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.
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.
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.
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.
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].
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.