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By Iliesa Tora in Manila, Philippines
What does the current 14th Regular Session of the Western and Central Pacific Fisheries Commission has got to do with the price of tuna sold locally on the streets of Nuku’alofa?
Pila ‘Longi (not his real name) goes out fishing every night from Monday to Saturday. When he returns every 8.morning he sells his tuna catch for $10 to $20 Tongan Pa’anga (US$4.6 to US$8.9) for one fish on the streets of Nuku’alofa.
A good sized catch would be around 70 to 100 centimetres long.
That is cheap, compared to the TOP$7 (US$3.1) per kilogram the Chinese charge in their retail shops.
It is also cheaper than the $2.50 – $2.80 (US$1.1 – US$1.25) per canned tuna also sold in the Chinese shops around the Kingdom.
From one whole tuna a family could do a lot of things – cook the fish so many ways.
The problem, however, is there is not enough stock for sale like that.
Local Chinese-owned businesses buy the supply off the boats that offload their ‘spoiled catches’ and sell them off through their retail shops.
Local fishermen, like Pila, who are able to catch some during their night expeditions out in the open seas around Tongatapu, ‘Eua and Ha’apai manage to sell their catch on the streets.
If they have 10 tuna in their catch for the night they can fetch between $50 to $100 per day (US$22.1 – US$44.6).
That is just enough to cover their fuel cost for the night and maybe some spares to buy food for the family.
Now the Tongan Government has stepped in to try and help.
While eyeing the expansion of the local tuna industry, the past government of ‘Akilisi Pohiva stepped in and put in place some measures they hoped would attract more locals to join the fishing industry.
At the same time they also wanted to cut the reliance on canned food products and imported meat like lamb flaps, turkey tails and chicken because of their health implications.
Government has put in place fuel subsidies, offered lower interest rates on loans through the Tonga Development Bank and worked with the regional fisheries organisations in finding solutions to Tonga’s tuna industry issues.
The highly migratory nature of tuna and the inability of local small fishing vessels to track tuna species were among reasons Government pushed through the Fishery Management Amended Bill in Parliament last year.
To date, only five local fishing fleets are operating long line tuna fishing in Tonga.
The Bill aims to allow Tongans to charter foreign fishing vessels and to be licensed as a locally based vessel in Tonga.
Under this Bill, Government has proposed that only 15 vessels will be allowed to operate long line fishing with six only assigned to foreign chartered vessels.
The current interim Minister of Agriculture and Fisheries, Semisi Fakahau told Parliament back then that there are now fewer long line fishing vessels available to fish in Tonga’s waters.
In 2001 and 2002, 27 fishing boats operated the long line fishing in the country. However, the number has declined over the years.
Fakahau attributed this to the changes in the weather patterns which eventually led the tuna species to migrate to our neighbouring Pacific islands.
He said in the past local fishing vessels available were unable to track down the tuna resources’ migrating route and cannot fish in the open and high seas as well. As a result, those fishing fleets ended up decaying and were recently dumped in the deep sea.
Locals in Tonga can loan up to TOP$300,000 (US$134,000) from the Tonga Development Bank fishery loan package to purchase a fishing vessel for long line fishing.
But Fakahau said that kind of vessel can cater for inshore or coastal fishing only, adding that long line fishing vessels are worth millions of dollars.
“It’s a big challenge for locals who might want to get into the industry because the costs are just too high,” he said.
“We have to find ways to address the issue and see how best we can localise the industry so that we have locals benefitting from the fishing to the retail sales both as raw fish and canned products.”
That is why Fisheries Chief Executive Officer Dr. Tu’ikolongahau Halafihi and his delegation are in Manila this week, attending the 14th Regular Session of the WCPFC.
There is no secret that the Pacific tuna industry, including the industry in Tonga, is facing some serious challenges.
Complaints recently raised in Tonga’s Parliament revealed local fishing vessels have to compete with larger Asian heavily-subsided fishing vessels which are more efficient.
High port fees, the imposing of consumption tax on fishing primary industry product plus others are also holding the Tongan fishing industry back according to the National Fisheries Association.
Tonga is a member of the WCPFC and the Forum Fisheries Agency.
The Kingdom is also working with the Tokelau Agreement, which was set up as a mechanism for Pacific nations to take more control of albacore tuna – which is the main species fished in the Tongan waters.
The deteriorating status of the South Pacific Albacore and the fact that it does not fetch that lucrative price tag internationally like Yellow Fin, Big Eye or Blue Fin tuna makes the local industry in Tonga more challenging.
“Yes we are fighting the challenges,” Dr Halafihi said.
“The tonnage increased last year but its worth in dollars has really not worked out for us.”
Tonga’s fate is shared by other Small Island Development States (SIDS) who also rely on the albacore species.
Dr Halafihi supported calls by Samoa for the Commission and its fishing partners interested in South Pacific Albacore to urgently develop an agreed robust management arrangement for the species including progressing agreement on various elements of a harvest strategy.
A harvest strategy is designed to stop overfishing by setting pre-arranged rules that come into action if fish stocks fall below a certain level.
As the interests of the Distant Water Fishing Nations often clash with those of Pacific resource-owning countries, progress towards more sustainable fishing and rights for small island states is slow.
But there is no other option as the Commission is the rule setting body.
Samoan Minister for Fisheries Lopao’o Natanielu Mu’a told the plenary here in Manila on Sunday that the issue of the disproportionate financial burden imposed on small states by the current rules must be looked at.
“The one size fits all concept can never be applied and so too countries need to develop specific development plans and strategies suited to its own position.
“In addition, the serious issue of IUU (Illegal, Unreported and Unregulated) fishing in the region requires cooperation at the international level to combat,” he said.
“As a Small Island Developing State with limited resources, provisions need to be made for adequate capacity building to enhance the ability of states like ours, to develop and manage our fisheries, including participation in scientific meetings, fisheries data collection and implementation of monitoring, conservation and surveillance measures.”
The Pacific Islands Tuna Industry Association has also joined the bandwagon and voiced their concerns with the WCPFC’s inaction on long line fishing.
PITIA Executive Officer John Maefiti said today that PITIA members in the southern long line Fishery are very concerned that the WCPFC continues to fail to respond effectively to dire conditions in the Western Central Pacific Ocean.
“We strongly encourage WCPFC14 to come to agreement on the harvest strategy elements that you have committed to under the Harvest Strategy Workplan, including establishing a Target Reference Point,” he said.
A Target Reference Point is an ideal level of fish stocks for continued sustainable fishing and is widely regarded as the first step in creating a harvest strategy.
“Nobody can deny the perilous commercial state of this fishery.Catch rates simply cannot support current costs, leaving many companies just barely surviving,” Mr Maetia said.
“The catch per unit effort continues to fall, diminishing what was once a viable and attractive fishery to a shadow of itself.
This has affected Tongan companies more than foreign ones.
“The inability of the WCPFC in the past to control a massive increase in (foreign) High Seas fishing effort is a sad indictment of the ability of this commission to actually manage the fisheries under its charge.
“This is a critically important fishery for our fishing industry and PITIA strongly urges the WCPFC to make a decision to ensure the long term commercial viability and sustainability of our Southern Long Line fishery.”
So yes – a lot is at stake as far as the Tonga tuna industry is concerned and a lot more will depend on what decisions the current commission meeting agree on.
The fortune or fate of Tongans in the tuna industry could be made by the commission’s decisions this week. Interesting indeed!
Pacific Islands News Association
Who & What is PINA?
International News Safety Institute (INSI)
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