What’s behind Kiribati’s move to open marine reserve to fishing?
By Richard Herr
The Pacific Islands Forum states have made a bold claim to be the authentic custodians of the Pacific Ocean’s marine resources and health through the forum’s "Blue Pacific" strategy.
In essence, the PIF members have attempted to parlay their vast collective exclusive economic zones into diplomatic and political assets to advance their climate-change and marine-resources agendas more robustly on the global stage.
The 30-year strategy sets out an extensive range of objectives that the Pacific states want to achieve and challenges they need to meet to succeed.
The strategy is essentially aspirational. The forum’s members don’t have the capacity alone to defend the breadth of the strategy’s reach, and much depends on international sympathy for the legitimacy of their Blue Pacific claims.
This support has been forthcoming from important regional supporters. Australia and New Zealand support the strategy as members of the PIF, and the US has offered symbolic acknowledgment through its BLUE Pacific Act.
In order to maintain the international support on which the strategy depends, PIF states must meet at least two essential conditions.
One is that they individually act in conformity with the strategy’s spirit and aims, and the other is that they sustain their collective support for the strategy.
The first condition now appears to be at risk, according to a report by New Zealand–based 1News which claimed that the Kiribati government will deregister the Phoenix Islands Protected Area (PIPA).
In 2007, President Anote Tong moved to legislatively protect the special environmental values of the Phoenix Islands and requested that PIPA be listed as a World Heritage site. This archipelago comprises more than 400,000 square kilometers of pristine coral atolls and ocean.
World Heritage registration has been supported financially by the Phoenix Islands Protected Area Trust Fund, whose contributing partners include Conservation International and the New England Aquarium.
The Kiribati government has confirmed its intention to revoke the national legislation and deregister the PIPA. However, it argues that PIPA wasn’t contributing to the national income to the extent predicted.
The leaked cabinet papers cited by 1News estimated that $200 million in annual licensing fees would be available if the enormous marine reserve were opened to commercial fishing.
Regional fisheries sources have pointed out that this figure is seriously inflated since the regional regulatory mechanism, the Vessel Day Scheme, is fixed for Kiribati and so revenues wouldn’t necessarily be increased by opening PIPA to fishing.
The instigator for the government’s decision is reportedly China, which is thought to have two goals in mind—one overt and the second less transparent.
China’s primary aim is to win preferred access to the extensive tuna resources that have been cosseted for years by PIPA’s protective boundaries.
Second, PIPA is close to American waters. China is said to want to develop an airstrip on Kanton Island that was built by the US during World War II up to an international standard.
The airfield is 1,600 nautical miles (2,963 kilometers) southwest of Hawaii and therefore seen as uncomfortably close to US military interests in the Pacific.
If this is a genuine objective, it could be an issue for both Kiribati and China. Washington retains some continuing rights to the airfield.
Article 3 of the 1979 Treaty of Friendship and Territorial Sovereignty between the Republic of Kiribati and the United States asserts that US-built facilities such as the Kanton airfield ‘shall not be made available to third parties for military purposes except with the agreement of the Government of the United States’.
The Kiribati government has labeled the role of China in this matter as "neo-colonialist" in a Facebook press release and attacked the media for making the matter public.
Whether the national legislation will be changed and the World Heritage status of PIPA revoked is still being contested within Kiribati. The minister for the environment, Ruateki Tekaiara, is reportedly opposed to the change.
The opposition and former president Tong are concerned that the move would seriously erode the international community’s trust in Kiribati’s environmental commitments.
And that could influence international perceptions as to the moral claim to custodianship more generally for protecting the health and resources of the Pacific Ocean under the ‘Blue Pacific’ agenda.
The government’s move certainly has been ill-timed, coming as it did into the international spotlight in the final days of the COP26 climate conference. Not a good look by one of the poster states threatened by sea-level rise.
As one of the five Micronesian states that are in the process of withdrawing from the PIF, Kiribati is heavily involved in the second critical factor in the prospects for the strategy.
Even if the dissolution of the PIF doesn’t eventuate, there will be some residual damage to the Blue Pacific brand.
Extra-regional willingness to respect the PIF states’ genuine commitment to long-term fundamental objectives is likely to look a little less compelling in the wake of the move against PIPA.
On the other hand, if the PIF fragments into two regional organizations with diminished memberships, will there be any appetite for funding two separate bodies with distinct and separate ‘regional’ agendas such as the ‘Blue Pacific’? (The Strategist)