NUKU’ALOFA – There is no doubt that the Pacific’s ocean needs to be better managed so that respective countries in the region can gain the maximum benefits.

This is something the Government of Tonga believes should be done urgently.

Almost everyone believes activities being carried out in Tonga’s waters, including the tuna industry here, have not raked in the maximum that the kingdom should be getting in terms of income and earnings.

Locals are of the thinking that overseas companies and operators are taking advantage of the lack of monitoring and policing – making money and taking that away overseas, without any contribution to the local economy.

“There is no doubt that a lot of activities have been happening in our ocean, throughout our exclusive economic zone (EEZ) and we are not getting the full advantage we should be getting,” said Mr Paula Ma’u, the Chief Executive Officer of the Ministry of Meteorology, Environment, Information, Disaster Management, Energy, Climate Change and Communication (MEIDECC).

MEIDECC Chief Executive Officer Paula Ma’u speaking at a government consultation on the Tonga Ocean Plan, with Fisheries CEO Dr Halafihi next to him. Photo: ENVIRO NEWS

“This includes the tuna industry and fisheries in general. And we have decided that we needed to look into how best we can better manage our marine resources and activities so that we gain the benefits we should be getting.

“That saw the birth of the Tonga Ocean 7, which is the name we have given our team tasked with putting together the Tonga Ocean Plan.”

The Tonga Ocean 7 is made up of government ministries and departments that have come together with the common interest of ensuring that Tonga’s ocean and its resources are managed for a sustainable future.

They include the Ministry of MEIDECC, Ministry of Lands and Survey, Ministry of Fisheries, Ministry of Tourism, the Marine Department, the Ports Authority of Tonga, and the Ministry of Internal Affairs.

How will the Tonga Ocean Plan help the tuna industry?

The tuna industry in Tonga has faced its fair share of ups and lows over the last 30 years.

Tuna fisheries have been identified as one of Tonga’s most important natural resources.

Former Minister for Fisheries Hon. Semisi Fakahau stated in the ‘Tonga National Tuna Fishery and Management Plan’ (2018–2022) that in recent years Tonga had experienced challenging times with the domestic longline operations.

“The rising fuel prices, low albacore prices, low catch rates, and economic pressures create a very difficult environment for domestic operators to remain viable, even with technical and policy support and advice from government,” he stated.

“That said, progress in developing tuna resources for the benefit of the people of Tonga is vital.”

Hon. Fakahau said then that Tonga was working to “fulfil our national and international obligations and to further provide for the sustainable development and management of our domestic tuna fishery”.

In reality, there have been more lows than highs, especially in terms of the local industry’s survival.

Fisheries Chief Executive Officer Dr Tu’ikolongahau Halafihi said there needs to be a review of how Tonga has been managing its tuna resources and the general fisheries practices.

“We believe the Tonga Ocean Plan will help in managing our ocean and its resources,” Dr Halafihi said.

“Records show that we are losing out with our fisheries, and there are possible declines in our fish population generally.

“In the past 15 years or so, we started implementing the Marine Protected Area and Special Management Areas projects, which were aimed at sustaining fisheries and marine resources around our country, in areas that we identified were critical to implementing these in.

“The Tonga Ocean Plan includes all that has been done and looks at how better we can manage everything, including income and what we are losing out on financially.”

Dr Halafihi, and the Fisheries Ministry, is a critical partner in the process that is currently being followed.

So critical that he is one of the three chief executive officers who are joint chairs of the Tonga Ocean 7.

The other two are Mr Ma’u of the Ministry of MEIDECC and Ms Rosamond Bing of the Ministry of Lands and Survey.

Participants and facilitators, including Dr Leanne Fernadez from the IUCN (sitting on the far right) and Lands and Survey CEO Dr Rosamond Bing (sitting second from right), at the Tonga Ocean Plan mapping workshop in Nuku’alofa last year. Photo: ENVIRO NEWS

Mr Ma’ said the importance of the Tonga Ocean Plan cannot be overemphasised.

“The plan is critical for us as we really need to ensure that we are able to manage what we have and sustain that for the future generations,” he said.

Pointing to the tuna industry and the challenges it faces, Mr Ma’u said ensuring that areas where the tuna population thrive need to be protected.

The process to develop the plan

With funding from the Italian Government, Waitt Institute, Ocean5 plus technical support from the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) and the Vava’u Environment Protection Agency (VEPA), the Tonga Ocean 7 team commissioned a national consultation in 2018.

That consultation focused on what is currently being done in Tonga’s ocean and sea area, what will happen if we continue with the current trend, what the pros and cons are, what people believe should be done, and the benefits of having the Tonga Ocean Plan.

Starting in Ha’apai in October 2019, the consultation team then visited Vava’u, NIuatoputapu, Niuafo’ou, ‘Eua and then made the round the island consultation on Tongatapu.

The Tonga Ocean Plan consultation team with the Govenor of Ha’apai, Rev. Dr Tevita Tonga Mohenoa Puloka, sitting second from right, at the Governor’s office in Pangai, Ha’apai, in October 2018 for the first round of consultation. Photo: ENVIRO NEWS

Consultation team member and former Fisheries Director Dr Vailala Matoto said they were surprised with the feedback and responses from members of the public.

Respondents included men, women and youths from the different villages, tourism operators on the different islands, local fishermen and women, ship operators, and tuna industry players.

“There was general consensus that there needs to be a change in how we are doing things and managing our resources,” Dr Vailala said.

“The idea of the Tonga Ocean Plan was unanimously endorsed at all the consultation meetings held, which was very encouraging.

“The responses, suggestions and reports were then given to the legal drafting team, headed by Ms Rosamond Bing, who were tasked with drafting the legislations.”

The drafting team worked with all stakeholders, especially members of the government legal fraternity, in drafting the legislation.

Dr Vailala said that legislation will now be taken to the communities for the second round of consultation this year.

Bright future

Tonga intends to implement the ocean plan by the end of this year.

That plan will manage all activities carried out within Tonga’s EEZ.

And there is optimism in that that there are better days are ahead.

The Minister for MEIDECC, Hon. Poasi Tei (left), and CEO Paula Ma’u listening to updates on the Tonga Ocean Plan consultation in Nei’afu, Vava’u. Photo: EMVIRO NEWS

“We are already seeing the results from the SMAs and MPAs around the country,” MEIDECC’s Mr Ma’u said.

“There is a bright future ahead if we are serious and act on what is now being planned.”

Dr Halafihi supported that comment and added that Tonga’s tuna fisheries should be in a better shape moving forward.

“We are positive,” he added.

That is the feeling around the kingdom right now as people anticipate the finalisation of the Tonga Ocean Plan and its implementation – aimed at sustaining Tonga’s tuna fisheries and marine resources for years to come!