US tuna fleet shut out of lucrative Pacific region

The US tuna fleet has been blocked from fishing in the lucrative western Pacific for the first time in three decades as a conflict over fees remains unresolved.

The US Department of Commerce's National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) has told all US vessels they are prohibited from fishing in the region from January 1 until new licences are issued.

Nearly 40 US vessels usually work in the region and are estimated to catch US$300-$400 million worth of tuna annually.

Mike Tosatto, Honolulu director of the NMFS confirmed Friday he had written to tuna fleet operators to get out of the water by New Year's Day if the agreement to pay was not honoured.

He told the Los Angeles Times the fishing region was very productive for the United States and the dispute "will have a significant impact."

The Pacific Islands Forum Fisheries Agency (FFA), an umbrella group representing the island states, is refusing to issue new licences because the US tuna industry will not make a quarterly payment of US$17 million due Friday for 2016 fishing access.

The US industry agreed in August to buy 5,000 "fishing days", but when some companies said they could not afford their share, the US government asked the FFA in November to take back 2,000 days.

The island nations refused, saying they warned the United States in August they did not need so many days and that the US had gone ahead and booked them.

Countries involved in the Parties to the Nauru Agreement (PNA), which control waters covering more than half the world's skipjack tuna, the most commonly canned variety, say it is up to the United States to resolve the issue.

"The ongoing default really affects a component of the US fleet that says they cannot pay for days that they asked for. They insisted on asking for more days than they needed," Transform Aqorau the PNA chief executive said.

The problem would not be fixed by allowing in the boats willing to pay to fish, he added.

"The problem with allowing some vessels to fish is that we are effectively giving in to the US to return days.

"The Pacific Island parties have rejected this because as they said, a deal is a deal that should be respected.