Increasing value of fisheries access fosters potential for corruption / by Francisco Blaha

The latest version of the FFA Trade and Industry News written by Havice, McCoy, and Campling brings (as usual) very interesting articles. In this post I’ll quote one that caught my eye. My first fishing master told me many big truths that I always remember, one of them was: “fish is money, and money is politics… have you ever met an honest politician?”

The recent Cook Islands Court of Appeal decision rejecting an appeal against the conviction of a former Minister of Marine Resources and Opposition Leader on corruption charges linked to fisheries has brought the subject of corruption in fisheries to the fore. 

Increased pressure on fish stocks in the WCPO and the resultant limitations on catch and effort at national, sub-regional and regional levels have greatly increased the value of fisheries access, as demonstrated by significant gains in revenue by Pacific Island countries in recent years. In Cook Islands for example, an initial 1981 agreement with the Taiwan tuna longline association resulted in a lump sum payment of US $90,000 for access by up to 90 longliners. By 2007 foreign access revenue from all sources had reached just US $300,000, according to the Ministry of Marine Resources, but by 2016 the Ministry reported US $8.4 million in fisheries access revenue.* 

In the high stakes and competitive environment of WCPO tuna fisheries that have developed in recent years, the potential financial gains from acts of corruption (one definition of which is “the misuse of entrusted power for private gain”)** raises important public policy considerations to ensure that fishing access rights are objectively and transparently allocated in accordance with clear policy objectives and priorities. 

Corruption in fisheries in the Pacific Islands has been heralded by various commentators and critics from time to time but generally without clear proof or basis. With regard to corruption in fisheries, as for corruption generally, access to information for and in specific Pacific Island countries is not always available. Publication of global rankings by several international organizations helps to shed light on the relative severity of the problem, but does not always include the smaller Pacific Island countries.

Transparency International for example publishes a “Corruption Perceptions Index” listing 167 countries, but only Papua New Guinea (137th) is listed. The World Bank’s Worldwide Governance Indicators include “control of corruption” as one of six governance indicators and ranks each of 14 Pacific Island countries against over 200 countries and territories. For 2015, those ranking in the highest percentiles of countries in the world controlling corruption were Federated States of Micronesia (76) and Samoa (66), while those in the lowest percentiles were PNG (14) and Tonga (40).*** 

It has been eight years since a published report by authors at the University of Wollongong highlighted the fact that in some Pacific Island countries the legislative and/or administrative framework for licensing is described as a “one man” system”****  

In these systems, the licensing processes lack adequate opportunities for review and are particularly vulnerable to corruption. With moves in some PICs to require fishery access license holders to participate in shore-based activities or government-sponsored opaque “joint venture” vessels, there may be a need to re-evaluate and expand the scope of anti-corruption activities and measures. 

Firm action by Pacific Island governments to establish effective public policy objectives, transparent processes and uniform practices for fishing access and investment decisions will not only guard against possible corruption but also better ensure more efficient and effective use of fishing access revenues and investment returns for the broad public benefit of those Pacific Island communities. Preventive action now will serve to curtail opportunities for corruption and abuse of funds and privilege that may otherwise arise.

* ‘Boost for fishing revenue’, Cook Islands News, October 16, 2016. Available at: http://
**AusAID, Tackling corruption for growth and development: a policy for Australian development assistance on anti-corruption, Australian Agency for International Development 2007
***Corruption Perceptions Index 2015 – Table of Results, Transparency International. Available at:
****Martin Tsamenyi and Quentin Hanich. ‘Managing fisheries and corruption in the Pacific Islands region’,
Marine Policy, 33(2): 386-392. March 2009.