Headquartered in Honiara, Solomon Islands, the Forum Fisheries Agency is one of the most important advisory bodies in the Pacific islands. This year, it’s marking 40 years of facilitating regional cooperation and providing technical assistance for offshore fisheries management, especially around highly valuable tuna stocks (which are on track to return $1b to the region). Although Honiara is Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison’s first overseas destination since being re-elected in May 2019, meeting with the Forum Fisheries Agency is unfortunately not on his agenda. Instead he is focused on a bilateral meeting with Prime Minister Manasseh Sogavar and broadcasting a reshaped aid budget with more than $250 million for infrastructure.
The June 2-3 trip is timed essentially a stopover to international meetings in London and Singapore. Reports claim that he is motivated by growing Chinese influence in the region, including its desire to persuade the Solomon Islands to break its relationship with Taiwan. But, Australia has a complicated relationship with the Solomon Islands (namely stemming from its role in security operations, RAMSI), its Prime Minister is also newly re-elected (as of April 2019), and it is the headquarters of the Forum Fisheries Agency (FFA). A visit with the FFA is important for PM Morrison’s understanding to gain firsthand insights and would demonstrate Australia’s commitment to the vital organisation and regional partnership without needing to make any new agreements.
Why should Australia care about the Forum Fisheries Agency?
Australia is both a member of the FFA and significant benefactor.
Along with New Zealand, Australia is a “metropolitan member” that provides foundational support to FFA’s operations. Through the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, Australia annually provides more than AUD $5 million in financial support to the FFA, and separate funding is also dedicated to combating illegal fishing (via implementation of the Niue Treaty Subsidiary Agreement).
In 2018, Australia committed to a new 10-year partnership and related funding agreements with the FFA. New Australian Defence funding targets efforts to combat Illegal, Unreported and Unregulated fishing and enhances overall regional security through Maritime Domain Awareness. Around AUD $15 million annually provides the 15 FFA island member nations with 1,400 hours of additional aerial surveillance with two dedicated King Air aircraft. This is on top of the 300 hours of aerial surveillance already provided annually during four regional operations.
Australia also benefits from its membership in FFA through policy advocacy, influencing industry standards, and specific services. Last year, for example, the FFA provided the following services to Australia: responded to queries on IUU fishing estimates; liaison with regard to support for the Office of the Pacific Ocean Commissioner (OPOC); Secretariat of the Pacific Tuna Long line policy; and Development and implementation of the employment standard (NZ-IEEB).
The Forum Fisheries Agency has several key priorities this year, including advancing a new Regional Longline Strategy, identifying actions around climate change to support thriving tuna fisheries, pushing for a harvest strategy approach at international discussions, and enhancing advocacy for the Western and Central Pacific Fisheries Commission meeting in December. Offshore fisheries are impacted by climate change, particularly the location and distribution of tuna. Recent achievements include a new draft strategic plan to start in 2020 that will likely be approved at next month’s ministers meeting, and strengthened regional harmonised requirements for fishing licenses to stem ‘slavery at sea.’
For its part, according to FFA Director General Dr. Manu-Tupou-Roosen, “Solomon Islands is leading the way in the management of longline fisheries and in particular with implementation of the Longline Vessel Day Scheme and the use of electronic monitoring.” One of Prime Minister Sogavare’s first meetings since his election was with the FFA Director General, so perhaps at the bilateral meeting, he can brief Prime Minister Morrison on pressing topics in fisheries, while the media coverage remains focused on infrastructure.
Still, partnerships and meetings with high-level officials are key to successful regional collaboration, leaving PM Morrison’s visit a lost opportunity. As FFA Director General Dr. Tupou-Roosen stated at the end of an FFA meeting earlier this year, “We work to ensure our people enjoy social and economic benefits from a sustainably managed offshore tuna resource and this wouldn’t be possible without key partnerships.” Australia has provided the funding and technical resources for this key agency, but the political weight is missing.