Pandemic, climate threats and economic hardship in illegal sea cucumber harvesting on Ontong Java

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Honiara – As a result of the growing impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic and the everyday challenges of climate change, some people of the Malaita Outer Islands (MOI) claim to have had no choice but to engage in illegal out-of-season harvesting of sea cucumbers and other marine resources as a means of survival. 

The MOI are part of the Solomon Islands province of Malaita.

One of the islands in the MOI group is Ontong Java Atoll. It is surrounded by a protective layer of coral reef which is closer to the Solomon Islands’ Roncador Reef than to the island of Malaita. It is regarded as one of the more remote places in Solomon Islands. Being an atoll, it has a very low elevation: its highest point is about 13 metres above sea level, so it is already severely affected by sea level rises and other effects of climate change. 

However, Ontong Java is rich in marine resources. Sea cucumber is a means of people obtaining their needs and wants, and making their livelihoods – and it has become the most cash-generating commodity, overtaking the two traditional cash commodities of fish and copra. 

With quick, huge cash to make in a short period, sea cucumber is arguably a blessing to the communities of Ontong Java.

The harvest period is controlled by the government. Most villagers go from “zero to hero” when the sea cucumber harvest opens. The sale of the smoke-dried sea cucumber to buyers who are mostly Asians helps bring much-needed cash into the communities. This has contributed enormously to the vibrancy and robustness of the atoll economy. During the harvest, there is enough money to go around as people have more to spend on their needs and wants. 

However, not all families and individuals have the foresight to save for a rainy day, or to use the blessings brought about by the sea cucumber trade to plan for their future. It is evident that poor financial management is widespread, and money drains out of the communities quicker than it comes in. 

According to one Solomon Star newspaper report, well over 80% of the people go on spending sprees as though there is no tomorrow. Hence, the COVID-19 pandemic is hitting the atoll economy hard, as villagers have not been able to sustain themselves, partly due to the low cash circulation. 

There are no longer grounds suitable for gardening as rising sea levels have eaten most of the soils that were once used to plant root crops and other produce. Peoples’ only means of survival now is to revisit their sea cucumber grounds. 

The reef needs the sea cucumbers, too: they are a vital contributor to reef health, filtering the water with their continual suck and blow, making a major contribution to water quality on reefs.

Honiara seizes illegally harvested sea cucumbers 

In early November 2020, officers from the Ministry of Fisheries and Marine Resources (MFMR) and the Royal Solomon Islands Police Force (RSIPF) confiscated sea cucumber stocks valued at over SBD$500,000 (USD$62,000) at the Honiara wharf. When the passenger vessel MV Onogou arrived from the atoll with a load of illegally harvested sea cucumbers, it was welcomed by an official raid.

The confiscated sea cucumbers were packed in pillowcases, bags, suitcases, and cartons. They were destined for local Asian buyers who operate illegally in the city.

MV Onogou on a trip to Ontong Java. Alongside it are the small outboard speedboats that locals use for transport. Photo: Iggy Pacanowski.
MV Onogou on a trip to Ontong Java. Alongside it are the small outboard speedboats that locals use for transport. Photo: Iggy Pacanowski.

It is understood that the current sea cucumber ban in Solomon Islands came into effect on 31 May 2019. The ban covers harvesting, possession, and selling of all sorts of sea cucumber species. 

This seizure was a slap in the face of the Ontong Javan people, with many calling for sympathy from the government in dealing with the matter, as they are finding it hard to cope with the challenges of the COVID-19 pandemic. 

“We are caught up in a desperate dilemma, first with the ongoing impacts of climate change and now COVID-19 is further compounding the situation on the atolls,” one elder of Ontong Java told the Solomon Star.

“Can the government and responsible ministry show some leniency towards our people and allow them to sell their sea cucumber catches? We do not have plantations and enough land to plant food crops.

“All that we depend on for survival is our marine resources and sea cucumber is our lifeline at this point in time.”

Small speedboat moving through shallow atoll waters. Small outboards like this are the only means of transport between the islands of Ontong Java. Photo: Iggy Pacanowski.
Small outboards like this are the only means of transport between the islands of Ontong Java. Photo: Iggy Pacanowski.

An Ontong Java chief, Bartholomew Kokolopu, was also vocal. He said that, with the COVID-19 situation the country was facing, the Ministry of Fisheries should sympathise with the sea cucumber owners. 

He also blamed the fisheries ministry for ignoring a request made by the Ontong Java chiefs in 2018, when the government discussed how they could help the chiefs in raising awareness and explain the regulations to the people. But nothing forthcoming, he said.

“I was also one of the member delegation that travelled to Honiara twice to dialogue with the Director of Fisheries for a possible way forward for us, and for their officers to pay us a visit and educate our people about issues regarding the sea cucumber and its importance to the economy of Solomon Islands,” Chief Kokolopu said.

“In our discussion we told them that it will be effective once anybody from the office comes down to our people and tells them why the ban was imposed. Instead, our request fell on deaf ears.”

He said fisheries officers should at least work with the atoll chiefs so that any decision made was fair to them and the resources owners.

“Earlier this year we made a call to the fisheries again [to ask] if they could allow us some time do the harvesting just for our survival. They refused our request, and because of no other means we can earn money our people continue to harvest illegally,” the chief added.

Mr Kokolopu said that, as the fisheries ministry had refused to visit their communities and also refused to consider their call, they should be blamed for the people’s action.

“Since the fisheries office did not respond to our call, we, the resource owners ,decided that since the sea cucumbers are our property, we continue to harvest because it is our God-given resource,” Mr Kokolopu stated.

While Ontong Java is known as a hotbed for sea cucumber in the country, the trade needs to be regulated. Most importantly, the locals need to be protected from manipulation and abuse at the hands of Asians from the freedom to sell their products to buyers who offer the best price.

Public calls for review of law to reflect economic hardship

Following the unfortunate incident, Solomon Islands popular Facebook pressure group, the Yumi Toktok Forum, quoted outspoken Ontong Javan activist Lawrence Makili lashing out against the action, saying the action was killing his people, especially during this pandemic and the economic hardship it had brought. 

“We [Malaita Outer Islands] submitted a proposal for the Economic Stimulus Package (ESP) to support us in the sea cucumber harvesting and help contribute directly in stimulating the economy, but it was turned down. How can we survive during this pandemic and economic hardship?” he asked. 

Mr Makili also called on the Government to be lenient and help his people harvest and sell their products.

Other commentators have also highlighted that the enforcement of the law during the pandemic must not override the realities that struggling rural people are facing, and especially vulnerable communities such as those in the MOI. 

“While laws are there to keep peace and order, it is equally important not to jeopardize people’s welfare and livelihood,.” one commentator said 

“Laws are there for a reason – to provide boundaries from which we can all live, work safely and in harmony. But there comes a time when issues need to be viewed given realities pertaining to the issue itself. Much of Solomons is blessed within land and rivers that allow inhabitants to forage the forests and/or cultivate the land for nourishment and sales. 

“However, there is a minority which has very little arable land, such as Ontong Java. They rely entirely on the ocean for sustenance and income generation. From the ocean they build houses, pay for school fees, pay for medicine and so forth. 

“It’s realities like this that should be considered by authorities. The Ontong Java people do not demand special treatment; all they want is a fair go at life. It makes perfect sense to grant them the right and licence to harvest and export their sea cucumber resources. Similar to larger islands that have land and work the gardens for sustenance and sales, the ocean is the atoll’s ‘garden’. 

“The current law does not serve the wellbeing of MOI people. It marginalises them and denies them the right to their resources. Whose interest does the government actually serve?”

One commentator also suggested that special reviews on the sea cucumber ban should be considered to further contextualise the different situations of low-lying atolls and the livelihoods of the people living on them. These reviews should include the implications of climate change in the long run, when climate change had destabilised peoples means of sustaining themselves. 

“The early harvest of their sea resources strongly indicates a sign of desperation that they need financial support in exchange for their resources for sustainability purposes, especially during this pandemic,” the commentator said.

“I think the Fisheries Act does not have any provision to cater for any other circumstances, please revisit and make amendments.”

On some atoll islands, there are no grounds left that are suitable for gardening, as rising sea levels are taking soils that were once used to plant root crops and other produce. Photo: Iggy Pacanowski.

Government to implement sea cucumber management plan

In his final contribution in parliament last December, the Minister or Fisheries and Marine Resources, Nesto Ghiro, said his ministry had developed a national sea cucumber management plan that would be implemented soon.

Minister Ghiro told Parliament that it was their intention that management of the sea cucumber fishery be given to communities under their respective fisheries resource management plans, with the ministry assisting with technical and legal support.

He said their research on the production of juvenile or baby sea cucumbers through a hatchery breeding program was ongoing, and they were testing suitable locations.

“Work is ongoing in two locations in Marau, East Guadalcanal, Guadalcanal Province and Buena Vista Islands in Gela, Central Islands province” Mr Ghiro said.

He said this work was funded by the Japanese Overseas Fisheries Cooperation Foundation.

If successful, the project would contribute to the restocking of overfished reefs, and create economic opportunities for fishers and communities.

FFA prioritises advancement of observer and crew “safety culture”

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HONIARA – While national and regional observer vessel placements remain suspended until at least 15 February, Pacific fisheries organisations are focused on ensuring that working conditions on fishing vessels are made safer for both observers and crew before the observer program resumes.

The Pacific Island Forum Fisheries Agency (FFA) continues to progress suspension of the observer program, as a priority of the Forum Fisheries Committee (FFC).

The Western and Central Pacific Fisheries Commission (WCPFC) initially suspended the observer program on 8 April 2020, to protect the health of observers working on purse-seine vessels as COVID-19 spread rapidly worldwide. The suspension has been extended several times.

Heading into the recent 17th WCPFC meeting, which was held by web link, one of the key priorities of FFA and its members was improving the safety of crew and observers.

The FFA members noted that it was simply unacceptable that observers potentially continued to face risks at sea and to suffer persecution, serious injuries and even death in the course of their work, and that human rights abuses were suffered by crew working on fishing vessels operating in the Pacific region.

In a submission to the WCPFC before the Tuna Commission meeting, FFC Chair Mr Eugene Pangelinan said the members of the FFA were “committed to addressing these issues and are taking measures to improve standards in relation to fishing within our waters, and to create a ‘safety culture’ around the role of observers.

“It is imperative that the commission collectively commits to implement such standards on the high seas. We look forward to working with CCMs and with committed partner organisations to advance this work in the commission as a matter of priority over the coming year,” Mr Pangelinan said. (CCMs are the members, cooperating non-members and participating territories that make up the governing body of the WCPFC.)

Disappointing decision on crew and observers at WCPFC

However, speaking to Pacific journalists at the end of the 17th Tuna Commission meeting, Mr Pangelinan said the FFA members had walked away with mixed feelings about the WCPFC decision on the safety of crew and observers.

This is due to the fact that before the commission meeting, members had hoped that all CCMs would share FFA members’ belief in the level of importance of observer safety and labour standards of crew and fishing vessels operating in the WCPFC convention area.

“Regrettably, one CCM [China] had legal as well as procedural issues about this kind of a measure being put forward by Indonesia,” Mr Pangelinan said.

At the Tuna Commission meeting, Indonesia submitted a proposal regarding the adoption of a conservation and management measure (CMM) on labour standards for crew of fishing vessels. (A resolution on labour standards exists, but resolutions are not binding and so not enforceable. It is mandatory to follow the provisions of CMMs.)

In its submission, Indonesia acknowledged that fishing crews were at risk of forced work, low or no pay, and human trafficking because of communication challenges, and the absence of proper training and of authorisation of wellbeing and work benchmarks.

In submitting the proposal to the Tuna Commission, Indonesia’s Director of Fish Resources Management, Mr Trian Yunanda, wrote: “Forced work and human dealing in fisheries segments are much of the time connected to different types of wrongdoing, for example, transnational sorted out fisheries wrongdoing and corruption.

“Another labour abuse factor is the expanding worldwide interest for fish and the quick development of modern fishing fleets alongside overexploitation. Fishing operators can have a competitive benefit by crewing their vessel with under-qualified and cheap members.”

“In the spirit of responsible fisheries management, an issue of labour abuse needs to be addressed properly and regulated accordingly, including within the convention area of WCPFC, through the implementation of conservation and management measures for labour rights.”

Mr Pangelinan told the Pacific journalists that, although the proposal did not become a CMM, with FFA members’ guidance and because CCMs were so vocal about the issue in the Tuna Commission meeting, they were able to carve out a hybrid intersessional working group (IWG) that would advance the work that Indonesia is doing.

“New Zealand will be co-chairing that process of working to address the concerns of that one CCM, in relation to whether the commission has a mandate to also address issues of labour and crewing standards and observer safety and so forth,” Mr Pangelinan said.

He also confirmed that the FFC was convinced that it did have that mandate.

“There are many legal instruments or legal provisions of the convention that lead us to believe that that is the case. And we will continue to work with other CCMs to make sure that, in 2021, the IWG does manage to or at least continues to work on even an independent study that specifically focused on this particular issue in the WCPFC area,” he said.

The FFA Director-General, Dr Manumatavai Tupou-Roosen, said the intersessional process “is an important outcome for this commission, given the different views among CCMs on the mandate of the commission to deal with this subject matter.

“As the chair and our members have said in strong support for Indonesia’s draft crewing CMM in the past, in the lead-up to adoption of the Korean resolution, this is a top priority for our membership. And – we’ve said this before – it’s the right thing to do: it is the human side to our work and cannot be ignored. Work must progress on this, not just within our waters but also, importantly, within this commission on the high seas,” said Dr Tupou-Roosen.

FFC Chair Mr Eugene Pangelinan, left, and FFA Director-General Dr Manu Tupou-Roosen, right, at Sir John Guise Stadium, Port Moresby, for the 16th Tuna Commission meeting.
FFC Chair Mr Eugene Pangelinan, left, and FFA Director-General Dr Manu Tupou-Roosen, right, at Sir John Guise Stadium, Port Moresby, for the 16th Tuna Commission meeting.

Top priority to get observers back on fishing vessels

Despite the mixed reactions by members on discussion on the safety of crew and observers at the Tuna Commission meeting, getting observers back onto ships is still a top priority for the FFA and the FFC.

Mr Pangelinan told journalists: “Obviously, with over 800 observers in the Pacific, it is important that we try to put them back to work and provide for their families, and being also the eyes out on the water.”

But while COVID-19 continued to prevail in the region, “the safety of observers is of paramount importance”.

“All these additional COVID responses that we’ve had have added additional burden on the secretariat and the members in terms of compliance and reporting. And so the bit of normalcy would be something that everybody would welcome.

“Unfortunately, that’s not the case [at the moment]. And I think that, notwithstanding COVID-19 still happening throughout the region, some members were of the view that they wanted to still start the deployment, and get people back on the vessels,” Mr Pangelinan said.

“But we’re not confident yet that the commission has a robust guideline and protocol that all members must adhere to, to ensure the safety of observers as we slowly recommenced the deployment. And that’s why we called upon even other systems who have non-FFA members to show us what have they put in place that will provide us the assurances that observers will be cared for, taken care of and protected against potential contracting of the COVID-19.”

Dr Tupou-Roosen said that, in the meantime, a draft intersessional decision worked be worked on by the commission chair to be circulated by end of January or early February.

“The commission chair will work on some language that will be circulated before then to sit to determine what can be done before it [the current suspension] expires. This is something that our membership will continue to look at,” she said.

Members call for COVID-19 protocols for observers

The FFC had already established protocols and guidelines that it called best practice, ready for the day when the suspension was lifted. Most members had said that returning observers to vessels was a necessity for their vessels to continue to operate.

“But, obviously we’re just going to have to sit back and wait and see what happens,” Mr Pangelinan said.

“The commission is already starting to think ahead about how we’re going to actually do that.

Fisheries, Maritime and Ports Authority officers monitor a fishing vessel unloading under COVID-19 protocols in Apia Port, Samoa. Photo: Samoa NHQ.
Fisheries, Maritime and Ports Authority officers monitor a fishing vessel unloading under COVID-19 protocols in Apia Port, Samoa. Photo: Samoa NHQ.

FFC had called on members to share their national protocols “to see whether those match up with the kind of assurances we want for our observers – when they’re redeployed, whether they’re coming through their own ports or through some other ports – that they’re not a lower standard than what the FFA members have put together.

“We have to keep bearing their safety in mind and the safety of the populations of the countries that they’re also going through,” Mr Pangelinan said.

“The FFA is the only one that has put forward a credible COVID-19 response protocol and guideline that we would put our name on, that is probably the best practice. But we’re happy to continue to work with other members.”

He said that vessel owners and vessels wanted to see progress on preparations for the resumption of onboard observer work.

In support of the need to have all national COVID-19 protocols in hand, the FFA had asked other CCMs to share their protocols, so it could assess their standard .

“The goal is always to give our national observer programs the confidence that they can safely return their observers to vessels,” Dr Tupou-Roosen said.

Fisheries officials the key to unlock the Pacific’s multi-billion-dollar potential

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The Pacific Ocean is vast.

It is so big you can fit not one, not two, but five of Earth’s moons inside it and have room left over. If that doesn’t sound impressive, then how about fitting the whole of the planet Mars in it and having 20 million square kilometres of room spare?

Spread throughout this planet-size swimming pool are some 25,000 small and isolated islands, mostly in its western and central region. And teeming within their many millions of square metres of exclusive economic zones (EEZs) are the commercially important tropical species of tuna that feed a large portion of the world. 

Three of these islands are the atolls of Fakaofo, Nukunonu and Atafu that make up the Tokelau group. Together, they add up to 12 square kilometres of land – a miniscule string of pearls adorning Tokelau’s 318,000 square kilometre EEZ. 

In 2020, when the COVID-19 pandemic spread to all corners of the world, only a handful of countries managed to stay COVID-free. Tokelau was one of them. For most of the countries that remained free of the disease in 2020, that fragile status is being maintained at crippling economic and social costs. The lucrative tourism sectors of the small nation’s Pacific cousins of Samoa, Cook Islands, Niue, and Tonga were decimated. It has made their fisheries revenue that much more valuable. 

Enoka Puni with myself and Vase Reupena enjoying a bounty of skipjack tuna caught only a few metres from Atafu’s reef in April 2018. Photo: Litara Reupena.

Tokelau is an exception

But Tokelau is the exception. 

Its domestic economy does not rely on tourism. Instead, an estimated 80% comes from fisheries revenue alone. With their fisheries income mostly unaffected by COVID-19 so far, the people of Tokelau have been living in pre-pandemic normal since the World Health Organization declared COVID-19 to be a pandemic on 11 March 2020

Yes, there are small doses of pandemic reality: COVID-19 drills in the three atolls, construction of managed isolation facilities, border controls, disruptions to the supply chain, and citizens repatriated – but they are small morsels of the enormous realities outside 318,000 square kilometre moat. 

There is one reality that Tokelau shares with the outside world: that the commercial performance of the Pacific fisheries has been largely unaffected by COVID-19. With time, it has become clear that this reality has not happened by luck or in a vacuum. It is the culmination of years of hard work and a special working relationship, trust even, among its group of Pacific island officials, select fisheries experts, and their networks of partners. 

Pacific fisheries officials and their collaborating partners at the annual MCS Working Group meeting at FFA headquarters, Honiara, Solomon Islands, 2017. Photo: Fatu Tauafiafi/Pacific Guardians.
Pacific fisheries officials and their collaborating partners at the annual MCS Working Group meeting at FFA headquarters, Honiara, Solomon Islands, 2017. Photo: Fatu Tauafiafi/Pacific Guardians.

One of these groups is the Parties to the Nauru Agreement (PNA), which is made up of eight Pacific island nations and Tokelau, who, under their cooperative arrangement, manage the largest tropical tuna fishery in the world. Working in conjunction with the Pacific Islands Forum Fisheries Agency (FFA), Secretariat of the Pacific Community (SPC) and various other partners, they have somehow kept tuna stocks in their waters in healthy numbers while increasing revenues. (Revenue from tuna fishing grew from around US$60 million in 2010 to US$500 million in 2018.)

The secret to success, according to former PNA CEO, Mr Transform Aqorau, is relationships. In a 2016 statement, he said: “The secret lies in the close friendships and relationships that exist amongst your officials. These are not just friendships borne out of a common bond by the work we do, but transcend to our families and siblings in some cases. These friendships have allowed us to work together even where we disagree with each other. We still value each other’s company and still share a meal and drink at the end of the day.”

One individual who has been part of that group since 2010 is Tokelau’s fisheries adviser, Mr Stan Crothers. 

In this writer’s mind, Stan symbolises the hard-nosed yet unconditional love that fisheries officials have. They have dedicated themselves to claiming as much of the benefits rightly due from the region’s fishery to local people and their future generations.

With Stan’s involvement, Tokelau was accepted into the PNA’s Vessel Day Scheme in 2012. The immediate impact of that association saw the annual fisheries revenue increase by 100%, from NZ$2.7 million to NZ$5.5 million in 2013. The revenue continued its upward growth, from 2016 plateauing at around NZ$20 million a year. In 2019, its NZ$21.6 million contribution made up 77% of the total domestic economy, up from 27% in 2010.

Table showing increase in revenue for Tokelau tuna fisheries from 2010 to 2019 after Tokelau began to take part in PNA's Vessel Day Scheme in 2012.

Stan, like many of his fisheries compatriots, prefers effort and results to do his talking. 

At the 2017 WCPFC meeting, Stan and Tokelau played a crucial role that helped pass the bridging Tropical Tuna Measure, averting what would have been a historic collapse at a Tuna Commission negotiations. (This is the situation that occurred at the Inter-American Tropical Tuna Commission in 2020.)

But it means that most of the citizens of countries like Tokelau, who now enjoy a more equitable economic share of revenues from their fisheries, have no idea of who has achieved this result or of the amount of work involved. 

The reality is there’s a tuna war taking place. It’s a hugely complex battlefield requiring combatants with specialised skills and technical acumen, with a good and agile grasp of political brinkmanship. In this field, tiny countries such as Tokelau, which do not yet have the human capability and resources for these types of soldiers and generals, could be expected to be reaping NZ$2-$3 million a year in tuna revenue. Instead, the island has earned NZ$20 million a year for the past four years.

Stan has been – and continues to be – the key that unlocked Tokelau’s multi-million dollar potential in fisheries. And with his work with the PNA, FFA and other fisheries partners, he has helped extend similar benefits to other Pacific island countries and territories. 

And here’s the rub: All of Stan’s efforts for Tokelau and for other parties have been provided on a largely pro bono basis for the public good. 

But perhaps the magnitude of even the vast Pacific Ocean is not large enough a symbol for the value and heart of fisheries workers. For it is they who make the difference. Day in, day out, they go to battle with the aims to sustainably manage the fisheries, to negotiate fair and equitable benefits for the Pacific people who own these resources. 

Their work has so far made fisheries one of the few sectors in the world to successfully hold off the devastation of the still uncontrollable SARS-CoV-2 virus.

It is really hard work. And many in the public arena just do not know about it. 

In an interview shortly after the latest Tuna Commission meeting in December 2020 (WCPFC17), Stan said, “I think I’ve had a total of around three work days over the past six months where I haven’t been on Zoom meetings to do with fisheries. 

“So, I’m shot. But hey, I think a couple of weeks without Zoom meetings to get my eyes rested and we’ll be ready to go again in 2021.”

It is important that we acknowledge this line of work in the modern era – one that reaches back to foundational giants in Ambassador Satya N. Nandan of Fiji, Elisala Pita of Tuvalu, and countless others. To do so, following is a light-hearted version of a story on Stan and Tokelau that I wrote for the Nukunonu newspaper, Te Ulugā Talafau. It was published in August 2020.

Grant Thomas and the Tokelau child with the million-dollar smile 

Before COVID-19 changed the world, the new decade in New Zealand and Tokelau was heralded by the publication of the 2020 Queen’s New Year Honours List in January. Among the awardees was one Mr Grant Thomas Crothers, who became an Officer of the New Zealand Order of Merit (ONZM) by way of services rendered to Tokelau and the fishing industry. 

The citation stated that Grant Thomas was the “Deputy Chief Executive and Acting Chief Executive of the Ministry of Fisheries in New Zealand. Upon retirement, he began pro bono work in the Pacific Islands to ensure small island countries could reap sustainable outcomes from their fisheries resources. 

“In 2009–2010 he started working with and advising the Parties to the Nauru Fishing Agreement (PNA) and Tokelau. He played a key role in helping to develop the Tokelau Fisheries Policy, a document that was formed through extensive consultation with the Tokelau community, which enabled Tokelau to join the PNA.”

At about this point, there will be a lot of confused people in Tokelau, with many asking, “What is this? Who is Grant Thomas?” 

And that is because Grant Thomas is an alias that stands for “Stan”. So when the name Stan Crothers is called out loud, not only will Tokelauans immediately say, “Oh, our Stan?” but virtually the entire international fisheries sector right down to the little children on outboard boats skimming the lagoon stretch between Fakaofo’s Fale and Tai islets will also go, “That’s our Stan.”  

But more than just a popular personality with a few choice words, Stan has shaped Tokelau’s fisheries sector from a six-figure annual revenue stream in 2011 to an eight-figure boon starting in 2016.  

Stan’s “input has helped grow the Tokelau fisheries sector from just under NZ$1 million per year to NZ$20 million annually” in less than a decade. These funds make up approximately 80% of Tokelau’s domestic revenue, and have allowed the New Zealand territory to improve its infrastructure, build hospitals, boost education outcomes and make other gains. The one smidgeon of regret for Stan, though, is that not one cent of the fisheries revenue has gone into building up Tokelau’s Trust Fund that currently sits just below NZ$100 million. 

Sunrise over the Fakaofo lagoon, Tokelau, November 2018. Photo: Fatu Tauafiafi/Pacific Guardians.
Sunrise over the Fakaofo lagoon, Tokelau, November 2018, viewed from the front of the Sakava residence, the place where Stan Crothers mulled over a decision about Tokelau’s fisheries back in 2010. Photo: Fatu Tauafiafi/Pacific Guardians.

But how did a sought-after expert come to swap lucrative consultancy work with international institutes to volunteer his time and efforts for Tokelau some 10 years ago? 

The Hollywood drama-style answer is revealed at the end of this article. But first, a window into some of the quirks and characteristics of this highly reserved individual, which are best garnered from comments by those who work closely with him. 

Dr Manumatavai Tupou-Roosen, Director-General, FFA

“Having experienced first-hand the significant contribution that Stan makes to our fisheries work, I was delighted that he is to be awarded this honour of Officer of the New Zealand Order of Merit. Stan’s contribution to the Pacific Islands Forum Fisheries Agency (FFA), particularly Tokelau, has been immense,” Dr Tupou-Roosen wrote.

“The extraordinary work that he has done with the leaders and people of Tokelau to turn around their fisheries management and development to reveal its true value and potential has been remarkable. Without a doubt, the merits of this wonderful collaboration will benefit the people of Tokelau today and for generations to come.

“In the wider region, FFA continues to benefit regularly from his vast knowledge and experience in our fisheries discussions. His commitment, passion and diligence for the people of the Pacific in our fisheries work makes this a most well-deserved award for Stan Crothers.”

Dr Josie Tamate, Deputy Chair, WCPFC, and Director-General, Niue Ministry of Natural Resources

“This is an excellent achievement for Stan!” Dr Tamate wrote.

“I have great respect for Stan, particularly his contribution to the management of the tuna fisheries in the WCPO and especially for Tokelau. He has a wealth of experience on fisheries management and negotiation that have flowed on to Pacific island and FFA island colleagues.

“We have learned from him, and his sense of humour is quite interesting, especially through the analogies and metaphors that he sometimes uses. Only Stan can make an intervention with reference to a ‘divorce and/or marriage’ during a serious fisheries negotiation … yet in many instances, it helped break the ice and pressure a bit. Congratulations, Stan.”

His Excellency Mr Ross Ardern, Administrator of Tokelau

“On a personal level and as the Administrator of Tokelau, I was so pleased to see Stan receive acknowledgement of his work in the fisheries sector in the New Year’s Honours list,” Mr Ardern wrote. 

“His elevation to that of Officer of the New Zealand Order of Merit is richly deserved. I am particularly pleased that Stan’s family will be able to participate in the award ceremony in Wellington in the not-too-distant future as they, too, have played their part in supporting Stan and his work.

“Stan has epitomised what it is to be a public servant. The work that he has done in lifting the fisheries profile of Tokelau has paid significant dividends. It has given Tokelau the ability to focus on core infrastructure relating to schools, public service buildings and the education sector.

“Stan has passed a great deal of institutional knowledge about the technicalities of the fisheries sector to others – his great work will continue and all pacific countries will benefit from that.

“Thanks, Stan, for all you have done for the Pacific.”

And now, the reason behind Stan’s decision to help Tokelau in 2010, is given by Mr Feleti Tulafono, Tokelau’s Director for Fisheries, in his inimitable and colourful way.

Stan was an unknown individual to us, most probably because he was very high up in the echelons of the then New Zealand Ministry of Fisheries.

When Stan came into Tokelau Fisheries, we worked very closely with him. And as we got to know him better, we found out he was a former Deputy Director and Acting Director of NZ Fisheries. At this time, Stan was doing consultancy work for the World Bank in the area of fisheries. For me, I had a burning question that I wanted to ask Stan.

Feleti: Stan, what made you change your mind and agree to help Tokelau Fisheries?

Stan: When I agreed to the late Ulu, Foua Toloa and Fisheries Minister, Keli Kalolo’s invitation to travel to Tokelau to help Tokelau realise the potential from her fisheries and build that potential, I knew it would be near impossible. That it was going to be a very big undertaking because the proper legal, development and management frameworks were not in place. Most specifically, because of Tokelau’s current constitutional status [as a territory of New Zealand].

Students of Tialeniu School make their way to the school shuttle to take them across the lagoon to Fenuafala where the school is located. Photo: Litia Maiava/Te Mana.
Students of Tialeniu School make their way to the school shuttle to take them across the lagoon to Fenuafala where the school is located. Photo: Litia Maiava/Te Mana.

Feleti: So what made you agree to help us?

Stan: Well, it was a spur-of-the-moment decision. On my first evening in Fakaofo, I was talking with the late Foua Toloa and Keli Kalolo. They had been trying very hard to convince me to help them and Tokelau. I told them, when we broke off to go to bed, that I would think about it.

The following morning I went for a walk around the village and I could see schoolchildren. Some walking and some joyfully running to the jetty where they board the school boat to take them to school on the other islet, Fenuafala.

I kept walking towards the jetty and two young schoolgirls came skipping along and one of them said ‘Good morning Stan!’ It took me by surprise because I did not know who they were. 

It was later when I went to see the then Manager of Fisheries, Mose Pelasio, that I came to know the young girl who said good morning was Mose’s youngest daughter, Te Kaumana’alofa.

The ‘good morning Stan’ from that young girl, at that moment while I was watching the young children cram into that small school boat was the turning point – I decided there and then to help Tokelau.

And so the arrangement began. To this day, Stan has not budged into a formal arrangement, preferring to honour the 2010 ‘shake of hands’ with Foua and Keli, a gentleman’s agreement for his services.

New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern (left) learns steps of a traditional dance from Tokelau's Te Kaumana'alofa (right) during official visit to Tokelau in July 2019. Photo: Fatu Tauafiafi/Pacific Guardians.
That ‘Good morning, Stan’ smile is just as bright now … Te Kaumana’alofa (right) teaches New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern (left) the actions to one of Tokelau’s traditional dances during Ms Ardern’s state visit to Tokelau in July 2019. Photo: Fatu Tauafiafi/Pacific Guardians.

Success of 2021 WCPFC meeting could be hampered by ongoing travel restrictions

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The year 2020 will be remembered for the many different ways the COVID-19 pandemic dominated human lives.

COVID swaggered; blazed. Seemingly overnight, it carved a one-in-a lifetime transboundary trail through countries, races, creeds, status and belief systems. It doled out death, economic meltdowns and societal disruption while planting uncertainty in the globe-wide swathe leaving human misery festering in its wake.

Yet, dotted among the devastation are small clusters of human resistance. And isolated within some of these clusters are the rare nuggets – small pockets of people claiming victory by maintaining a semblance of pre-COVID normalcy.

One such pocket is the Western and Central Pacific Ocean (WCPO) tuna fisheries managed by the Western Central Pacific Fisheries Commission (WCPFC), also known as the Tuna Commission. It is a body where all 41 stakeholders develop management measures collectively and operate by consensus.

For many of the bloc of 24 Pacific island countries and territories (PICTs), victory in 2020 boiled down to two key things: committed, hardworking people; and ‘one decision’ (consensus).

Together they blunted most of COVID-19’s disruptions to the harvest and commercial activities in the region’s US$6 billion a year fisheries sector.

Due to COVID-19, Pacific fisheries ministers and national representatives met for the annual Forum Fisheries Committee meeting in August 2020 over the Zoom platform. Photo: FFA Media.

Blunted: COVID-19’s influence on Pacific fisheries

The commitment and dedicated work of Pacific fisheries officials included the efforts of their many intersectoral and international partners. Without ongoing fisheries activity, incoming revenue and an operating regulatory machinery, the sector would have been neutralised. But the sacrifices, resilience and sheer doggedness of the people involved “kept the fisheries open and active in producing the necessary catches”, according to Mr Eugene Pangelinan, Chair for the Pacific’s Forum Fisheries Committee (FFC), who spoke to journalists at a media conference during the 17th annual meeting of the Tuna Commission last month.

“That dedication ensured the markets continued to receive the supply of tuna from the Pacific to feed the world,” Mr Pangelinan said.

Officials’ work also ensured that “all key tuna stocks – the skipjack, yellowfin, bigeye and albacore – are all very healthy. So, I think that’s something we can be very proud of.”

Eugene Pangelinan, Chair, Forum Fisheries Committee, December 2020-screenshot taken during online media conference
Forum Fisheries Committee Chair Eugene Pangelinan during the post-WCPFC17 media conference, held via Zoom. Photo: Fatu Tauafiafi/Pacific Guardians.

The WCPFC’s consensus way of operating was notable in a decision made at WCPFC17, which was held virtually from 8 to 15 December.

Of the 96 decisions made by the Commission, it was decision number 39, on the rollover of the Tropical Tuna Measure (TTM), conservation and management measure 2018-01, that was important above all others. That single decision has enabled the gains hard won in 2020 to be followed through in 2021.

More importantly, decision 39 provided an opportunity for those in charge of the tuna fisheries to maintain the current measure beyond its 10 February 2021 expiry date, while they craft a new TTM for endorsement when the Commission meets in December 2021. In the interim, the current TTM provides certainty, trust and transparency for Pacific members that its fisheries will be managed well as the Commission continues its work towards establishing harvest strategies for the four most important species.

Why the Tropical Tuna Measure mattered above all other measures

Decision 39 on rolling over the TTM reads: “The Commission agreed on a simple rollover of CMM 2018-01 for one year and accordingly adopted CMM 2020-01 Conservation and Management Measure for bigeye, yellowfin and skipjack tuna in the Western and Central Pacific Ocean.”

At the heart of the Tuna Commission negotiations and decisions are the three tropical tuna species, skipjack, bigeye and yellowfin). The TTM is central to harvesting the species in a sustainable manner and also attempts to take into account the special requirements of the Pacific’s small island developing states (SIDS).

It does this by defining the limits for fishing in both the sovereign waters of PICTs and the high seas pockets on the WCPO by setting out effort and catch restrictions for the two principal WCPFC fisheries – the tropical purse seine fishery and the tropical longline fishery. Together, they comprise approximately 75% of the tuna caught in the WCPO, which provides 66% of all the world’s tuna. In 2019, the value of WCPO tuna value was estimated at US$5.8 billion (purse seine US$3.02 billion, longline US$1.61 billion).

When decision 39 was endorsed, it was no surprise to hear Pacific negotiators’ stress levels giving way to relief, according to Mr Stan Crothers, who represented Tokelau and shared a perspective as part of the Parties to the Nauru Agreement (PNA).

“We were quite concerned that if they [the Commission] hadn’t concurred, we would have been in the awful situation where there is no conservation and management measure in place. We certainly didn’t want to get to that point – an open slather – especially on the high seas,” Mr Crothers said.

“So, if there’s one word that describes what this means, it is ‘relief’ that we got a measure to keep things in place. And because of the COVID-19 conditions, this was a huge success.”

At the post-WCPFC17 media conference, Mr Pangelinan also paid tribute to the effort behind the scenes by Pacific members and their partners that led to the victory.

“The Forum Fisheries Agency [FFA] team as a bloc, working together with the Parties to the Nauru Agreement as a bloc, succeeded in having the TTM rolled over,” he said.

As well as securing a process for the 2021 negotiations that will include two intercessional workshops in April and June–July, they ensured the process would take into account COVID-19 impacts, and ensure a special provision to “avoid a situation in which the WCPFC had no Tropical Tuna Measure”.

Mr Pangelinan was especially satisfied with securing the special provision.

“There’s a key provision in there that I took away as being very essential,” he said. “In the event there is no agreement – that if we are unable at WCPFC18 to agree on a Tropical Tuna Measure – then we [Tuna Commission] shall commit to another roll over of current measures to ensure the fishery has a management regime in place in 2022.”

Mr Crothers was asked how the Pacific would fare if such a scenario should come to pass.

“Are we really concerned about another rollover of the Tropical Tuna Measure? No, we’re not,” he said.

“The TTM that we’re operating under is good for the fishery and really good for the PNA and therefore good for Tokelau. So, we’re actually quite relaxed about it [if there’s another rollover].”

2021 to be a “monster” year of pushing through delayed work

The new conservation and management measure needs to be well crafted and negotiated exhaustively so there is consensus when it comes before WCPFC18 in December 2021.

However, it is far from the only work to get through in 2021. Some Pacific negotiators have said the Commission has created a problem because it has rolled over other key issues from year to year.

Mr Crothers said, “If the rollover decision had been made in pre-pandemic times, we would have said, ‘That was not a very successful meeting.’ But because of COVID-19, it ended up being a huge success.

“But what it really highlighted was that, over the years, we’ve been kicking the can down the road on a whole lot of issues. And in the COVID crisis, we’ve been able to sort of bounce around and get by. But a lot of stuff has been delayed and is now building up.

“It now means 2021 is turning into a monster because we have got to renegotiate the Tropical Tuna Measure, we’ve got to negotiate an albacore measure, and then, on top of that, we’ve got to renegotiate the US treaty. Further, we have to progress the FFA longline strategy, enhance the PNA Longline Vessel Day Scheme, implement electronic reporting and electronic monitoring, and so forth.

“So the challenges for the FFA and the PNA in 2021 are huge, because the work delayed in 2020 is now pushed out to 2021.”

US Treaty signing ceremony in Nadi, Fiji, in 2016. Photo Fatu Tauafiafi/Pacific Guardians.
US Treaty signing ceremony in Nadi, Fiji, in 2016. Photo: Fatu Tauafiafi/Pacific Guardians.

Face-to-face meetings likely to be further delayed

Despite hopes at the end of 2020 that international travel might resume by July, it now seems unlikely that this will be the case.

Mr Crothers said: “My biggest worry is that, if we’re not travelling in the Pacific by, at the latest, June or July, then I think we are not going to be able to get the work done to negotiate a new Tropical Tuna Measure, and therefore we may be faced with another rollover by this time [December] in 2021.”

Mr Pangelinan agreed that another rollover at WCPFC18 was a real possibility. The majority of negotiators have readily admitted that, to get such complex issues over the line, physical meetings are a must. Yet even with COVID-19 vaccination programs underway in various countries, Mr Pangelinan didn’t hold out much hope for the resumption of physical meetings soon.

“I think we must accept the fact that if things are not going to change by early 2021, we will have to just simply resort to this [Zoom] platform to try and progress these issues as much as possible,” he said.

The Director-General of FFA, Dr Manumatavai Tupou-Roosen, said FFA would focus on improving preparations and briefings for its members using the virtual platforms, and also on building even closer coordination with partners and stakeholders.

“Everybody’s hopeful that we could start some physical engagements because we have pushed a lot of work – that’s not understating it – a lot of work to 2021,” Dr Tupou-Roosen told Pacific journalists at the WCPFC17 media conference.

“It will require us to be very organised in getting in touch virtually as FFA members and also with our partners in advance of any set dates for WCPFC workshops leading up to the WCPFC18 in December 2021.

“And what has really shone through during the present challenge created by COVID is the strength, resilience, adaptability and innovation of our Pacific people. And being led by their continued commitment to cooperation.”

Pacific island states disadvantaged by virtual meetings

For the 2021 work, Pacific members are still hoping that a return to physical meetings will come to pass this year. That is because, as has been confirmed in 2020, virtual platforms dilute their positions and collective strength dramatically.

According to Mr Crothers, there are two areas that highlight the Pacific’s concerns: technology infrastructure, and platform to agree on collective action.

“It is particularly difficult to negotiate complex measures, using this [Zoom]. It has compounded the problems for SIDS on two levels,” he said.

“The quality of their internet connection and so forth is not great. We had people dropping in and out while meeting, so there’s that the technological infrastructure problem. It means that the SIDS’ ability to participate is constrained.

“If they can’t participate, their interests are not reflected and therefore it’s quite hard to get a consensus.”

Secondly, the strength of the FFA and the PNA is in collective action. This has come to the fore in recent meetings of the Commission. This was illustrated by the passage of the climate change resolution at WCPFC16.

“We are a whole lot of little guys and we’re up against the heavyweights of the EU, US, China and Japan. The only way we can compete with them is if we all band together as a collective,” Mr Crothers said.

“We can do that best when we meet physically – to negotiate our collective positions and settle on our game plan.”

It is never an easy task, as every Pacific country and territory has its own views and unique interests and needs.

“So getting a consensus amongst Pacific countries is a challenge. But once we have it, that’s when we can compete against the big guys,” he said.

“With COVID in the mix, it’s been difficult to get the FFA positions sorted, build a consensus and get our game plan sorted. So, once again, this situation means it’s been a difficult time for us.”

The clear advantage of physical meetings … Pacific negotiators revisit their strategy on the climate change resolution during one of the breaks at the 2019 Tuna Commission in Port Moresby, PNG. Photo: Fatu Tauafiafi/Pacific Guardians.

2021 expected to be difficult – but doable

Difficult is still doable: the Pacific fisheries sector has shown that in 2020.

And even though there is a lot of uncertainty about what may or may not be achieved in 2021, the largest bloc at the Tuna Commission took time out to celebrate and reflect on the WCPFC17 success, and especially the continuation of the TTM.

On reflection, there was time to evaluate several disappointments. The biggest one for the Pacific was the Compliance Monitoring Scheme.

“The compliance monitoring report was probably the biggest disappointment of the 2020 meeting for us,” said Mr Pangelinan, referring to a Commission member that was able to manipulate the system to continue to escape being held accountable for not complying or adhering to its limits on the high seas.

“It is a very unfortunate one because, for us, we are now wondering about the integrity of the entire Compliance Monitoring Scheme as a package of measures that look at how members meet their obligations,” said Mr Pangelinan.

Getting policy results will be a big challenge

As a result of the lack of action by the Tuna Commission, “we’re going to have to look very carefully, think very hard, about any future Tropical Tuna Measure and how those elements of limits or even obligations themselves are going to be interpreted.

“I would say this one is the big fish that got away. We should have had an assessment but we did not successfully do that.”

He said that the use of virtual platforms as the form of communications and negotiations was a definitely a contributing factor.

“I would say that, if this was not done through this virtual platform, I think the outcome would have been totally different,” Mr Pangelinan said.

Several issues significant to the Pacific were pared right back at WCPFC17, and some were not even discussed: the climate change resolution; harvest strategies; maritime boundaries; high-seas allocation, and illegal, unreported and unregulated (IUU) fishing.

“Those particular issues may become watered down as people will be more focused on what we are trying to achieve through the objectives we will be agreeing to in the early parts of 2021,” Mr Pangelinan said.

“It will be quite a challenge to bring in elements of crew and labour standards, COVID-19, climate change, and so forth, into these discussions as we start carving out a new measure, so it’s going to be very difficult, I will say.

“We will have to be really ready and prepared so that, as we have these discussions, we keep those in the back of our minds that they’re equally important to our people. We also have leadership directives from our highest levels of government, that those are priorities as well.”

In March, a study on IUU fishing, which revisits a 2016 report, on IUU will be tabled. That should help provide some oxygen for the work on IUU mitigation going into 2022.

Another major 2021 event will be the La Niña weather pattern. It is forecasted to bring a boon for fisheries in the west of the region.

Mr Crothers said, “We’re likely to see good catches in the Solomon Islands, Papua New Guinea, Nauru and so forth, and not so good conditions in Tokelau, Kiribati and Tuvalu.”

It is also likely that for 2021 and 2022, and beyond, the waters of Pacific small island states and territories will remain the lucrative, as the three commercially important tropical tuna, plus albacore tuna, have been confirmed by scientists as remaining in a healthy state. This knowledge reassures officials that fisheries revenue, employment, private sector opportunities and developmental progress for many PICTs are inoculated against the more virulent assaults of COVID-19.

Tokelau, where fisheries provide about 85% of the territory’s entire domestic GDP, is one of the lucky few: the benefits it gains from its fisheries are almost immune to COVID-19. This is also the case for a number of other WCPO states. But that immunity has come about entirely through the hard work of its national fisheries officials, as well as their regional and international network of partners, among them FFA and PNA members.

“The TTM we’re operating under now is good for the fishery, it’s really good for the PNA, and it’s good for Tokelau,” said Mr Crothers.

“If a rollover happened again into 2022, so be it.”

But wouldn’t it be great if travel to fisheries meetings is allowed to take place by July 2021?

Nukunou, Tokelau. Photo Fatu Tauafiafi/Pacific Guardians/Taupulega Nukunonu.
Nukunonu, Tokelau, is one of the few COVID-free pockets in the world. Photo: Fatu Tauafiafi/Pacific Guardians/Taupulega Nukunonu.

Salt fish trade gains new popularity in Solomons as pandemic grip lingers

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With the recent rise in popularity of the ‘salt fish’ trade in the Solomon Islands capital of Honiara, fresh fish and tuna vendors in the city markets are struggling to please their customers and earn enough income.

This is just one of an increasing number of challenges Honiara-based fish vendors have faced during the COVID-19 pandemic.

In recent years, it’s been observed that there is also a steady increase in fish prices, with small-scale fish markets storming the capital as competitors come from almost everywhere in the country. It is becoming more challenging for both fish sellers and consumers to find quality fish at a reasonable price.

One of the most popular and oldest fish markets in Honiara is the Vaivila Fishing Village Market in East Honiara. The other two fish markets are the Honiara Central Market and the White River Market in West Honiara.

Vaivila fish market is located along the coastline near the Vaivila fishing village, which was populated by people from the Lau and Langalanga regions of Malaita. 

Village chief Robert Satu says his family were among the first settlers at the village in the early 1950s. Most of the first settlers were employed to work in a hospital established nearby – on a location that now hosts the Woodford International School, opposite the fishing village market. 

Vaivila fishing village past and present 

Today, ‘Fisheries’, as it is known, is a huge village with a roadside market. Chief Satu is a longtime fisher and fish vendor at the market. He said that selling tuna from catches outside the Honiara seafront between the 1960s and 1980s was totally different from its state today, as far as the prices of fish or tuna is concerned.

“From the 1960s through to the 1980s, the price of a single tuna or heaps of fish at the fishing village market was as little as 5 cents up to $5.00. The coastal areas of Honiara from White River up Tenaru in Central Guadalcanal was rich with marine resources, especially fish,” Chief Satu said.

“During our fishing trips in the 1960s, it took us only one drop of the fishing net and you’ll get a canoe filled with fish for marketing or consumption. In those years, the tuna or fish stocks are high and my life as a fisherman is very easy. Compared to nowadays, there are very low fish stocks along the Honiara coastline, due to the increase of settlers as a result of the growth in the city’s population.”

Chief Satu blames overfishing plus environmental pressure such as the change in coastal environments and pollution as the main cause of damage to the fishing grounds outside Honiara. 

Chief of Solomon Islands village Vaivila, Robert Satu, is a longtime settler, fisher and fish vendor at the village. He stands at fish market with fish for sale in his hands. Photo: George Maelagi.
Vaivila chief Robert Satu is a longtime settler, fisher and fish vendor at the village. Photo: George Maelagi.

Another fish vendor at the Vaivila Fishing Village Market, Alick Kabolo, said, “For those of us that are residing along these shorelines, it is a major challenge for us because we have to go further out into the ocean to trawl. We never rely on others to bring fish for us to sell, but we ourselves go out to fish and come back to trade at the market to sustain our daily needs.

“Back then, when I completely sold my fish catches, it is the happiest day of my life because I know that my hard work pays off as a fisherman, unlike others that are relying on other fishermen to fish for them.”

Mr Kabolo said that today, with a rise in the cost of living in Honiara city, these fishers would worry about the cost of getting their catch to market. 

“They have to spend money for transportation, fuel, ice cubes, and pay market fees,” Mr Kabolo said. 

“All this spending can be very expensive. They still need to make profit from their sales to recover their expenses.”

The rise of the salt fish trade

Salt fish become popular in 2006–2007. Since then, its fortunes have fluctuated, and there have sometimes been concerns whether it was safe to eat. But it has been rising in popularity again as people feel the economic bite of COVID-19 restrictions. 

‘Salt fish’ refers to frozen, salted fish offloaded from purse-seine vessels during transhipment at the Honiara port. Most of these vessels fish in local waters or the exclusive economic zones (EEZs) of neighbouring countries. 

The fish offloaded are species that aren’t the target, but are caught accidentally (as bycatch) during tuna fishing, and tuna that has been damaged and is no longer marketable elsewhere. These fish don’t go to waste, however, as locals sell them in the fish markets.

The fishers of the fishing village live with the everyday struggles of spiralling fishing costs and finding enough fish to sell. The city-based fish vendors live with the struggle of relying on a supply of fish from the purse-seine vessels transhipping at Honiara. Some have resorted to the National Fisheries Development-owned fishing vessels that supply tuna for the SolTuna cannery at Noro, in Western province. They then transport the tuna and bycatch fish to the markets in Honiara.

However, the problems of the two groups are intersecting. The rise of salt fish trade is becoming a concern for the hardworking fish vendors at the Vaivila Fishing Village Market due to increase demand as a result of its cheaper price. 

Sheroll Galo and John Kennedy were longtime salt fish vendors in Honiara. Both said when they started selling fish, their startup prices ranged from $10 to $200 (Solomon Island dollars), depending on their size. 

“Most of us vendors in Honiara are relying on the purse-seine boats and passenger ships that are arriving from Noro every week. That said, we make more profits than those that are selling fresh fish at the market,” Mr Kennedy said.

Despite the restrictions and lockdowns of the COVID-19 pandemic, the salt fish trade at Honiara’s Central Market has continued, as there has been an increase in the number of vessels transhipping at Honiara in recent months. This has been since the introduction of regional protocols that have allowed tuna fishing to resume in a COVID-safe way.

Sheroll Galo and John Kennedy were longtime salt fish vendors in Honiara. They are at a market, and positioned behind a table with 9 fish laid out on it, and in front of chiller boxes. Photo: George Maelagi.
Sheroll Galo and John Kennedy were longtime salt fish vendors in Honiara. Photo: George Maelagi.

COVID-19 and the challenges of fish trading 

However, despite this, COVID-19 is affecting most of these fish vendors. 

Small businesses have been particularly hard hit. When Honiara was declared an emergency zone in April 2020 and a state of public emergency was imposed, the vendors were told not to engage in any fish vending business in the capital. 

During the state of emergency, domestic ship operators and purse-seine vessels were warned not to provide fish to market vendors. The only vendors who continued with their businesses were those who brought in fish stocks in chiller boxes.

One of those is Emily Kawa. She is a frequent vendor at the Vaivila Fishing Village Market and Honiara Central Market.

“From four ice-chiller boxes, I’ve reduced it to two now. This is because not many people are buying fish at the Honiara Central Market,” Mrs Kawa said.

Another fish vendor hit hard is Brendale Bilusu, who hails from the famous Marovo Lagoon in the Western Province. He runs a fishing business. His target market is the Honiara Central Market.

Before COVID-19, Mr Bilusu used to enjoy the money he earned from selling fish. The money he raised supported his immediate and external family members. He said that, even in better times, running the fish business was not the easy feat others might think it is.

“There are lots of expenses you have to meet. These include hiring transport in Honiara, buying ice blocks, shipping freights for the ice-chiller boxes, as well as fuel expenses for outboard motor to go around and buy fish from fishermen and women in the villages along the Marovo Lagoon,” Mr Bilusu said. Life had become much tougher in the past few months.

“So it’s quite a tough business. But you know what, if it takes you more days to sell your fish, your expenses will also increase. You will need to pay for market fees as well as ice cubes to maintain the quality of the fish,” Mr Bilusu said.

The other problem he has encountered since the rise of the COVID-19 is slowing sales, which means he is left with fish for four to five days, during which time it deteriorates. To sell the fish while it’s at its best, he has had to lower his prices in order to attract customers. 

“Right now, I am also struggling to meet my family’s needs. I no longer received income like what I used to earn before this COVID-19. The COVID-19 is really affecting my small fish project,’’ he said. 

Mr Bilusu said the government should come up with ways to help people like him who are struggling during the pandemic. As more Honiara-based fish vendors like him are missing out on the government’s economic stimulus package, Mr Bilusu’s only wish right now is for the COVID-19 to vanish so that his small income could regain its status.

Sam, as he would want to be called, said the COVID-19 pandemic had had a huge impact on his fish-vending business at the Honiara Central Market. He stands at a market with a calculator in his left hand and a fish in his right. Photo: George Maelagi.
Sam, as he would want to be called, said the COVID-19 pandemic had had a huge impact on his fish-vending business at the Honiara Central Market. Photo: George Maelagi.

How the Pacific fisheries sector managed to navigate COVID-19

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In a year like no other, the work to harvest and sustainably manage the world’s largest tuna fishery in the Western Central Pacific Ocean (WCPO) has not been spared the ravages of severe acute respiratory syndrome coronavirus 2 (SARS-CoV-2) – the virus that causes COVID-19.

On 30 January 2020, when the WHO declared COVID-19 to be a public health emergency of international concern, itopened a door to face an unknown enemy with a penchant to sow seeds of uncertainties. WHO declared a pandemicon 11 March.

Nearly one year later, the only certainty in a world awash with fear is that COVID-19 is still on the rise, with only a few countries remaining COVID-19-free – but at such cost. The global tally of the dead nears the 2 million mark, and the number of infections has passed the 70 million mark. The most powerful nation in the world has breached the unenviable milestone of more than 3,000 deaths a day. Even with the vaccine rollout that started in Britain last week, there is no confidence a cure has arrived, as two British health workers suffered severe allergic reactions to the Pfizer vaccine soon after.

Long reach of COVID-19 felt immediately in the WCPO

For the Pacific, the reality of COVID-19 was felt immediately after WHO’s 11 March declaration. Tourism collapsed: one of the region’s mainstay revenue streams was dammed behind closed borders and stranded aeroplanes.

And as Pacific island countries and territories (PICTs) followed health advice to close borders and enter lockdowns, nervous Pacific leaders looked to Honiara, the home of the Pacific Islands Forum Fisheries Agency (FFA), with prayers that their agency was working on a plan – on a response – so the same fate would not befall the fisheries sector.

Leaders knew that if COVID-19 also destroyed the fisheries, it would result in an existential crisis for most of the PICTs.

The challenge for FFA was to come up with ways to continue working through border closures, restrictive testing and quarantine conditions, which made it much harder for fishing vessels to continue to fish and unload their catch. The lockdown also made it very difficult for coastal states to monitor and survey fishing activities, and left businesses grappling with new challenges in transporting products to markets – and then some.

Redesigned tools and a redrawn map to weather the emergency

So at this year’s Western and Central Pacific Fisheries Commission virtual meeting (WCPFC17), where the 24 PICTs join the other 17 nations making up the Tuna Commission, there is relief and belief that the WCPO fishery will weather this one-in-a-hundred-year global emergency.

There is relief that FFA and its partners, with the support and guidance of PICTs fisheries agencies, have managed to redraw a map now pocked with COVID-19 reefs, and to navigate a safe passage through them.

And there is a belief that the work to recalibrate current tools has enabled Pacific members, and the WCPFC as a whole, to better sail the COVID-19 waters. At the same time, they have quickly learned to use the lessons and experience so far to better prepare for more troubled waters that experts forecast are ahead.

A brief view of the redrawn map and redesigned tools was provided to regional journalists end of last week at a virtual media conference with the Chair of the Forum Fisheries Committee (FFC), Mr Eugene Pangelinan; the Director-General of FFA, Dr Manumatavai Tupou-Roosen; and the Deputy Director-General of FFA, Mr Matt Hooper.

Following are some highlights of what the FFA leaders had to say.

The map redrawn using a virtual work platform

FFA began to focus on using a virtual platform to transact work and business in March. April was a transitioning period. By May, Tuna Commission work processes had been successfully transferred and were being transacted on virtual platforms.

Mr Pangelinan outlined the difficulties, some of which continue. He said: “Internet connectivity in the Pacific is not the best in the world … Some of the most developed countries themselves are having challenges with internet connectivity. And so it just goes to prove our point that trying to conduct meetings through the virtual platform, while I think is it has produced some very good results … has hindered our progress on developing [WCPFC conservation and management] measures. Given the limited time we have to have these discussions and agree on the ways forward, it is certainly a challenge with so many different interests.”

Dr Tupou-Roosen said: “COVID definitely impacted our work program. But whilst it delayed it at first, there has been a lot of savings in the FFA budget, and that’s just normal, [as] a lot of our budget used to go to travel and that’s obviously not happening now.”

The FFA-led team explored new ways to continue supporting the priority activities of each Pacific member and also their individual and collective obligations to the WCPFC. 

“So, thinking of those innovative ways where we can continue to support our members … whether it is at the national level by utilising in-country experts to assist, say, for example, FFA or even the Tuna Commission, to continue to run the work at national level. Those are the types of opportunities that we’re seeing at this time,” Dr Tupou-Roosen said.

Mr Hooper said: “Transacting complex issues through virtual platforms is a challenge, and particularly for members with unstable internet connections or even unstable power, which has been the case for FSM [Federated States of Micronesia] in particular. 

“It has been difficult participating in all of these online meetings, and even in some of our discussions with developed-country members of the Commission. As recently as last week, I don’t think we had a single one where there weren’t some problems with people joining or dropping out. So it is really not the forum for transacting complex negotiations, which have the potential to have such a significant impact on the members involved.” 

Mr Hugh Walton, FFA’s Chief Technical Officer and OFPM2 Coordinator, summed up the discussion. He said: “One of the really big take-home messages here is the solidarity across FFA members and PNA in moving forward and progressing in these very difficult times. The way we’ve been able to build a home-team consensus despite the difficulty of the [new] electronic platforms, and getting used to the new platform. 

“So, hats off to the FFA secretariat and members for playing with a straight bat for progressing their priorities and getting us to where we are.” 

E-monitoring of longlining redesigned to be COVID-safe

One of the first tools to be redesigned was the process for monitoring the longline fishery. The observer program was suspended, and the commitment to the rollout of electronic reporting and the development of electronic monitoring has been prioritised to take up the slack. 

For electronic monitoring, FFA is doing this this by developing a costed-out work plan of how to deliver key elements. 

Electronic monitoring is in the process of being adopted for the longline fishery, with a further focus being on strengthening the safety component of the observer program. FFA has also been working out how to make the most of observers’ skills while they are stranded on land, to keep jobs going.

Dr Tupou-Roosen said: “It is important to recognise that, [although] the observer program has been suspended, [FFA] members have built an integrated monitoring, control and surveillance framework over the last 41 years. The observer program does not operate in isolation. There is a suite of tools, authorised officers that can be pooled, and our patrol boats can be pooled. 

“Even for countries that do not have patrol boats, they could still have surveillance on the water in certain areas within their zones. The tools we have can be realigned to make available further resources to all members so that they can plan out and implement more surveillance and enforcement activities during this time.”

Mr Hooper said: “We are taking steps to provide opportunities for observers to get back on vessels as quickly as possible, but also to engage them in land-based work, be it training or upskilling or looking at different ways that we can utilise their analytical skills until they can get back to sea. 

“It is about making sure that we don’t lose that cadre of highly qualified observers. One of the initiatives being looked at is observer safety at sea refresher courses.”

FFA was able to permit some monitoring and observation work to continue at fishing ports, such as this one at Apia, Samoa, by adopting COVID-safe protocols. Image shows workers on dock, some wearing personal protective equipment (PPE), next to fishing vessel moored alongside
FFA was able to permit some monitoring and observation work to continue at fishing ports, such as this one at Apia, Samoa, by adopting COVID-safe protocols

FFA explores new markets and better working conditions

COVID-19 has brought unexpected economic challenges to getting products to market. This has prompted FFA to explore trading potential in a Pacific members’ bubble, including opportunities in Australia and New Zealand.

As if on cue, the Pacific Agreement on Closer Economic Relations Plus (PACER Plus) came into force over the weekend, on 13 December. It is a free trade agreement that covers goods, services and investment.

“PACER Plus will be instrumental in supporting Pacific economies to rebuild from the devastating impacts of COVID-19,” New Zealand’s minister for Trade and Export Growth, Mr Phil Twyford, said.  

“The agreement provides opportunities for goods and services produced in the region to be sold within the Pacific and globally, thereby using trade as an engine of economic growth and sustainable development.”

Australia’s federal Trade Minister, Simon Birmingham, added in a statement, “This trade deal ensures greater market access and lower tariffs across a range of products that will benefit communities, farmers, fishers, businesses and investors in our region.”

Australia, the Cook Islands, Kiribati, Niue, Samoa, Solomon Islands, Tonga and New Zealand are parties to the agreement. Nauru, Tuvalu and Vanuatu are signatories and will become parties to it 60 days after ratifying it.

Another opportunity that FFA is pursuing is full support of Indonesia’s proposal that WCPFC adopt a conservation and management measure (i.e. a binding rule) on labour standards for crew on fishing vessels operating in the region.

Mr Pangelinan said: “I do think that there could potentially be a measure next year if members really work hard on helping and supporting Indonesia’s lead on the drafting of its proposed measure.” 

Dr Tupou-Roosen said: “[We have] a good understanding of just how important it is for us to do the right thing. And that these human rights abuses are not suffered by crew that are operating within our region, and ensuring that the Commission collectively commits to implementing standards for the high seas.”

A win for Pacific members on rolling over the Tropical Tuna Measure

It is fair to conclude that, as of December 2020, Pacific fisheries have come through the COVID-19 pandemic not only relatively unscathed but enhanced in certain areas such as the re-imagining of compliance, monitoring and surveillance.

Another is the successful transition to a virtual work environment. This has provided a platform for FFA and its members to consolidate and table 10 priorities for decision at this year’s Tuna Commission.

The work not only serves the economic and conservation interests of PICTs, but also those of the entire Tuna Commission membership. This is reflected in the most sought-after outcome for this year’s meeting: Commission members’ support to roll over the Tropical Tuna Measure to 2021.

Midway through WCPFC17, the Pacific’s proposal for the Tropical Tuna Measure was passed. And by delivering on everyone’s best interest, the Pacific bloc also achieved its top priority.

“There are other measures that are equally important,” said Mr Pangelinan. “But the Tropical Tuna Measure for us is paramount. It is the biggest fishery in the Pacific.”

Dr Tupou-Roosen added, “Chair [Pangelinan] highlighted that it already has been a big win for all of the Tuna Commission members – it is not just FFA [members].”

Full steam ahead into 2021

Mr Hooper was looking forward to next week, hopeful that the positive feeling generated this year in FFA and solidarity by Tuna Commission members will continue onto the hard work needed next year – even if it is still dominated by SARS-CoV-2.

“This year, not being able to meet face to face has really made it difficult. There are a lot of fishing industry players that are feeling the pain; there’s a lot at stake,” said Mr Hooper.

WCPFC17 will come to a close tomorrow, Tuesday, 15 December 2020. The outcomes will give FFA a better idea of the scope and scale of the work ahead under the large shadow of COVID-19. Nevertheless, there is excitement about rising to the challenge of securing the fishery and its benefits for the people of the Pacific, stewards of the world’s largest and most abundant offshore fisheries resources. 

For more information from the Forum Fisheries Agency on WCPFC17, contact Hugh Walton, ph. +677 740 2428, email Hugh.Walton@ffa.int.

New technologies promise monitoring breakthrough for transhipment at sea

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Republished from FFA Trade and Industry Newsvolume 13, issue 4, July–August 2020

Technologies such as vessel monitoring systems, onboard electronic catch monitoring and blockchain traceability continue to gain attention as tools for monitoring industry activity related to the fishing sector. 

Government and inter-governmental bodies (e.g. the FFA Regional Fisheries Surveillance Centre), as well as the private sector and NGOs [non-government organisations], have developed and deployed these methods and are experimenting with next-generation approaches. 

In general, these tools aim to develop methods for monitoring elements of the fishing supply chain that are generally outside of the view and reach of authorities.*

Recent months saw a new tool in this realm join the ranks of new technological and data-based initiatives to contribute to progress in management – this one focusing on transhipment at sea. 

The tool – the Carrier Vessel Portal – was developed through a collaboration between two NGOs, the Pew Charitable Trusts and Global Fishing Watch (GFW). The partners describe Carrier Vessel Portal as the world’s first public, global searchable monitoring portal of carrier vessels. 

The portal is based on GFW work that combines satellite data on vessel location (AIS data that cargo ships are mandated to keep on board by the International Convention for the Safety of Life at Sea) and machine learning to study global transhipment patterns. The portal is public and searchable and includes vessel identity and authorisation status.

The developers hope that regulators, policy makers and researchers will utilise the portal directly for the monitoring and enforcement of transhipping. 

In releasing the portal, GFW and Pew have emphasised the multiple purposes it can serve, including: 

  • verifying carrier vessel activity
  • identifying suspicious or illicit behaviour
  • tracking vessel activity between RFMOs
  • and ideally, guiding reform.

In addition to the Carrier Vessel Portal, GFW has developed a range of tools and analyses to monitor the location and activity of fishing vessels, and is working to develop partnerships that will enable such tools to be used directly in the management sphere. (GFW has a list of papers published on its findings.)

Monitoring transhipment at sea has been a high priority for management in the WCPO, given it is estimated that more than US$142 million worth of tuna and other seafood products are lost in illegal transhipment annually, and missing and fraudulent reporting undermines management efforts and scientific data that is used to understand population dynamics and to inform management decisions. 

However, transhipment at sea has proved remarkably difficult to monitor, making regulations difficult to enforce. Generally, transhipment data are reported from governments to RFMOs, usually in summary form and often a year after the data are collected in-country. It has been demonstrated that official reports are often incomplete and thousands of transhipments on the high seas are unreported.

* For more on the use of electronic monitoring and blockchain technology, read the following:

More deaths on fishing vessels highlight lax approach by operators

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Recent deaths on tuna-fishing vessels operating in the Western and Central Pacific Ocean (WCPO) have again signalled the need to improve safety and working conditions on vessels, and to introduce and enforce meaningful penalties for vessel owners that flout regulations.

FFA’s Trade and Industry News for May and June 2020 reported on the death of a Kiribati observer from “unnatural” injuries in March 2020. It also reported on the deaths of four Indonesian crew on a Chinese vessel in the WCPO. They died in 2019, but their deaths did not come to light until April 2020. 

Existing rules have been criticised for not going far enough to protect observers or crew, Trade and Industry News reported.

It said that at least one well-known voice in the region, Bubba Cook, of WWF-New Zealand, had called for a new approach to keep observers safe, since current rules and penalties were failing observers. Mr Cook said that using more electronic surveillance technology on ships might help. So might banning a ship from ever fishing in WCPO waters if an observer disappeared or died in suspicious circumstances. 

Trade and Industry News said that “the death of an observer must be reported immediately and can shine a spotlight on the situation, some incidents relating to crew death or welfare can go unnoticed for months or even years”.

Two men stand in open hatch on frozen tuna. Photo Francisco Blaha.
Two members of the crew of a purse seiner prepare to unload a load of frozen tuna. Photo: Francisco Blaha.

In 2016, FFA adopted harmonised minimum terms and conditions for access by fishing vessels (HMTCs). They are used to regulate fishing in the waters of the 17 countries that are members of FFA. The HMTCs make getting and keeping a licence to fish for tuna contingent on maintaining a safe work environment for observers. They give instructions on how to do this, and on what to do if an observer is assaulted, harassed, dies, goes missing, or is believed to have fallen overboard. 

The HMTCs were updated in 2019 to state that the operator of the fishing vessel was also responsible for the health, welfare and safety of the crew while they are on board, and for the duration of their contract. Crew members must also be given a contract they understand (for example, in their own language).

The Western and Central Pacific Fisheries Commission (WCPFC) introduced a rule in 2017 that requires vessel operators and captains to immediately undertake the emergency action specified if an “observer dies, is missing or presumed fallen overboard” or “suffers from a serious illness or injury that threatens his or her health or safety”. It builds on older rules on how to help observers do their job properly

Trade and Industry News said the Indonesian Government tabled its concerns about “labour abuse” in a paper to the 16th annual meeting of the WCPFC in December 2019.

Under WCPFC resolution 2018-01, the countries of the region, and other countries that fish in the region are expected to enact laws that require fishing operators to provide crews of fishing vessels with fair working conditions, fair pay, and a safe environment to work in. 

The rules of both organisations reiterate the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS).

Two fisheries observers monitor tuna catch on purse-seine vessel. Photo: Hilary Hosia.
Fisheries observers monitor tuna catches on board purse seiners as well as during transhipment in port. Their work provides important data for fisheries managers. Photo: Hilary Hosia.

Electronic monitoring may help improve working conditions

Trade and Industry News said the use of electronic monitoring and surveillance technology and artificial intelligence may make working conditions safer for observers and crew. 

It reported increased interest in electronic compliance and observance as a result of suspending the observer program as part of COVID-19 restrictions. Observers are a lynchpin in keeping reporting of fishing effort accurate, and in the prevention of bycatch and illegal, unreported and unregulated (IUU) fishing. 

The countries in the region have been working out how to make electronic monitoring feasible, especially for the small island developing states (SIDS). It is expensive, and much of it is not fully developed yet, Trade and Industry News reports.

The FFA newsletter also reported that Thai Union was looking at using artificial intelligence to detect IUU fishing and abuses of human rights on tuna fishing vessels. 

Bank of electronic monitors used to monitor tuna fishing. Photo: AFMA.
Electronic monitoring installed on fishing vessel. Photo: AFMA.

Western and Central Pacific banks on SPC specimen collection

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One of the most important tools in understanding the biology and environment of tuna in the Western and Central Pacific Ocean is a bank.

This particular institution, the Pacific Marine Specimen Bank (PMSB), has been slowly building its revenue of research currency – muscle, organ and bone samples, stomach contents, photographs, and radiographic images – since 2000.

It also collects samples from other large, oceanic species such as marlin and swordfish that are also economically valuable.The PMSB is managed by scientists in the Oceanic Fisheries Programme of the Pacific Community (SPC). The datasets held in the bank help the scientists understand the world of tuna. Their knowledge forms part of SPC’s annual assessments of the state of health of tuna populations. In turn, the assessments are used to manage tuna fishing in the region.

Analysis of the specimens held in the bank also helps scientists understand how the climate crisis is influencing changes in the location of tuna and changes in their diet.

Specimen banks are important because they throw light on our understanding of current situations – and because scientists in the future can use the same samples to find answers to new questions or to ask the same questions using new techniques or research tools.

Four of the scientists involved in PMSB explained the difficulties of managing the specimen bank in the latest Fisheries Newsletter published by SPC.

One of the challenges the staff of PMSB face is ensuring that samples, which are collected all over the Western and Central Pacific Ocean, are kept in prime condition until they get to a permanent storage facility. Part of the scientists’ work is to prepare some samples to make it easier to transport them to analysis laboratories outside New Caledonia.

Two tuna lie in a cradle on a fishing vessel at sea. They are being tagged for scientific research by two men. Photo Pacific Community.
Tagging tuna on a pole-and-line vessel during a research voyage in the WCPO. Data collection during tagging is stored in the specimen bank. Photo: SPC.

Much care goes into getting, storing, and transporting samples so they can be used for immediate research and analysis, and also in many years’ time.

This usually means that they have to be kept cold enough. Many samples can be kept at –20°C; however, those used in genetic analysis must be kept at –80°C. Freezers of the second kind are difficult to come by, and expensive to run.

Other tissue must be preserved in formalin and then transferred into ethanol.

The nine cubic metres of freezer space at the laboratory at SPC in Noumea is now too small to contain the growing collection. Although there are plans to enlarge it, research partners are also helping to house pieces of the collection in other parts of the region.

And SPC has funded the purchase of freezers in the main fishing ports in the region to that samples can be stored safely until they are transferred to their final destination.

In April, the PMSB contained nearly 120,000 samples collected from 34,000 specimens. Some national observer programs have participated in collecting samples for the bank since 2002.

Note: post updated 6 July 2020 to correct a spelling error.

Malaitans reap benefits from conserving marine areas

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HONIARA – Communities along the coastline of Malaita Province have transformed degraded natural environments in recent years – and have improved their access to local foods as a consequence.

People in this most populous province of Solomon Islands have depended for their livelihoods directly on what nature provides: roots, fruit from forest trees, and fish and other marine animals and plants. 

But these natural resources have been under increasing pressure. As in many other places in the world, the resources here were carelessly managed in the face of growing human populations and increasing need to harvest them for food and other uses.

To turn this situation around, several communities have worked with WorldFish Solomon Islands, a fisheries NGO, which has done most of the work in setting up the conservation sites. The provincial government’s fisheries division has also helped.

Now the Malaitan people are benefiting from the conservation of local sea resources, and discovering that the “modern” conservation techniques they’ve been introduced to are the same practices that were used in the past.

The Fumamato’o success story

Manaoba Island is located on the north-eastern part of Malaita. It is the home of the Fumamato’o community, which lives along the Lau Lagoon. 

The community decided to protect its marine resources in 2013, and has already benefited greatly from its efforts. Before, this island community was a victim to overharvesting of fish, trochus, sea cucumbers, clam shells, and many other sea creatures.

But now, overharvesting is a thing of the past, thanks to chair of the Manaoba Locally Managed Marine Area (LMMA), Mr Dominick Tuita, and his team.

During an interview with the Malaita Star magazine, Mr Tuita said Fumamato’o was like any other coastal community in Malaita Province. 

“The people depend heavily on their sea for income and food,” Mr Tuita said.

The island of Manaoba is well known to the Tobaita people, Mbaelelea people and Baegu people as the main provider of fish and other seafood. But Mr Tuita said that the overharvest of marine resources had taken a toll. 

In 2013, the people of Manaoba realised that they needed to change as they observed that resources were running out. They formed a committee to set up an LMMA.

“There are two areas where we restricted fishing: one is a total marine protected area and the other is open-and-close area,” Mr Tuita explained.

In the protected area, fishing is banned. In the close-and-open area, harvesting is allowed once a month. 

“We usually open it at the end of each month to allow villagers to fish for income or for community gatherings. When we open the open-and-close area, we invite fishermen from nearby communities to come and fish. During harvest day, everyone is welcome to fish,” Mr Tuita said.

Two Fumamato'o men standing in open long boat haul in a net while fishing in the open-and-close area. Photo: WorldFish/Bira'au Wilson Saeni.
Fumamato’o men haul in a net while fishing in the open-and-close area. Photo: WorldFish/Bira’au Wilson Saeni.

As a result of close management, fish were now present in greater numbers and larger sizes. 

Some fish species that they thought were extinct had returned to the fishing ground.

“The marine protected area and the open-and-close area made a big difference,” Mr Tuita stated.

Fumamato’o man holds two fish of a species that was thought to be locally extinct. Photo WorldFish/Bira'au Wilson Saeni.
Fumamato’o local holds fish of a species that was thought to be extinct. Once the community began to actively manage the marine areas, the fish has returned. Photo: WorldFish/Bira’au Wilson Saeni.

The women of Fumamato’o also benefit greatly from the locally managed marine area.

Betty Koidi, in an interview with the Malaita Star, said that fish was now available in big number and large sizes, which greatly helped in the marketing of the fish. 

Mrs Koidi said the women of Fumamato’o could sell one fish for SBD$10.00 (US$1.20) and above. Before the locally managed marine area was set up, they struggled, as there was not enough fish and the fish they did catch were small. 

“We women will strive and work together with the men and youths of this community to maintain the open-and-close area for our benefit,” Mrs Koidi said.

Mr Tuita said the Manaoba LMMA operated under clear rules.

“If we find you fishing in the marine protected area, you will pay a fine of SBD$500 (US$61.00),” he said.

A group caught fishing illegally in the area at the beginning of the year paid a fine of $500 and a live pig. 

He said the surrounding communities knew about the rules and were working with Fumamato’o. 

“At first other communities found it hard to accept, but as they learn about the benefits of the marine protected area, they start to work together with us”, he said.

Sea resources protected on a taboo site at Mararo

The Mararo Community Based Organization in East Are’Are has taken steps to conserve its marine resources at the Puriasi Management Area. 

The area is a unique place that also contains traditional taboo sites. 

According to Tony Atitete, the community put rules in place to safeguard the area from being exploited and to scare away potential intruders.

Mr Atitete told the Malaita Star that the area was important for their tribe for the taboo site that their ancestors used to conduct their traditional form of worship. 

Thickly vegetated hillsides and heavily mangrove treed water edges of Puriasi Management Area. Photo WorldFish/Bira'au Wilson Saeni.
Puriasi Management Area. Photo: WorldFish/Bira’au Wilson Saeni.

Because the site was being managed to honour culture and to protect the natural resources, it was becoming a breeding area for marine life. 

He said the community aimed to preserve the marine resources for future generations. Rules prohibit the catching of certain animals and from some fishing methods for three years, and ban the collection of mangrove trees for firewood, and the “unnecessary” cutting of trees. 

After the three years, the taboo area would be opened only for one week for any special occasion, and then closed again. 

Anyone found to have breached the rules would face fines of up to SBD$500 (US$61.00).

Mr Atitete said the management plan had been developed and endorsed by surrounding communities. 

Although the hillsides of the Puriasi Management Area is covered with thick virgin forest, and its shoreline with mangroves, there was a persistent threat from a logging operation nearby. Mr Atitete said he feared that the Puriasi Management Area would be disturbed if the logging company went into full-scale operation. 

Head and shoulders portrait of Tony Atitete. Photo WorldFish/Bira'au Wilson Saeni.
Tony Atitete. Photo: WorldFish/Bira’au Wilson Saeni.

Conservation an ancient practice in East Kwaio

Marine conservation has been regarded as a longstanding part of the East Kwaio culture.

East Kwaio man Tome Arika said during a recent meeting with WorldFish and Malaita Province government officials that the “modern” conservation technique they were being taught was similar to the traditional conservation practices of Kwaio people.

“Personally, I find this concept blends in well with our traditional setting,” Mr Arika said.

“Before, we restricted these fishing grounds only for feast days. At that time this place was full of fish and turtles. 

“I’ve seen it with my own eyes. But today people overharvest fish and shells.”

Mr Arika, who holds onto the ancient Kwaio way of worshipping, said the increase in the coastal human population had put much pressure on the sea resources.

“Today you will hardly find fish in the fishing grounds, which were formerly conserved by our forefathers. There are fish, but they are small in size and less in numbers.

“I think we are all in support of looking after marine resources because we want to make life easy for ourselves,” he said.