Excerpt from Foreign Policy

They control the richest tuna waters on the planet, an area of the Pacific roughly one-and-a-half times the size of the United States. But 10 years ago, eight island states in whose waters most of the world’s canned tuna is fished were seeing almost none of the profits. In 2011, however, they scored a striking success for small-state diplomacy when they devised a system to raise the fees foreign fleets were paying them for the privilege of fishing in their exclusive economic zones, which extend 200 nautical miles off their coasts. At the time, all they got was a scandalously low fraction of the tuna’s value—as little as 2.5 percent.

Today, the eight island nations have succeeded beyond their wildest dreams. They increased their take tenfold—from $50 million in 2010 to around $500 million last year. Not only did they grow their income, but they also imposed controls that stabilized catch rates and prevented overfishing, a rare success story in a world where ravaging the oceans is still the brutal norm. “They’ve been very clever,” said Glen Holmes, an officer for the Pew Charitable Trusts’ international fisheries program.

Six members of the agreement are microstates scattered between the Philippines and Hawaii: Kiribati, the Marshall Islands, the Federated States of Micronesia, Nauru, Palau, and Tuvalu. The other two are much bigger: Papua New Guinea and the Solomon Islands, both closer to Australia.

The tuna fees have turned from relatively small change to serious income—and for some of the smaller states, it’s virtually the only non-aid source of foreign exchange. They were therefore highly motivated to make the system sustainable in the long run. For that, they had to make sure the foreign fleets did not do in their waters what they have done almost everywhere else: take too many fish, thereby reducing some populations like the bluefin tuna to 3 percent of their original numbers.

As a result, the group—formally known as the Parties to the Nauru Agreement (PNA)—have become a global model showing how poor, culturally disparate, and isolated small countries can take on the likes of the United States, China, and the European Union—and win. Some are now saying other countries whose waters have been plundered by foreign fleets, such as the nations on West Africa’s coast, should copy the PNA and do the same. Others hope the weak international bodies trying to manage fishing in the Indian, Atlantic, and Eastern Pacific oceans will also emulate them in the decades ahead.

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