For a land (and its seas) that was so full of promise for the fishing industry 20-25 years ago, the headlines do not read very well when it comes to Fiji’s fishing industry. Last year saw some of Fiji’s tuna companies cut down their fleets as the sector came to a complete halt. Increased competition from foreign vessels in or around its waters and a lack of management led to overfishing and ultimately lack of fish for the country’s own fleet.
According to the Fiji Tuna Boat Owners Association, approximately 75% of the domestic fleet have ceased operation in the last five years, with most fleets being able to catch less than 50% of the amount of fish needed for those companies to break even. The catch rate in Fijian waters has fallen from 200 albacore tuna a day in 2010/11 to about 15-20 now. Only five of the 35 vessels owned by members of the Fiji Tuna Boat Owners Association are still fishing and the others are struggling too.
Over the past five or six years, hundreds more foreign vessels (including several heavily subsidised Chinese ones) have entered Fiji’s waters, but the country has also been criticised in the local press for issuing excessive domestic licenses against the advice of many experts, including scientists. This has also encouraged some unscrupulous ‘charter boat’ operators who have bought up licenses but are, in fact, 100% foreign owned, according to Fiji’s Sun Business. One of the biggest companies in Fiji, Fiji Fish, announced at the end of last year that it was giving up its licenses altogether due to the conditions in the market and would now focus on other sectors of the market.
In 2012 alone, 265 million tonnes of tuna was taken from the Pacific Ocean, accounting for nearly 60% of the total global catch. Fleets from Taiwan, Japan, South Korea, China, the USA and even Europe, fished the huge percentage of the catch. The Pacific Islands Tuna Industry Association says the situation in the rest of the Pacific is exactly the same. The association has warned, on several occasions, that unless there is better management of this lucrative resource in the Pacific, the threat of extinction of some of the tuna species is quite high, and the nations of the Pacific stand to loose economically in a big way.
Pacific Island governments are being told that the problem with the fishing industry is in their hands. They need to do something to reduce the catch, and even to ban tuna fishing in some parts of the Pacific.
Despite their knowledge that stocks are becoming unsustainable, governments continue to issue licenses to foreign vessels, getting a short-term revenue from licensing, yet sacrificing the long-term benefits of better quality catches, higher market prices, and better benefits to the domestic fishing industry.
Tuna has for centuries provided an important source of food for Pacific islanders. Today, tuna fishing is also an important source of income and employment. For some island nations, the tuna resources within their 200-mile exclusive economic zones (EEZs) represent their only significant renewable resource, and their best opportunity for economic development.
Despite the criticism on fisheries management, there have been some measures put in place to try and safeguard the future. The Fiji Albacore Tuna Longline Fishery was the first fishery in Fiji to be awarded Marine Stewardship Council certification back in 2012. It was seen at the time as a significant step towards a sustainable future for Fiji’s fishing industry.
“This is an incredibly exciting step for the Fiji Albacore Longline Fishery to take and sets the standard for other longline tuna fisheries in the region to aspire to as the Fiji Tuna Boat Owners Association has now created the momentum to shift fisheries in a sustainable direction,” Seremaia Tuqiri, South Pacific Fisheries Officer for the WWF said at the time.
Traditionally, the fisheries sector in Fiji boasts diverse resources of marine species. These species range from finfish like yellowfin tuna, bigeye tuna, albacore tuna, marlin, swordfish, mahimahi, to deep water fish such snapper, to reef fish species like sea- bream, trevally, grouper, coral trout and rock cods, and to aquaculture products which include prawn, seaweed, giant clam and tilapia.
The overall performance of the sector over past years is attributed to increased catch and prices of tuna for the Japanese sashimi market. The performance of the sector had been closely linked to the growth of offshore fisheries.
Over the years the Government has tried to implement plans to increase national fish supplies. This has involved facilitating private sector growth, promotion of aquaculture, encouraging the harvesting of tuna resources by small-scale fishers, and supporting the marketing of fishery products landed in remote parts of the country.
As mentioned, tuna is the main export product, boosted by the development of domestic tuna longline cannery and processing companies and the vast lucrative sashimi and sushi markets in Japan and the United States of America. Major export products also include deep water snapper, swordfish, blue marlin and wahoo.
The inshore resources that are exported include aquarium commodities such as ornamental fish, live ornamental invertebrates, live coral and live rock. But all is not well on this front either. The population of another popular product - sea cucumbers - is reducing at a significant rate. Inventories carried out over the past few years showed how the number of sea cucumbers continued to drop. There has been high demand from overseas for the product over the last few years, but companies can supply them without having a fishing licence. Many calls have been made by industry asking the Government to regulate the sector, meaning all companies selling sea cucumbers would have to pay for licences and other fees associated with exports. Companies would also have to go through certain criteria before selling products, in a move to also improve sustainability and traceability.
Fiji’s Minister of Fisheries and Forests, Osea Naiqamu said recently that proper management and continued advocacy of Fiji’s coastal fisheries resources is important for food security, income generation and employment opportunities.
The Minister said that the department would be setting up a new Coastal Fisheries Management Division operational in the next three to five years.
“This is to improve data collection and transform the department’s licensing, monitoring, control and surveillance and put in place proper enforcement of fisheries laws and regulations for sustainable benefits of coastal fisheries into the future,” Mr Naiqamu said.
He added that fisheries are renewable resources, however, if not managed properly, the level of depletion would worsen at an unsustainable rate and could hasten the pace of extinction.
“Fijians on average consume approximately 35kg per capita of fish per year. It is, however, projected to be much higher across any fishing villages and maritime island communities, which is being estimated at 113kg per capita of fish consumption, as confirmed by a survey by the Secretariat of the Pacific Community last year”, he said.
Mr Naiqamu said that in recent years, land degradation, habitat destruction, increased pollution and unchecked exploitation of fisheries resources have become a major cause of serious decline in Fiji’s coastal fisheries resources. He said that the ministry would be stepping up efforts to improve the management of coastal fisheries and invertebrate resources through investment in funding and manpower.
He said Fiji’s coastal fisheries was contributing well to the nation’s economic well-being, and that a healthy and sustainable fishery ecosystem was vital for food security, income generation, alternative livelihood options, employment opportunities and general well-being.
During the 2015 Fiji Coastal consultation in Fiji, Mr Naiqamu said the fisheries department had launched a plan to improve its management of coastal fisheries.
“With an estimated 27,000 tons of fresh fish being produced from coastal fishing and its associated contribution to GDP, food and nutrition security, it has also created employment opportunities that contribute to the improvement of living standards across rural and maritime regions in Fiji,” he said.
“To ensure that food, employment and other benefits continue to flow in from coastal fisheries, we strongly need to enhance our efforts in coastal fisheries management. The emphasis now is geared towards more investment in funding and manpower to improve coastal fisheries management, thus to include the setting up of a new coastal fisheries management division within the department where a fully-fledged unit could become fully operational within the next three to five years,” he said.
The goal is to improve data collection and transform the department’s licensing, monitoring, control and surveillance (MCS).
“It is envisioned that once proper enforcement of fisheries laws and regulations are in place, advantageous impacts would lead to sustainable benefits to coastal fisheries for all people in Fiji – well into the future,” he said.
He also said that all involved in the fisheries sector should work together to combat poachers.
“We need to establish continuous communication between all key stakeholders,” Mr Naiqamu said. “Inshore fisheries are a major income source for our coastal communities, and poaching undermines their ability to meet their most basic needs.”
But for now the Pacific region still intends to do deals with foreign countries to fish in its waters.
Pacific Island Parties (PIPs) to the treaty on fisheries with the United States recently reached agreement on an Interim Arrangement of the Treaty that will enable US tuna purse seine fishing vessels to fish in the waters of the Parties in 2016.
The agreement entails 5,700 days fishing in the EEZs of VDS participants; 250 days in the Cook Islands EEZ; and 300 days under an exploratory fishing arrangement in the EEZs of Fiji, Niue, Samoa, Tonga and Vanuatu for a total financial package of US$89,271,350. This represents an increase in the payment per day fished for all VDS parties and Cook Islands, as well as a larger proportion of the share divided equally amongst all PIPs as economic assistance.
The South Pacific Tuna Treaty, also called the US Treaty, entered into force in 1988. It sets down the fishing and operating rules for the US tuna purse seine fleet in the Western and Central Pacific Ocean (WCPO), including waters under the jurisdiction of FFA member countries, which form the Pacific Island Parties to the Treaty. The Treaty provides a unique model of international and fishery cooperation. It has helped establish fisheries observer and data reporting requirements as well as monitoring, control and surveillance standards for the region’s tuna fisheries, all of which are vital to deterring illegal, unreported and unregulated fishing.
The Republic of Fiji Islands is made up of over 300 islands and atolls with a population of approximately 800,000 people. It has an EEZ of around 1,290,000km2, while having a land area of around 18,333km2.
The EEZ of the Republic of Fiji Islands borders five Pacific Island nations: the Republic of Vanuatu to the west, the Solomon Islands to the northwest, the Republic of Tuvalu to the north, Wallis and Futuna to the northeast, and the Kingdom of Tonga to the southeast, with around 40% of the EEZ bordering international waters. In addition, New Caledonia may also share a border through the disputed waters of Matthew and Hunter Islands (disputed between France (New Caledonia) and the Republic of Vanuatu).
At the national level, the Fiji Fisheries Department (a department of the Ministry of Fisheries and Forests) is responsible for fishery management, through the Fisheries Act (Chapter 158 of the Laws of Fiji) and the Marine Spaces Act.