Fiji looks North

Kiribati, Tuvalu on Fiji’s tuna radar

By NETANI RIKA, Pasay City, the Philippines

FIJI will seek approval to conduct exploratory tuna fishing in Kiribati and Tuvalu waters for the next five years.

The move comes as Fiji notes a decrease in tuna stocks within its 1.3million square kilometre Exclusive Economic Zone.

Fiji’s Fisheries Minister, Commander Semi Koroilavesau, met his Tuvalu and Kiribati counterparts at the Western and Central Pacific Fisheries Commission here today (Tuesday).

But there is some resistance from Kiribati towards Fiji’s approach while Tuvalu has been more receptive.

“We have asked for a trial period starting with one boat fishing in Tuvalu and Kiribati waters for 12 months initially,” Koroilavesau said.

“Kiribati wants USD12,000 a day per vessel and we believe that’s too much for a boat which must sail from Fiji to the Northern Pacific before returning to off-load its catch.

“Indications from Tuvalu are a little friendlier but this is work in progress and we’ll just have to see where it goes.”

The Food and Agriculture Organisation estimates Fiji’s annual marine fisheries to be 36,400 tonnes.

Given the introduction of on-shore processing facilities in Kiribati, Tarawa may be reluctant to open more of its waters to regional and international fishing fleets.

Koroilavesau said there was a possibility of Free Trade Agreements or Preferred Nation Status arrangements to benefit Fiji, Tuvalu and Kiribati.

“Some of those arrangements fall outside the mandate of the Fisheries Ministry but we need to look at how as Pacific island communities we can maximise benefits to regional communities,” he said.

If Fiji’s northern neighbours do not open their EEZs, Fiji will explore the option of accessing high seas pockets beyond Tuvalu and Kiribati in order to catch Albacore Tuna.

Fiji borders Vanuatu to the West, Solomon Islands to the North-west, Tuvalu to the North and the French territory of Wallis and Futuna to the North-east.

Forty per cent of the Fijian EEZ borders international waters.

Koroilavesau said rapidly falling fish stocks were of a major concern to Fiji operators.

“We have some small operators in Suva (the capital) and Lautoka who are heavily reliant on catches from local boats so we need to get out of Fiji waters to access resources.” he said.

“Ideally we would trial one boat for 12 months in Kiribati and Tuvalu national waters and based on catch results look at increasing that to two or three vessels in the following year.

“Fiji is willing to look at what it can do to accommodate our neighbours in terms of business opportunities in return for access to the fisheries.”

Fiji has opted to find creative ways to support its fishing fleet including the distribution of USD1.6 million in fuel rebate to seven companies.

Named the Tuna Support Fund, four cents per litre of imported fuel was transferred to a State account for distribution to selected fishing companies.

The action was taken ostensibly to allow Fiji-owned firms to compete withforeign fishing which received fuel subsidies from their governments.

Fiji Fish Marketing Group Ltd executive chairman Grahame Southwick said the rebate might not solve all their problems.

“This gives us a bit of breathing space. We are happy now; this will take us through to the next critical years as we try and solve other problems,” he said.

With 30 years of experience in the industry, Southwick said the main problem affecting Fiji fisheries was overfishing due to excessive licensing.

“Controls within Fiji waters are quite strong but it can be a little bit better,” Southwick said.

“But it’s the foreign fleet fishing around Fiji on our perimeters, which is not sustainable.

“Too many boats are fishing in the high seas surrounding us preventing fish from coming into Fiji.

“Before the situation can improve, the regional over fishing and the fleet has to be slashed by at least 50 per cent.’’

Southwick estimated this problem would take five to 10 years to resolve.

Enter Koroilavesau and the Fisheries Ministry which now wants to take the Fijian fleet into foreign waters.

Koroilavesau said talks between Fiji, Tuvalu and Kiribati would continue over the next three days and he looked forward to a positive outcome.