A beach in Kiribati, one of the world's foremost tuna fishing nations. [Image: Vladimir Lysenko (I.) / Wikimedia Commons (CC BY-SA 4.0)]

Tuna Fisheries: A Cornerstone of US-Pacific Engagement

The Pacific

Do you enjoy canned tuna? If so, chances are your tuna comes from the western Pacific. The United States has robust fishing relations with much of the Pacific. For example, The South Pacific Tuna Treaty gives US fishing vessels access to Pacific Island nations’ exclusive economic zones, while an Economic Assistance Agreement related to the treaty serves as the only source of American economic assistance to the region, excluding states under the Compacts of Free Association with the United States. Dating back to 1987, it has been a pillar of US-Pacific engagement for decades. Meanwhile, Walmart has partnered with a joint venture between the Marshall Islands and the Nature Conservancy called Pacific Island Tuna to provide sustainably sourced skipjack for Walmart’s Great Value brand.

Pacific Island countries’ waters are home to some of the largest tuna populations on Earth. In the Marshall Islands, the tuna industry accounts for nearly 90% of the country’s non-aid income. Tuna used to be a point of tension between these states and other countries, as many Pacific governments felt others benefited from their fish reserves at their expense. However, since 1982 eight Pacific Island nations have developed a system of cooperation that has yielded them vast sums of money from the tuna fishing industry while also strengthening their trade relations with other countries and preventing overfishing. In fact, tuna has proven so profitable parts of the Pacific, such as American Samoa, saw economic growth during the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020.

The Nauru Agreement Concerning Cooperation in the Management of Fisheries of Common Interest is a subregional agreement signed by the Federated States of Micronesia, Kiribati, the Marshall Islands, Nauru, Palau, Papua New Guinea, the Solomon Islands, Tuvalu, and Tokelau (a dependent territory of New Zealand). Under this agreement, signatories collectively determine how much tuna fishing is sustainable per year and then agree on a set number of fishing days they allow fishing companies to bid for (as of November 2021, 16 American fishing vessels have currently been allocated fishing days from the signatories). The parties to this agreement collectively control around 50% of the global skipjack tuna supply, and the agreement has allowed them to increase their profits tenfold between 2010 and 2020 – from $50 million to approximately $500 million. In many countries, these revenue increases have been used to fund social spending and infrastructure work, improving people’s quality of life while also better protecting the countries against climate change. Additionally, Pacific skipjack populations, as well as those of other species such as the bigeye tuna, have stabilized.

Skipjack imports constitute a significant portion of US-Pacific trade, at nearly 100% of Kiribatian exports and over 80% of Micronesian exports to the United States. However, this trade pales in comparison to Indo-Pacific trade; both Kiribati and Micronesia primarily export to Thailand, for example. As the United States realigns its foreign policy strategy toward the Indo-Pacific region, it is paying more attention to its Pacific partnerships, including regarding tuna fishing. US Indo-Pacific Coordinator Kurt Campbell has stated the United States needs to “step up its game” in engaging with Pacific Island nations, specifically listing fishing as an area of cooperation. In the future, tuna fisheries will likely remain a key area of US-Pacific engagement, playing a key role in the Pacific’s development, economic security, and strategic relevance to the United States and other powers.

Michael Di Girolamo is a participant in the Young Professionals Program at the East-West Center in Washington. He is currently a first-year graduate student at the Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies.