jemima Garrett (Trainer) and Lisa Williams-Lahari (Coordinator).


In preparation for this year’s Tuna Commission, I recalled how lost I was at the 2016 event. Lost in the sense that I lacked the organic feel for the negotiations, its nuanced technical details, pace and various positions adopted by different members. But more importantly, the many gaps in the historical information to learn the language of the negotiations and the evolution of members’ positions both as blocs and as individual countries, each with their own unique set of needs and priorities.

Having that background knowledge is critical in order to provide information that would better ‘inform’ public debate at the level of the weavers, planters and fishers. Because in order to have that conversation, there is the need to disentangle the diverse positions that different nationalities take on tuna based on their cultural identities, their national and development needs; and how those needs and priorities relate to global obligations under various international frameworks such as the UN Agenda2030, for example, that drives the 17 Sustainable Development Goals.

And the best way, I felt, to provide a basic tuna narrative was to approach it from the perspective of a bubble – the Tuna Bubble.

Those directly involved, the delegates, diplomats and their officials/advisors, are those inside the bubble. It is they who have created the unique and exclusive environment over the many years of negotiations. While on the outside, the rest are staggered outwards from the well informed, well resourced NGOs and advocacy groups at the bubble interface, to the uninformed weavers, planters, fishers with no access to funds for travel and participation way out in the hinterland.

From personal observations over the years covering social justice issues in the Pacific, I noticed a familiar perspective common to issues such as tuna; one also sees this in the climate change issue: what people ‘believe’ about the Tuna War doesn’t actually reflect what they know.

As in the case of Rev. Francois Pihaatae, what he ‘believes’ about the tuna and what goes on inside the bubble is an expression of who he is as a Polynesian male growing up in the traditional fishing communities of Maohi Nui. His beliefs are also influenced by the viewpoints of his congregation and those from the other 33 island members of the Pacific Conference of Churches.

It is for these reasons that I posed my ‘bubble’ approach to Media Fellow colleagues in Manila to write a post-Tuna Commission series.

And the funny thing that happened, as I started to write a basic explanation of the ‘tuna bubble’, that the topic, the ‘bubble’, virtually grew into its own article. Which is where we find ourselves, 3,890 words from the top. And the reason why the rest of this coverage will start to trickle through in the coming weeks.

Although not limited to the five titles listed below, they will be the first articles to come out of the pipeline.

It is my hope that the information in these post-Commission items, including those filed by my Media Fellow colleagues either on their own platforms or on the Forum Fisheries Agency’s news site TunaPacific Hub, that they will eventually ‘Pop’ the ‘Tuna Bubble’ and allow Pacific weavers, planters and fishers to be informed about the Ocean resources they own.

And if through this flow of information that they decide to engage, participate or tap into the $US22.7 billion revenue flowing inside their waters – then that testifies to the usefulness of the media and its duty to serve Pacific communities; and vindicates the hard labour and lobbying by Lisa Williams-Lahari and her colleagues when setting up the #Tunanomics Media Fellows program.

And fair play to FFA and developed countries Australia and Japan who provided financial support that allowed journalists like myself, trainers like Jemima Garrett and Lisa Williams-Lahari to get the media integrated into the Tuna Commission negotiations process.


Jemima Garrett and Lisa Williams-Lahari contributed to this report.
Lealaiauloto Aigaletaule’ale’a F Tauafiafi’s participation and coverage at the WCPFC14 was made possible by the Forum Fisheries Agency, the Pacific Media Assistance Scheme (PACMAS), Pew Charitable Trusts, WWF, Australia, Japan and GEF OFMP2 project.