Samples of the vacuumed fish meats ready to be sold at the domestic market. Photo Bernard Fiubala/Wantoku Ocean Development

HONIARA – Across the Pacific region, sustainable fishing is crucial in such an unprecedented time, and if tuna and other sea resources are not properly managed, future generations will be affected socially and financially.

In the Solomon Islands, despite the fact that the fishing industry is the second-largest revenue earner behind logging, sustainable fishing is an issue that needs the combined efforts of the government, stakeholders and people to deal with.

At the moment, it is common in many coastal communities that overfishing is drastically increasing. This is evident given the rise of undersized fish that are sold daily in fish markets throughout the country, especially the Honiara Central Market, Gizo Market and Auki market.

According to fish vendors at the three fish markets, due to the pressure faced by families to put food on the table in recent times and the need to stock up fish at the local markets, fishermen are travelling out daily to fish.

Observing the scenario above, the Wantoku Ocean Development company is now stepping into the scene to address the need and challenges faced by fishing communities around the Solomon Islands.

A vacuum sealed piece of fish fillet, pink with its skin on, in a colourful bowl

A product of Mr Fiubala and his Wantoku Ocean Development Company. Photo Bernard Fiubala/Wantoku Ocean Development

Business owner Bernard Fiubala is the man behind the initiative, and it was his dream business – he had a vision to purchase sustainably harvested marine products from local fishing communities in Solomon Islands and to also help them financially.

With his dream and the wish to make it a reality, from his own pocket, Fiubala saved up enough money to buy a SBD$2 million [USD$248,000] fishing vessel to achieve his dream business.

It is understood that Fiubala is the only local seaman that is currently venturing into a new  fishing business as most fishing vessels operating in the Solomon Islands are foreign owned.

Recalling the fisher’s challenges and the dream

Born and raised in Honiara, Solomon Islands, Mr Fiubala has been involving in the fishing industry for the past 25 years.

He hails from Malaita province, and his mother is from the famous Langalanga Lagoon in Malaita, near Auki. The Langalanga people are regarded as the people of the sea due to their close relationship with the ocean and their setting.

In a recent interview, Fiubala jokes that his love for fishing and the ocean can be traced back to his mother’s people.

“Fishing is part of my life since childhood,” he says.

He recalls his early years, when he used to go out fishing with his uncles.

“When I was in my childhood, I used to go out and fish with my uncle.

“I have seen the struggle my uncle and the fishermen from my village are facing, growing up. Those days were difficult days and going out in the ocean trying to catch tuna, we often come across a lot of challenges,” Fiubala recalls.

He says he has witnessed some of these challenges firsthand, for instance, when they travelled from Auki to Honiara to sell their catches enduring life threatening boat trips.

Bernard Fiubala (second from left) when he was the Marshall Islands Marine Resources Authority Observer Advisor. He was pictured here with his observers (Meli the incoming, and Manua the outgoing), reviewing the accommodation with the second mate. Photo Francisco Blaha

Considering the challenges growing up as a fisherman with a rich fisheries background, Fiubala says he has seen the need to venture into this fishing business and to help the fishermen around Solomon Islands access a much bigger market.

“Looking at those poor fishermen when they are struggling to earn money, I proposed this idea after returning from the Marshall Islands. With the 25 years of experience, I thought of bringing something that would make a lot of fishermen produce quality and sustainably harvested fish/tuna and other marine products.

“That was the whole idea that I came up with.

“The Company wants to mine the gold in the ocean [fish/tuna] in a sustainable manner so that these sea resources can sustain us from generation to generation,” he adds.

A blue and white fishing boat moves along the sea with fishing nets hanging over the sides

MV Penzella berthing outside the Honiara harbour. Photo Tovolea Photography

Fulfilling the dream: harvesting the ocean’s gold

Since the arrival of his fishing vessel Penzella in 2019, Fiubala and his men have been busy engaging in the fishing business with local fishing communities in certain parts of the Solomon Islands.

To ensure that the aims and vision of the company to practice sustainable fishing is achieved, Mr Fiubala says they have signed agreements with fishing communities around the country.

“To fulfil my dream and company’s vision, we have established working relationships with a number of fishing communities we visited.

“So far, we have signed about 50 Memorandum of Understandings [MOUs] with these communities and they have agreed to work with us,” he states.

Fiubala says the 50 agreements signed covers communities from the Western; Renbel; Guadalcanal; Central Islands; and Malaita, especially the Malaita Outer Islands (MOI).

He also visited the Malaita Outer Islands group and met  with the Chiefs, who were very supportive of the initiative.

Chiefs of the Malaita Outer Islands with Mr Fiubala (second from left, in front) after agreeing to an MoU signed with Wantoku Ocean Development. Photo Bernard Fiubala/ Wantoku Ocean Development

“They liked the idea of us going down and buying fish from them, as it gives them the opportunity to hastily exchange fish for cash to sustain their daily living.”

At one stage in the Russell Islands, Central province, Fiubala says he fished with the people of Loun Community for two nights and paid SBD$30,000 in fish purchases.

For the two nights, they have caught 3.5 tonnes of fish and the money goes straight into the hands of the people of the local community.

In 2020, Wantoku Ocean Development acquired licence to fish and work with the communities of four provinces.

Despite acquiring licences for the four provinces, the company kept on receiving requests for trade from communities around Solomon Islands. But Fiubala says he can only manage four provinces and might involve the other provinces later.

COVID-19 challenges and future plans

As the COVID-19 pandemic is affecting his business, Fiubala says they had to stop their normal operations in August 2020.

However, Fiubala’s Wantoku Ocean Development was very fortunate to receive some assistance from the national government through the Economic Stimulus Package (ESP).

“The economic stimulus package has played a major role in assisting the Wantoku Ocean Development to continue with its operations, after we stopped operating since August 2020. It is good to see that the government recognise the struggles of the business with such financial support.

“Just recently we did a trip under the ESP. But the trip was too short as the ESP funds allocated was nowhere close to the original submitted proposal,” he says.

Fiubala says he only received SBD$140,000 from the government’s ESP and about 50% of the fund have been spent on materials that are needed to keep the business running.

A worker with gloves holds a large fish in a bucket on the deck of a ship

A worker of Wantoku Ocean development displaying a fish they bought from a local fisherman during one of their routine trips to the provinces. Photo Bernard Fiubala/Wantoku Ocean Development

Even though the company is facing difficulties in staying afloat in such an unprecedented time, Fiubala says they are looking to expand their operations in the not-too-distant future.

By December 2021, he says Wantoku Ocean Development is planning to open a fish market in Honiara.

“That’s not a realistic idea but we want to push to have the fish market operational. The company want to push to have a very decent market that sells very high–grade catches of fish that can be stored for a longer period,” Fiubala concludes.

Fiubala sees the vast Solomon Islands waters as a floating goldmine for the wide variety of fishes in the ocean.