Feb 27, 2021 Last Updated 4:38 AM, Feb 26, 2021

To talk marine issues

The 8th Pacific Heads of Fisheries Meeting is taking place March 4-8 in New Caledonia. The meeting, convened by the Secretariat of the Pacific Community (SPC), brings together heads of fisheries departments from Pacific Islands countries and territories (PICTs) to discuss not only the work of SPC’s Fisheries, Aquaculture and Marine Ecosystems Division, but also fisheries-related issues of regional importance.

Notable topics on the agenda this year include management of sea cucumber fisheries and biosecurity for aquaculture. The Pacific’s sea cucumber or beche-de-mer (as the tradeable product is known once it has been cleaned and dried) trade is the region’s second most valuable marine product trade after the tuna trade. The trade has a long history and has been characterised nearly from the beginning by a boom and bust cycle, with the money to be made during periods of boom, leading people to overexploit the easy-to-harvest animals, thus leading to bust conditions as stocks are all but wiped out in certain locations.

A study of the beche-de-mer industries in Papua New Guinea, Solomon Islands, Vanuatu, Fiji and Tonga, funded by the Australian Centre for International Agricultural Research (ACIAR) and undertaken by SPC, has revealed that more precautionary management of the fishery could result in stable revenues, year in and year out, that are equivalent to the average of recent harvests—eliminating the boom and bust cycle while ensuring the resource is sustainable. 

A 10–20% gain in value could be realised by exercising greater care in processing. In addition, the study found that had this precautionary management approach been taken in the past, medium-run revenues from the fishery would have been double those actually achieved.

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Sea cucumber a lucrative trade?

TThe Pacific Islands are facing what could be the end of their longest surviving commercial export fishery. Sea cucumber and beche-de-mer (its processed form) is a source of livelihood for many communities but it is being overfished as a result of continuous fishing and lack of effective management by authorities. Communities are now feeling the pain of losing an important income source. In the Solomon Islands’ atoll of Ontong Java, 30 years of continuous fishing has brought the sea cucumber fishery to collapse.

With few other sources of cash, people are now enduring hardship. Bêche-de-mer is a luxury food in China where it is called hai sen and said to have medicinal and aphrodisiac qualities. High demand for the product has provided a lucrative trade for small businesses throughout the Pacific. In fact, the importance of sea cucumber as a commercial fishery is often unrecognised. In Fiji, Solomon Islands and New Caledonia for example, the value of sea cucumber exports is equal to around 19 to 32% of the value of tuna catches in their exclusive economic zones.

But years of intensive fishing and ineffective enforcement of management measures have depleted the region’s resources. The results of a study of the state of coastal fisheries, carried out by the Secretariat of the Pacific Community (SPC) from 2002 to 2009, are clear—sea cucumber stocks in the Pacific Islands are largely overfished.

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This year PNA (Parties to the Nauru Agreement) celebrates 30 years of sub-regional co-operative fisheries management. It has been a remarkable journey for eight Small Islands Developing States (SIDS). Their voyage has been long, and the currents and waves they have encountered along the way have been strong. But they have planted some landmarks along the way and shaped the configuration of international fisheries.

Their voyage, however, has not ended. It is only beginning. They are not quite as close to the shores as they would like to be, but they have established a good framework over the past 30 years. The navigation beacons are up, and the foundations have been laid. These will guide them home, to those celestial shores. It is a journey that has not been traversed without challenges, but it has survived 30 years. It is fitting that they reflect on their achievements, the challenges ahead, and ask, whether we of the latter generation have fulfilled the wishes of the founding fathers of PNA.

Let me venture to repudiate a common misconception about the PNA; that PNA is a new organisation, that it is a splinter group, that it undermines regional solidarity. It is none of these. As is self evident by the anniversary, the Nauru Group or Parties to the Nauru Agreement more colloquially known as the “PNA” is 30 years old! It is older than some of the conventional regional organisations in the region. The PNA makes no bones of its economic goals and aspirations. It is no secret, it is not some hidden agenda. It merely reiterates the inspiration that drove Pacific Islands Forum Leaders of the ilk of the late Ratu Sir Kamisese Mara when they called on Pacific Islands nations to declare their 200-mile Exclusive Economic Zones.

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The beauty of the current US negotiations with the Pacific islands is that the public is completely aware of the issues that separate the Pacific and the USA in a renewal of this quarter century old agreement.

If there is a disagreement in the secret bilateral agreements between individual countries and Asian and European access agreements, then it is usually measured in terms of back-handers to the officials and ministers involved.

In 1988 I was appointed Economic Adviser to the then incoming Prime Minister of Papua New Guinea, Sir Rabbie Namaliu. As a mere novice, the first job I was given was to do with something widely viewed as politically unimportant tuna fisheries negotiations.

PNG was then at the centre of an international storm as one of the ministers, who will remain nameless to protect the guilty, had withdrawn PNG from the regional tuna fisheries negotia- tions with the US over what was to become the US-Forum Fisheries Agency negotiations.

It was argued that PNG could best pursue its interests as a sovereign nation without having to come to an agreement with other countries in the region. Nationalism in the Pacific has always been the first, not the last refuge of scoundrels and the fisheries attract the very worst sort. Commercial actions invariably have two reasons—the good one and the real one.

In this case, the real one, at least according to the PNG Ministry of Foreign Affairs who was working with me, was that once a multilateral treaty was in place, it would no longer be nec- essary to pay bribes for access to the decision- makers. Despite the desire for back-handers, the sheer weight of international pressure was applied to PNG by its neighbours and the country agreed to sign the treaty.

After almost a quarter of a century, I would like to believe that PNG government officials and ministers have now shaken off the vile stench of corruption that was so prevalent in the 1980s in fisheries and are now only motivated by the highest ethical concerns.

However, it was curious that in April 2011 PNG had once again withdrawn from the FFA tuna treaty and stated it was open to bilateral negotiations with the USA. It has, for the mo- ment, rejoined the fold and is negotiating as a Pacific group.

US offer now US$58m for islands tuna

As the pacific races to seal a deaL for its tuna stocks, Papua New Guinea has been able to secure a temporary payment of $45 million from the United States for the Pacific Islands Parties as a condition for revoking the termination of the US treaty.

Papua New Guinea Prime Minister Peter O’Neill when this edition went to press was preparing to take the matter to the National Executive Council for approval.

The move has been described as significant given the history of the treaty and the lengthy negotiations for a successor agreement.

This will give the United States and the Pacific islands Parties more time to continue negotiating for a successor treaty.

But it certainly has been a breakthrough to get this far after stakeholders have gone through some lengthy and at times intense talks.

O’Neill wrote to Pacific Islands leaders last month informing them that his government had been in contact with United States officials and he would be offering them $45 million for 9000 days the US fishing fleet will operate in the Pacific region as a condition for revoking its notice to withdraw from the treaty. The withdrawal would have taken effect on May 14, this year

This was before the fifth round of negotiations for the South Pacific Tuna Treaty, which took place in Nadi last month.

At that meeting, US officials agreed to the PNG conditions to pay $45 million for the 25th and last Licensing Period to the current ten-year financial package of the treaty which started on June 15, 2003 before it revokes its earlier termi- nation notice. PNG’s Minister for Commerce Charles Abel was sent to personally relay this message dur- ing the treaty negotiations in Nadi last month, a meeting is normally attended by directors of fisheries departments in the region. 

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