How the tiny Pacific states manage their tuna fishery – and the world’s fishing fleets

Photo by kate on Unsplash

Before 1982, eight small Pacific nations had no say in how their tuna fisheries operated, even though more than a fifth of the world’s tuna was found in their oceans. That is not the case any longer, and it is due to collective will, co-operation, and an innovative strategy that created what some call the “OPEC” of the tuna industry.

The Parties to the Nauru Agreement (PNA) is made up of eight Pacific island nations and Tokelau, who cooperatively manage the world’s largest tropical tuna fishery and have managed to keep tuna stocks in their waters in healthy numbers while increasing revenues dramatically. Today they control 14 million square kilometers of the Pacific Ocean and 25% of the world’s tuna stocks, which brings them half a billion dollars a year while preventing the overfishing that has depleted the waters off most poor countries.

And, with help from conservation groups, it has been continuing to chart new directions in making the tuna fishery sustainable. Even during a worldwide pandemic that has devastated Pacific islands tourism, the fishery has continued to operate and helped to support the tiny island nations.

“In 2020, when the COVID-19 pandemic spread to all corners of the world, only a handful of countries managed to stay COVID-free. Tokelau was one of them. For most of the countries that remained free of the disease in 2020, that fragile status is being maintained at crippling economic and social costs. The lucrative tourism sectors of the small nation’s Pacific cousins of Samoa, Cook Islands, Niue, and Tonga were decimated. It has made their fisheries revenue that much more valuable.” Tokelau’s fisheries, which grew from just under NZ$1 million per year to NZ$20 million annually in less than a decade, contribute approximately 80% of Tokelau’s domestic revenue and have made it possible to improve its infrastructure, build hospitals, boost education outcomes and make other gains.

Tokelau has remained free of COVID, unlike the other islands, and so its people live much as they did before the pandemic. “There is one reality that Tokelau shares with the outside world: that the commercial performance of the Pacific fisheries has been largely unaffected by COVID-19. With time, it has become clear that this reality has not happened by luck or in a vacuum. It is the culmination of years of hard work and a special working relationship, trust even, among its group of Pacific island officials, select fisheries experts, and their networks of partners.”

Often called a David and Goliath story in the Pacific, the Nauru Agreement forced foreign fishing fleets from nations like Japan, Korea, and the USA to pay for access to their waters and to abide by the rules and regulations they have set to maintain the health of their tuna stock.

This became possible after the creation of Exclusive Economic Zones under the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea in 1982 gave Pacific nations legal rights over their waters, leading to the swift creation of the PNA in the same year. By 2008, this had evolved into the Vessel Day Scheme (VDA) under which each PNA member is allocated a number of fishing days that they then auction to bluewater fishing fleets from any country.

The VDA was the key to success, says Ludwig Kumoru, the outgoing chief executive of the PNA, because it stopped PNA nations undercutting each other in trying to sell fishing rights in their waters to foreign fleets. They now calculate collectively how much tuna fishing is sustainable and then divide that amount up into fishing days for which fishing companies bid. “We set the minimum price of a day at US$8,000 a day, up from $2,500 at the beginning, but demand was so high that we’ve been getting $12,000 to $14,000 a day,” Kumoru said.

Jonathan Pryke, director of the Pacific Islands Program of the Lowy Institute in Sydney, Australia, describes the story this way:

“The evolution of Pacific fisheries management is a story with a bit of everything. A David vs Goliath struggle pitting eight seemingly small and vulnerable Pacific nations up against every major fishing economy in the world. A story of persistence and personality overcoming inter-regional tensions and the rigid barrier of “sovereignty” to harness collective action. A homegrown regional agreement that unlocked ten times more revenue for Pacific nations from their most valuable natural commodity – tuna.”

Transform Aqorau, the former CEO of the PNA puts it this way: “The secret lies in the close friendships and relationships that exist amongst your officials. These are not just friendships borne out of a common bond by the work we do, but transcend to our families and siblings in some cases. These friendships have allowed us to work together even where we disagree with each other. We still value each other’s company and still share a meal and drink at the end of the day.”

WWF photo

In 2018, the World Wildlife Fund and its partners introduced revolutionary blockchain technology to the Pacific Islands’ tuna industry. The technology means that “soon a simple scan of tuna packaging using a smartphone app will reveal where and when the fish was caught, by which vessel and fishing method,” it said. “Consumers will have certainty that they’re buying legally-caught, sustainable tuna with no slave labour or oppressive conditions involved.”

“Bait-to-plate transparency using the blockchain will mean there is no place to hide for illegal, unregulated and unreported fishing or those operators who use slave labour or impose horrific conditions,” said WWF-Australia CEO Dermot O’Gorman. “Ridding the industry of these sorts of unsustainable practices will help protect fishers from human rights abuses and save the environment.” Blockchain technology is a digital, tamper-proof record of information that is accessible to everyone.


Fisheries officials the key to unlock the Pacific’s multi-billion-dollar potential. Tuna Pacific, Feb. 1, 2021

Favourites of 2020: Casting a line in Pacific fisheries. Jonathan Pryke, The Interpreter, Dec. 10, 2020

The mice that roared: how eight tiny countries took on foreign fishing fleets. The Guardian, Jun 16, 2021

The Nauru Agreement—tuna and the power of the collective. Australian Broadcasting Corp., Nov. 8, 2020

Fishing for success: lessons in Pacific regionalism. DevPolicy, Aug. 12, 2020

How blockchain is strengthening tuna traceability to combat illegal fishing. University of Wollongong, Jan. 22, 2018

How blockchain and a smartphone can stamp out illegal fishing and slavery in the tuna industry. World WIldlife Fund, Jan. 8, 2018.