Kiritimati Island, Kiribati 31 July 2016:  The Parties to the Nauru Agreement (PNA) are successful in commercial development and conservation management of the western and central Pacific tuna fishery precisely because its members — not donor agencies and nations — are making the decisions as “rights holders” in the fishery, outgoing PNA CEO Dr. Transform Aqorau told PNA leaders at their annual Ministerial Meeting in Kiritimati Island, Kiribati earlier this week.

   The PNA plus Tokelau has “succeeded in far larger measure than when they were supported by donors and donor-dependent organizations,” said Dr. Aqorau of the management scheme that involves the eight PNA members plus Tokelau. Key to PNA plus Tokelau’s successful engagement in the fishery is the organization’s Vessel Day Scheme (VDS), he said. “The VDS is driving the way the tropical tuna fisheries is being managed,” Dr. Aqorau said.

   The outgoing CEO said the PNA faced numerous external challenges when it decided, in 2009, to establish an office in Majuro to pursue the vision of PNA leaders for expanding commercial engagement in fishery with the VDS as the management centerpiece coupled with sound conservation measures. And it faces the ongoing characterization of the PNA as a “sub-regional organization,” which Dr. Aqorau said should be discontinued. “A grouping of countries coming together to form their own region to serve their own purpose should not be characterized by the size of the group, but by the purpose of their cooperative arrangement and the objectives which they wish to pursue,” he said.

   Dr. Aqorau looked back on how the PNA moved to establish its first office and commercial program with no funding or resources. “I did not apply, nor had I aspired to be in charge of this august organization that had no income, no source of income, but was charged by the Committee on the Establishment of the PNA Secretariat to raise its own revenue without any support from Parties!” said Dr. Aqorau. “Why on Earth would anyone in his or her right mind choose to leave the comfort of a secure job to join an organization that had nothing, except the aspirations, dreams and visions of a group of technocrats who wanted to embark on a commercial direction; on a path least travelled; on a road that no one had trod? It was against this backdrop that I was chosen by PNA Ministers in October 2009 to take on the role of interim Director of the PNA Office.”

   External relationship challenges were a significant issue as the PNA office moved forward. Some labeled PNA an illegal organization, and others said it violated international law or Pacific Island Forum and other Pacific declarations on regional fisheries. “No stones were left unturned to try and stop the Parties from establishing the PNA Office,” he said.

   More recently, the “sub-regional group” label has been an attempt by those outside PNA to place it within the Pacific’s regional organization structure. “Our fisheries and the governing arrangements that manage them can never be subjugated to a subservient role as a ‘sub-regional group,’” said Dr. Aqorau. “But we are seeing that kind of language being used to frame discussions on the regional fisheries architecture as if there is somehow some hierarchical structure which places the PNA plus Tokelau at the lower pecking order of this structure. I believe that it is only appropriate that due respect is given to the PNA plus Tokelau as right holders in the VDS which as we know is the largest and most complex fisheries management arrangement in the world.”

   How has PNA plus Tokelau “been able to do what we have with limited resources, especially when what you have achieved actually defies some of the economic advice that we had seen from various experts and financial institutions?” said Dr. Aqorau. “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.”

   Dr. Aqorau quoted Norwegian fisheries expert Rögnvaldur Hannesson on the evolutionary process of establishing property rights, a complex process that “can change direction more than once under contradictory influences. The final outcome, if there can be such a thing, seldom corresponds to an ideal blueprint for solving specific problems; there are too many competing interests affecting the process for that to happen, too many designers acting independently. But what survives is what works, what serves a purpose.” And the VDS, he said, both works and serves a purpose.

   “We have succeeded because we are happy to make what we have work, even if we are not happy with where we are and what we have been allocated,” he said. “Fisheries management is an evolutionary process and despite our competing interests and sometimes conflicting interests, the framework that we have allows us to discuss those differences and find solutions to issues on which we don’t necessarily agree. This is the strength of our experience and the core in my humble view to the answer posed by the question of interest to development economists as to why it is that when a Small Group of Island countries decided to come together, they succeeded in far larger measure than when they were supported by donors and donor-dependent organizations.”

   This is where PNA plus Tokelau is today: “The PNA is now a global brand, known internationally and respected throughout the global tuna industry,” Dr. Aqorau said. “We have been able to project the PNA to the world and radiate internationally that a group of Small Island Developing States can do something for themselves without relying on donors, building a cost effective organization with a low administrative overhead that has been able to cut above its belt.”

   The PNA Office in Majuro, which is small with only a handful of fulltime employees, is “not about the size of the Office but an assertion of self-determination and self-reliance,” he said.

   He recognized the government and people of the Marshall Islands for hosting the PNA office. “They are gracious in spirit and kind in action,” he said, adding that there “is a special magic that draws me to the tranquility and peacefulness of the Marshall Islands.”

   Looking to the future, Dr. Aqorau said the fisheries chapter in a recent World Bank study, ‘Pacific Possible,’ “perhaps provides the best analytical snapshot of the likely shape of the future of the regional configuration of our fisheries organizations. The PNA will be responsible for the management, as they already are now, of tropical tuna, while southern albacore tuna will be managed by a management body coagulated around the countries with a stake in that fishery from within the Pacific Islands, with a possible shift of the Forum Fisheries Agency to monitoring, compliance and surveillance. Regional trade and marketing issues will come under the Pacific Islands Forum Secretariat while the Secretariat of the Pacific Community will retain its core technical support function and scientific services. There is no need to be threatened by these strategic changes and directions, which just represent the evolutionary process in the mutation of institutions.”