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The Vessel Day Scheme: A Sinking Ship?

Chelsea Kesby

Image credit: Kate via Unsplash

Whilst the Vessel Day Scheme (VDS) currently delivers real environmental benefits and sizeable profits to the signatories of the Nauru Agreement, new predictions of a tuna species redistribution in the Pacific may undermine the success of this cooperative management program.

Developed by the eight Parties to the Nauru Agreement (PNA), the VDS is a scheme which sets annual limits on the days that fishing vessels are permitted to fish within the signatories’ (plus Tokelau) Exclusive Economic Zones (EEZ). This area forms part of the Western Central Pacific Ocean region and is home to the world’s largest tuna purse seine fishery, providing almost half of the globe’s tuna source.

Essentially, the VDS operates as a ‘cap and trade’ system. Based on sustainable fishing practices, each member is allocated a number of fishing days, which are then able to be traded and sold to foreign vessel owners. This scheme not only aims to prevent overfishing, but also to increase competition amongst foreign vessel owners for access and thereby maximise the returns enjoyed by members of the PNA.

Successes so far

Since its implementation, the VDS has proven to be a roaring economic success for the PNA. This scheme has multiplied the PNA’s profits from tuna fishing more than tenfold, currently delivering approximately US$500 million each year. To put this figure in perspective, in sharing the spoils, the profit equals around US$1,400 per capita for the Kiribatian population. Such profits give the PNA the tools to powerfully boost development in their communities, reinvesting the profits into vital social spending initiatives as well as ongoing sustainable fisheries management.

Lasting success?

However, in light of a new major international study, an impending migratory movement of tuna species may spell the end of the vast successes of the VDS. Carried out by institutions ranging from the Pacific, US, and Europe, the study published in July 2021 predicts that tuna populations will progressively move from the EEZs of the PNA, into the high seas. This means that tuna stocks will increasingly move outside the maritime scope of the VDS, undermining the efficacy of the scheme.

This migration is said to be fuelled by climate change, whereby as the surface temperature of the ocean increases, favourable conditions for tuna will be found further to the east, prompting tuna species to move accordingly. As a result, the study predicts that by 2050, an average of 13 per cent of key commercial species may move out of the sovereign waters of ten Pacific states and into the high seas. Worryingly, the framework underpinning the VDS does not accommodate for profound migratory movements of tuna species in this way.

Not only does this movement threaten the ability for oversight of sustainable fishing practices, but the associated economic losses are of significant concern for the affected Pacific states. Ten Pacific states face the potential of a dramatic reduction in license-free revenue, as foreign vessel owners are able to take advantage of tuna stocks in free international waters. These losses are estimated to reduce annual government revenue by up to 13 per cent.

Are there any viable solutions?

While ambitious, the reduction of greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions could prove a powerful tool in slowing or even preventing the redistribution of tuna in the Pacific.

Specifically, in accordance with the Paris Agreement, the study identifies that if the largest global GHG emitters are able to successfully reduce their emissions and limit global warming to 1.5oC, stabilised ocean surface temperatures may minimise impetus for easterly migratory movement. As a result, smaller losses may be incurred by tuna-reliant economies in the Pacific.

However, as the affected Pacific Island nations are some of the world’s smallest contributors to GHG emissions, the success of such climate action falls upon the shoulders of large states, who if anything, would benefit from greater access to tuna stocks in free international waters.

The UN Climate Change Conference (COP26) held from 31 October 2021 highlighted the unwillingness of the international community to consider the profound importance of climate-change driven issues for the Pacific region, proving largely disappointing for Pacific Island leaders. As noted by former Kiribati president Anote Tong, "I don't think the global community has ever truly understood what it is that we face with the impacts of climate change. It is an existential threat.”

As such, the PNA may still be able to effectively negotiate the preservation of their rights over the tuna stock, regardless of their climate-change driven displacement should ambitious GHG targets remain out of reach. Such negotiations are best suited to take place through the Commission for the Conservation and Management of Highly Migratory Fish Stocks in the Western and Central Pacific Ocean (WCPFC Convention). This treaty-based organisation aims to manage and preserve tuna and other highly migratory fish, providing a framework for states to address climate-driven distribution injustice.

Successful negotiations would allow the states to retain profits from the relevant tuna fishing activities, irrespective of whether they are undertaken beyond their EEZs.

Chelsea Kesby is a fifth-year Bachelor of Laws/International Relations student at the Australian National University, overseen by Dr Kerryn Baker.


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