Marape fires warning shot

By Netani Rika, Port Moresby

PAPUA New Guinea has warned that illegal fishing vessels in its national waters will be sunk.

Opening the 16th Regular Session of the Western and Central Pacific Fisheries Commission, Prime Minister James Marape, fired an immediate warning shot.

“I take this time to put illegal fishermen on notice,” Marape said.

“’When I build up the capacity of my maritime protection, illegal boats caught in our waters will be sunk.’’

Marape said tuna fisheries were critically important to many smaller Pacific island countries and must be sustained at all costs.

“Illegal, unreported, unregulated fisheries is a major concern and continues to be a threat to Pacific tuna stocks and the regional economy,” he said.

“We need to continue to address this issue.”

Experts claim that around 26 million tons of fish worth an estimated USD23.5million are illegally caught around the world.

As much as USD15million is lost by developing nations.

“(The) Western and Central Pacific is home to most of the world’s tuna fisheries, making up 50 per cent of the total global catch annually,’’ Marape reminded WCPFC delegates.

“Tuna stocks are at sustainable levels due to hard work by commission members, but we should not be complacent. Tuna (is) significant to some Pacific states and must be protected.”

PNG has fallen victim to illegal fishing fleets from Vietnam and China mainly through its north-western border with Indonesia.

Forum Fisheries Agency Director-General, Dr Manu Tupou-Roosen noted that there had been a reduction in Vietnamese illegal Blue Boat fishing due to a concerted effort by member countries.

“Combating illegal fishing is one of the top priorities of our members,” Tupou-Roosen said.

“These are dark targets – they are not on our vessel monitoring system – but tools like the aerial surveillance system are able to detect these vessels.’’

The FFA introduced surveillance aircraft over the Pacific two years ago to support patrol boats and satellite monitoring of Blue Boats which are small, wooden vessels which sit low in the water and are difficult to detect.

These boats have the ability to stay at sea for long periods and are economical to operate.

The Blue Boats are part of the illegal operations Marape wants to stop.

Marape’s hard-line stand follows a similar stance taken by Indonesia earlier this year.

The Indonesian Maritime Affairs and Fisheries Minister, Susi Pudjiastuti, ordered the destruction of 51 illegal fishing vessels in an attempt to strengthen the local market.

Pudjiastuti said Indonesian fishermen had seen their landings increase since heavy enforcement began four years ago. The quarterly catch was about 5.4 million tons in 2015, rising to about 6.2 million tons by the end of 2018. 

Since 2016, Indonesia has destroyed as many as 200 foreign fishing boats.

Forum Fisheries Commission Chair, Eugene Pangelinan, said Indonesia’s tough stand had a major impact on the reduction of illegal fishing.

“What they have done in removing illegal fishing (boats) from their EEZ is important. At the same time, they have a very big fishery and they do have a major challenge of tackling IUU actions,” Pangelinan said.

“Indonesia has been a very strong advocate for combatting IUU fishing and what they have done is quite remarkable.’’

Meanwhile, PNG’s warning of a similar no-nonsense approach, is supported in reality by five small patrol boats with which to carry out its threat.

The newest addition to its navy, an Australian-funded Guardian Class patrol boat, has been returned to its maker just eight months after entering service.

The remaining four patrol boats are more than 30 years old and there is often insufficient funding available for fuel to put them into service.

Without fuel money it is likely that Marape’s threat will be hollow – as evidenced by the muffled laughter of United States industry observers in the audience – when he uttered the words.

In order to police the EEZ and actually sink illegal fishing boats, PNG will need to look to Australia and its Pacific Step Up programme for fuel money.

That means Marape’s warning over sinking illegal fishing boats may just be a shot in the dark.