In “Our Ocean’s Promise: From Aspirations to Inspirations,” author Giff Johnson chronicles the history of fishing in the Marshall Islands, and forecasts an even more prosperous future.

Just how did a small nation in the middle of the Pacific Ocean become a major player in the fishing world?

Giff Johnson, editor of The Marshall Islands Journal, seeks an answer in his new book “Our Ocean’s Promise: From Aspirations to Inspirations.” It tracks the country’s fishery from its time under Japanese and American rule to now, as a nation with one of the busiest tuna transshipment ports in the world.

Johnson researched and wrote the book — which was formally launched on 08 October — over the course of five months, parsing documents spanning almost a century.

The result tells a history of an ever-evolving power dynamic, from more powerful nations dividing and ruling the fisheries to successful regional cooperation through the Parties to the Nauru Agreement starting in 1982. That milestone agreement showed Pacific nations’ collective power and regional camaraderie.

“I think that’s the big story … how the islands have taken charge of the fishery that was historically controlled, totally controlled, by distant water fishing nations,” Johnson said.

The project was conceived by Glen Joseph, director of the Marshall Islands Marine Resources Authority, to look at history and forecast the future.

The partnership meant unusually good access to MIMRA and Pacific Islands Forum Fisheries Agency records, many of which were undigitised, in addition to Johnson’s many insider interviews.

And while the project was conceived by the MIMRA, there were no strings attached, according to Johnson.

Joseph “just gave me free rein to go and write the story, which really impressed me,” Johnson said. “A lot of times on something like this, when you’re dealing with a government agency, you get people who are like: ‘Well, you know, we’ve got to vet this.’”

The hands-off approach means there’s a full history of the fishery’s development, hiccups included. The fishery actually went bankrupt in the ’90s following its first attempt to make itself central to the tuna trade. Having set up an airline to send frozen skipjack to the U.S., via Hawaii, and setting up its own fleet, the operation hemorrhaged money.

But with the Parties to the Nauru Agreement and after another attempt, the Marshall Islands found itself on the right track.

Johnson attributes much of the Marshall Islands’ success to the foresight of the country’s first president, Amata Kabua, who he believed understood the economic prospects of the fishery at a time when it was virtually nonexistent.

“But he saw it. And he was determined to see it grow bigger,” Johnson said. Kabua — one of the first proponents of a cartel-like agreement to increase bargaining power — died in 1996, before a sustainable and profitable fishery was realized. “His vision was carried on by others, in the Marshall Islands and in the region,” Johnson said.

Previously, countries with distant fishing fleets, such as Japan, would divide and rule, negotiating separate contracts with different nations, without any regional cooperation. The Parties to the Nauru Agreement meant collective power, and better negotiating. RMI was making about US$4 million from its purse seine fisheries, but that number has grown to US$30 million annual revenue since 2010 under the PNA.

“It’s much like OPEC is to oil in the Middle East, since they (the PNA) control the area where a majority of the skipjack tuna — which is the tuna used for canning — more than half of it’s caught in the area (controlled by) the member countries of the party,” said Johnson. “So with the agreement, they wield great power.”

Looking forward, however, Johnson says there are two important developments to consider: vessel day schemes, which charge foreign vessels for fishing in its national waters; and the passing of the act vesting power in MIMRA. Both helped the PNA increase its power and facilities, but now it is a matter of increasing the market and consolidating its success.

Johnson says there are some future areas of concern — securing the European market, a potentially great addition to RMI’s economy, and dealing with illegal, unreported and unregulated fishing, with greater oversight and a recent partnership with the Nature Conservancy, to help ensure the sustainability of the fishery and address climate-related issues.

Johnson said the PNA model was one of the most successful in the region’s recent history, and could be adopted for dealing with other issues, such as deep-sea mining developments.

The foreword, written by Dr Transform Aqorau, the founding CEO of The Parties to the Nauru Agreement Office, said the book exemplified the Marshall Islands’ trailblazing work toward self-reliance.

The book was officially launched earlier in October by President David Kabua, son of late President Amata Kabua.

“The legacy he left behind is truly coming together, as witnessed and documented in the book — indeed, the vision for self-determination, economic development, regional and international recognition, is taking shape,” President David Kabua said. “In other words, they were visionaries of their time, for what is taking shape today.”

This story was produced by Thomas Heaton, published at Civil Beat on 19 October 2021, reposted via PACNEWS.

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