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Nuku’alofa – It is the only locally registered and owned tuna fishing company that is still operating in Tonga today.

And despite the challenges the country and its tuna fishing industry has had to endure since 2020, Pacific Sunrise Fishing is still battling through.

On 9 January 2019, the Matangi Tonga ran an interview with the company’s managing director Eddie Palu.

“Pacific Sunrise Fishing, Tonga’s only locally owned, commercial deep-sea fishing exporter, is scaling down its operation in Tonga” and would start selling some of its assets such as boats, the website quoted Mr Palu as saying on 4 January 2019.

He told Matangi Tonga of his concern over a decision by government for the Foreign Exchange Control Act 2018 to become effective on 1 November 2018.

This week Mr Palu and wife Rosemarie said things have not improved, especially after the COVID-19 pandemic that hit the world in early 2020.

Tonga was not left out and, naturally, tuna fisheries operators suffered.

Dr Tu’ikolongahau Halafihi, the Chief Executive Officer for the Ministry of Fisheries, revealed in an interview earlier that Tonga tuna fisheries were feeling the heat, following the COVID-19 lockdown and the 12 January Hunga-Tonga-Hunga-Ha’apai volcano and ensuing tsunami.

That was reconfirmed by the Palus as they shared their experience since the worldwide lockdown started in March 2020. For Tonga it is still happening, but has eased off in some ways.

Losing overseas markets, overseas crew shortages and the rising costs of operation continue to be major challenges at this time.

But the company is battling on nevertheless.

Iliesa Tora: How has Pacific Sunrise Fishing fared so far, especially with the challenges of COVID-19 lockdown and restrictions? What were some of the challenges that the business has had to deal with?

Eddie Palu: The past two years have been extremely challenging for us, due to our international markets going into lockdown. The flight schedule changed dramatically from 10 flights a week out of Tonga, reduced to one. The connection of that one flight per week to Auckland was not always conducive to a fresh fish product.

We lost Honolulu and the Australian market since March 2020, due to no flights. We had to reduce our staffing; reduce our fishing effort; and foreign crew returned home every time we got an opportunity to send them back so they could be with their families, which left us with a crew shortage.

During Tonga’s lockdown we were forced to stop our business operations for some time.

So we had to deal with flight reductions, international lockdowns, domestic lockdowns, staff reduction, fishing effort reduction and loss of qualified staff.

Tonga Fisheries officers (in blue shirts) monitor the measurement of tuna inside the company’s factory. Credit: Pacific Sunrise Fishing.

IT: Government has revealed that you are the only local company involved with tuna fishing here. How were the years before the COVID-19?

EP: The years prior to COVID-19 were definitely better, and things took a deep dive when COVID-19 hit the world.

IT: With rising costs across the board, what does that mean for your business?

EP: The rising cost of fuel, electricity and freight has affected our business badly, and we are trying to stay operational. We did have to raise the cost of our local fish prices, as a result, to cover some of our costs.

IT: Where do you export to the most?

EP: At the current time we send fish to Tokyo, Los Angeles and Auckland. Prior to COVID-19 we also sent fish to two markets in Honolulu and Australia.

IT: Are you able to share with us what you have been able to make [financially] in the last two years, compared to the five years previous?

EP: We are not able to provide figures, but we are 70% down on what the business was achieving prior to COVID-19.

The company’s fleet at the wharf in Nuku’alofa. Credit: Pacific Sunrise Fishing.

IT: Are you optimistic of the future of tuna fishing here? What would you want to see happening?

EP: Yes, we are always optimistic in this industry! We need the border to open, flights to return to previous frequencies and destinations, ability to recruit from overseas, and some government assistance to help us in the short term to achieve former operational levels.

IT: Is government doing enough to assist? If not, how can government better assist tuna fishing?

EP: We would really appreciate an injection of capital in the short term to allow us to get up and running again. Other steps that could be taken to assist us would be to consider 12 months reprieve from consumption tax; and increasing the amount of the low-interest loan, which is currently at TOP$50,000 per operator.

Tuna fishing is a very high cost industry, and more funds should be made available for us to be able to borrow—say, up to TOP$1 million at a low interest rate would be very useful.

IT: What other issues would you like to be dealt with to help the tuna fishing industry response?

EP: We need to look at the shortage of crew due to losing workers to the [Pacific Australia] seasonal worker program. The unrealistic manning requirements for fishing vessels, which are currently the same manning requirements as for other countries in the Pacific, need to be looked at also.

In addition to COVID-19, Tonga also experienced a tsunami which has caused us to have four vessels in port awaiting repair.

One smiling client is happy with his supply from Pacific Sunrise Fishing. Credit: Pacific Sunrise Fishing.

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