Ferry route an economic lifeline for Russell Islanders

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Over the years, the Gizo–Honiara ferry has provided an economic lifeline for the fishing community of the Russell Islands. This ship is moored at the wharf at Yandina, in the Russell Islands, to pick up the latest catch. The seafood is packed in ice in chiller boxes and will be sold in the Honiara markets.

The importance of the route has grown because of the on-off operation of the Yandina Fisheries Centre on Russell Islands.

The group of islands is in the Central Islands Province of Solomon Islands, and lies north-west of the national capital, Honiara. Gizo is the capital of Western Province.

The national government, through the Ministry of Fisheries and Marine Resources, built fisheries centres around the country in 1984. But many of the centres, including the Yandina one, have often stood idle due to the lack of machinery to keep them running.

To get around this problem and maintain a flow of fish for sale at the Honiara market, fish vendors saw an opportunity to purchase fresh fish from the Russell Islands or tuna from Noro, in Western Province. 

Because the Yandina centre is not running at the moment, the ice has been brought from Honiara. However, this is about to change: an agreement has been signed to repair the Yandina Fisheries Centre and get it running again.

COVID-19 threatens Solomon Islands’ global tuna industry

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HONIARA, 17 April 2020 – Solomon Islands is facing an economic crisis: with the onset of the global coronavirus pandemic, the prognosis for the near to medium term is not looking good, says iTuna Intel CEO and founding director of Pacific Catalyst, Dr Transform Aqorau.

“The only revenue going to be coming into the Treasury is through the sale of fishing vessel days (VDS) to foreign fishing vessels and a little from existing logging operations. The latter are at levels that are much lower than 2019 but the forecast is not really bright,” Dr Aqorau said. 

“With regards to tuna revenues, we have to keep our fingers crossed that this natural phenomenon, which has seen tuna concentrated in our waters as a result of the shift of the warm pool, will remain in Solomon Islands over the next few years.” 

In normal years, the Western and Central Pacific Ocean, of which Solomon Islands is a part, generates about $25 billion in revenue from tuna a year. 

Tuna is the second largest revenue earner for Solomon Islands, behind the depleting logging industry. The tuna industry’s contribution to the Solomon Islands Government revenue on average is $260 million, of which 90% comes from fishing licences, the Central Bank of Solomon Islands (CBSI) has reported.

Dr Aqorau is a Solomon Islands fisheries law expert, and a former boss of the Parties to Nauru Agreement (PNA). He said that Italy and China, which were the two biggest importers of Solomon Islands tuna, had to date been the countries worst affected by the coronavirus. 

“This will no doubt have a percolating effect on our major exports and, ultimately, revenue,” he said. 

“No economy can survive without new money coming in, whether it is the form of donor aid or revenues from exports, as this will eventually impact on its ability to pay for import.”

CBSI reports on Covid-19 threats to local economy

The CBSI reported in March that the coronavirus would likely have a negative impact on the Solomon Islands economy. The spread of the pandemic and the considerable disruption it would cause would be exacerbated by the increasingly intertwined trade and investment relationships between China and its neighbours in the Asia–Pacific region. 

The report stated that “being a small, open economy, the Solomon Islands will likely be adversely affected through the trade channel and thereafter the economy, and even fiscal operations”.

This month, CBSI reported that the speed of the spread of COVID-19 and the extent of the pandemic around the world meant that it had to revise its near-term growth outlook for the Solomon Islands economy

Front of Central Bank of Solomon Islands building, Honiara
The Central Bank of Solomon Islands says that the COVID-19 is a huge threat to the country’s economy


The report said: “The downward movement in the global economy, as well ensuing public health measures and business closures, could see a significant decline in real GDP of between minus 3% to minus 5% in 2020. The current information at hand indicates that the economy is moving into a recession starting in the second quarter of 2020.”

The impact of COVID-19 was expected to affect almost all sectors of the Solomon Islands economy. Supply chains had been affected, with travel limits and disruptions to business activity.

Densely packed group of Solomon Islanders outside building with security shutters down. Photo: Lachlan S. Eddie.
Most businesses in Solomon Islands have scaled down operations as more workers are being laid off. Photo: Lachlan S. Eddie.

Trimarine’s Soltuna scales down operation

More workers from the fisheries sector are being laid off as the pandemic’s grip on the Solomon Islands economy tightens. Soltuna, which employs over 1,000 workers, is one company that is scaling down.

Speaking in Parliament last Tuesday during a motion to extend the state of public emergency to four months, Minister for Finance and Treasury Harry Kuma said fisheries exports to Italy in particular had indicated a declining trend from the end of the first quarter of 2020 .

He added that prices were likely to fall by 5%.

“This will severely affect the operation of Soltuna and the employment of mainly women and girls in the Noro Cannery,” the minister stated.

On a similar note, Trimarine’s spokesperson, Joe Hamby, specified that Soltuna production depended firstly on the supply of tuna from its sibling company, National Fisheries Developments (NFD).  

“As you can imagine, fishing is directly impacted by the weather. Cyclone Harold has severely interrupted NFD’s fishing operations. Soltuna cannot operate without a steady supply of good quality tuna from NFD,” Mr Hamby said.

He went on to say that Trimarine had learned a lot from the COVID-19 pandemic. This was because Soltuna’s management and staff were almost all Solomon Islanders, and Soltuna could continue to operate during periods when expatriates had to evacuate back to their home countries.  

For example, only one of the six tuna processing plants in Papua New Guinea was operating at the moment. The others had closed because they don’t have enough local management and technical expertise. Expatriates with those skills had gone home, Mr Hamby added.

Two female workers and one male worker at Noro tuna cannery, Solomon Islands
Workers at Soltuna cannery, Noro … nearly 1,000 workers have been affected as Soltuna scales down work during the coronavirus pandemic


“By contrast, despite COVID-19, Soltuna has continued to safely produce badly needed food for both the domestic and export markets.”

Dr Aqorau had projected that demand for canned tuna products would increase, including in China, where demand for fresh fish was declining as a result of the pandemic. 

“It will be an evolution in China, but the tuna industry will be in for some very exciting times in the future,” Dr Aqorau said.

Transhipment problems threaten the global tuna supply chain 

Frabelle Fishing Company in the Philippines is another company that is affected by COVID-19, as most ports in the Pacific are closed to transhipment.

The company’s CEO, Francisco Tiu Laurel, Jnr, said Solomon Islands was a major resource for tuna in the Western Pacific, as well as a major transhipment point. He said any restriction imposed by the government on fishing and fish transfers would surely affect the flow of goods to the markets.

Head and upper body portrait photo of Frabelle CEO Francisco Tiu Laurel, Jnr
Frabelle CEO Francisco Tiu Laurel, Jnr


“If we are operating unhampered, we are actually not losing so much, but if we go into port and we are made to wait for 14 days’ quarantine, we will be losing about US$10,000 per day in our operations cost while at port, plus the island nations will lose 12 of those 14 days in terms of vessel fishing days that fishermen are supposed to pay PNA,” he said.

“So, for every port call with quarantine, each boat loses about US$120,000, and the island nations will also lose about US$130,000 per day per vessel at port under quarantine.

“These are rough figures, but realistic,” Mr Laurel said.

He added that if Frabelle was not allowed to tranship in other ports, the company would have to run to ports that would allow them under certain conditions. But this would entail burning more fuel and losing more fishing days for both the fisherman and the island nations.

Three fishing vessels in Honiara waters, with trees in foreground and hills enclosing waterway in background. Photo: Ronald Toito’ona.
Fishing vessels conducting transhipment at the Honiara port. Photo: Ronald Toito’ona.

Inability to replace crew

Marko Kamber, of Caroline Fisheries Corporation, has also stated that another major issue that island-based operators faced was the inability to replace crew because of the travel bans in place.

“Also many island ports do not allow disembarkation of crews to fly home,” he said.

Korea-based company Silla is also facing hiccups with their operations, with difficulties due to restrictions imposed by island countries despite a 100% fleet operation, says Operation & Sales Manager Sancho Kim.

Mr Kim said their operation was affected by the 14-day quarantine rule and some countries were closing their ports, both air and sea, to block COVID-19 transmission. 

“It is obvious any one of those measures are affecting our operation negatively, causing delays in finding available ports to call for transhipment and maintenance operation,” Mr Kim said.

Honiara port in Solomon Islands is one of the main ports for tuna purse seiners’ transhipments. Solomon Islands’ exclusive economic zone has been a good fishing ground for tuna purse seiners this year, so far, leading vessels to call more frequently to Honiara for transhipment.

“It surely helped to improve the local economy to bring more economic activities into Honiara and also increase government revenue. However, Solomon Islands is also implementing a 14 days quarantine policy, which is forcing vessels to turn around to find other ports available to call.”

Purse-seine tuna fishing vessel offloading catch at Noro, Solomon Islands
NFD’s purse seiner Solomon-Topaz offloading tuna at Noro in a trial held during better times in 2018

Livelihoods on the line as Pacific nations unite to fight for albacore tuna industry

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WCPFC15, Honolulu, Hawaii, 12 December 2018— Albacore tuna is a vital resource for many Pacific nations but many domestic longline interests are being scuttled out of business by a growing foreign fleet and the failure of the rule-setting body –the Western and Central Pacific Fisheries Commission (WCPFC) to act.

This week, a few words in a one-year old document will aim to claw back faith and test the credibility of the WCPFC, the world’s most successful tuna fisheries management organisation.

Last year at their closing plenary, the WCPFC, made progress on several years of discussion with an interim harvest strategy for South Pacific albacore putting the onus on an outcomes text saying the Hawaii meeting taking place this week “shall adopt a Target Reference Point for South Pacific albacore.”

The target reference point (TRP) – a notional ideal stock level – is the essential first step on which all other harvest rules rely.

The promise to set a TRP at WCPFC15 for one of the most negotiated tuna stocks in the Western Central Pacific Ocean, is set to roll out in earnest today, as the clock ticks towards the final plenary on Friday evening.

To ensure the momentum from last year’s meeting in Manila wouldn’t be lost, the WCPFC14 setup a working group with New Zealand at the helm to steer interested countries towards effective engagement on that agenda item.   

Outgoing Chair of the WCPFC Rhea Moss-Christian is keen to ensure the promise of Manila is met, but her challenge is to extract consensus from a diverse group of nations with widely differing interests – a group that includes powerful distant water fishing nations as well as coastal states.

The determination and commitment of Forum Fisheries Committee members around the table, including Ministers from Samoa, Tonga, and Niue, was clear in their opening round of country statements.

Samoa’s Minister for Fisheries Afioga Lopao’o Natanielu Mua reiterated a call he made 12 months before in Manila, to the same stakeholders.

“It’s the target species for our domestic Longline fishery, that has been one of the main foreign revenue earners for our economy as well as supporting food security and livelihoods for our people,” the Minister said. He also made pointed mention of  “the uneven playing field due to the subsidy support received by some fleets and therefore [the need for] an appropriate management strategy …to ensure that domestic, unsubsidised fleets remain economically viable.”

Alongside Mua are other high-level Pacific leaders in the countries most affected by the current approaches which are threatening incomes, food sources, and the long-term future of domestic longline fleets.  The voices from Pacific nations most connected to Albacore are pitching the message at every opportunity that the Target Reference Point for South Pacific Albacore is a major part of the reasons bringing them to the Tuna Commission meeting.

Niue’s Fisheries Minister Dalton Tagalagi echoed the sentiments of his neighbourhood—South Pacific Albacore needs that target reference point to get moving on its harvest strategy.

He reminded the plenary of the shared responsibility from members to ensure fisheries are managed sustainably. 

“We believe that we can all share and successfully manage this vital fishery if we honestly negotiate in good faith and transparently” he said.

Acknowledging the ongoing talks since 2015 to get traction on a strengthened conservation and management measure for South Pacific albacore, Tonga’s Minister for Fisheries Semisi Fakahau told the Commission that Tonga is committed to working with all members and fishing partners to support adoption of the target reference point for South Pacific Albacore. 

 “In order to maintain the long-term sustainability and economic viability of the tuna fisheries in the WCPO, and to secure livelihoods for local fishermen, it is important that stronger and more effective fisheries management arrangements for migratory tuna stocks and other species are agreed at this meeting.”

Kiribati Fisheries Minister Tetabo Nakara hinted that the conversations towards locking down the reference point won’t be easy.  He noted during his country statement that: “there are agenda items that may polarise our collective approach, and when those agenda items are considered I would mutually call on us all to put aside our differences and to humbly approach those issues as one group in one voice with one amicable solution agreeable to us all.”

Presenting the position of the 17-member FFA bloc to the commission, FFC Chair Tepaeru Herrmann of the Cook Islands opened with the reminder that the Target Reference Point talks holds no surprises; it’s the fourth year in a row the FFA have proposed this move.

“As we’ve stated previously, it is critical to adopt a Target Reference Point so that we can start to manage this fishery…. we have come prepared to work in the spirit of good faith upon which that decision was taken to ensure that we adopt a meaningful Target Reference Point here.” 

When it comes to the time needed to reach a meaningful number, the devil will be working through the detail. The WCPFC Secretariat and SPC’s Oceanic Fisheries Program have provided an Information paper on trends in the Southern Albacore Fishery, revealing a 2017 peak in annual catch estimates for albacore in the south Pacific (south of the equator) of 92,989 metric tonnes, 98% of that by long liners and the remainder by trolling. With both fishing gears, the 2017 catch is upon the previous year – 29% higher for long liners, and 12% higher for trollers.

By comparison, the 2017 total albacore catch in the South Pacific was 72,272 mt and the longline catch within the southern part of the Western and Central Pacific Commission area — excluding archipelago waters — 69,688 mt, one of the highest in the last 10 years. High seas longline catch estimates represent 51% of the total and have ranged from 27-51% of the total over the last 10 years. By flag (or attributed nationality based on charter agreements), China and Chinese Taipei had the highest catch estimates of South Pacific albacore in 2017 (29,125 mt and 12,086 mt respectively), and together represent 59% of the total catch. 70% of their catch was taken on the high seas.

Science updates on effort warn there is ‘considerable uncertainty in 2017 effort estimates, mostly due to gaps in information and data.’ The number of deployed hooks in 2017 within the commission area south of 10 degrees south was 30% higher than in 2016, and 13% lower than the high seen in 2012. The estimated longline effort in this region was estimated at 277 million hooks in 2017.

Representatives of the Pacific tuna industry are pushing hard for action on albacore at this year’s WCPFC15 in the margins of the meeting and from the floor.

“Nobody can deny the perilous state of this fishery,”John Maefiti, Executive Officer of the Pacific Islands Tuna Industry Association said in an intervention in the WCPFC plenary yesterday.

“Catch rates simply cannot support current costs (for Pacific operators), leaving many companies on the brink of financial failure.

“We are fortunate that the Southern Pacific Albacore is biologically healthy, but the key to economic viability of a fishery is the catch per unit effort, or CPUE.  We have observed a continually declining CPUE over several years, diminishing what was once a robust and attractive fishery to a shadow of itself. The inability of the WCPFC to control a massive increase in High Seas fishing effort is a sad indictment about this commission’s ability to manage the fisheries under its charge,” Maefiti said.

The Pacific fishing industry has joined the Forum Fisheries Agency and its member governments in calling on WCPFC to take heed of advice from its Science Committee and to ensure the long-term commercial viability and sustainability of the Pacific’s southern longline fishery.

Given the scale of detail and information on the Target Reference Point for South Pacific Albacore and other inter-related issues such as the domination of the southern albacore fishery by China and Taiwan, there are real concerns that discussions will get bogged down once again. This would mean seeing the time window for a decision close for another year.

FFA’s new Director General and her team will be as keen as the high-level heads of Pacific delegations and the outgoing WCPFC Chair to ensure that doesn’t happen and South Pacific Albacore gets the Target Reference Point the commission has promised. But with only a few days to go and other high priority issues including the Tropical Tuna Measure for Skipjack, Yellowfin and Bigeye; Compliance Surveillance, and Monitoring; and Transhipment, another late night/early morning finish may well be on the cards for WCPFC15.    —Lisa W-Lahari / TUNApacific