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Nuku’alofa – The Tonga tuna fishing industry is feeling the heat from challenges it has faced in the first four months of 2022, adding to the woes it has faced in the last five years.

On 15 January this year the Hunga-Tonga-Hunga-Ha’apai volcanic eruption and the ensuing tsunami-devastated islands in the Ha’apai Group and those close to Tongatapu, including some villages on the main island and ‘Eua island off the east coast of Tongatapu.

That forced the government to declare a state of emergency and put everything on hold—stopping fishing, farming, education and other businesses. Only essential services were allowed to continue.

And just when things started to open up, COVID-19 landed in Nuku’alofa on 1 February.

Restrictions of movements were put in place as a national lockdown took over.

Dr Tuikolongahau Halafihi, the Chief Executive Officer for the Ministry of Fisheries, and his staff have been busy since January, meeting fisheries stakeholders and tuna-fishing operators.

There is no denying that the industry, already hampered by other factors in the last five years or so, is suffering badly.

Dr Halafihi, or Hau as he is known to friends, shares his thoughts on how the Tonga tuna-fishing industry is faring right now and the challenges it faces.

IT: What is the situation with the tuna industry here after the January 15 events and the current COVID-19 situation?

TH: The tuna fisheries industry, like every other sector in Tonga, is facing tough challenges at this time following the recent events that we have encountered here in Tonga. Those challenges have affected the industry drastically, adding to the challenges we were facing before all those happened.

On January 15 the volcano eruptions and ensuing tsunami forced our operating fishing vessels to take shelter and stay away from fishing, following the restrictions put in place by government because of the state of emergency we had to go through.

Although we have seen a slow return to operation by some of our vessels, the situation is still very much in need of getting better.

In the last three years we have been working with only two foreign fishing vessels and two local vessels who were involved in the tuna industry. Our allocation that we have approved is to have 10 foreign vessels and 10 local vessels fishing in our Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ).

We allowed for licensing of 10 foreign vessels and 10 locals, but we only had six local vessels licensed—and out of that, only two boats are operating, with four sitting at the wharf and out of action.

The COVID-19 restrictions have affected our export because we had no flights for some time, but thankfully now with the easing of restrictions we are slowly getting some exports done. Most of our operators also export through container ships, so that is also affected.

We have been affected big time, and we hope that we can pull back in and start moving forward positively from now on.

IT: How many local tuna fishing companies do we have currently operating in Tonga?

TH: There is only one local company operating, and that is Pacific Sunrise Fishing. They are Tonga’s only locally owned, commercial deep-sea-fishing exporter, owned by Eddie Palu.

Eddie and Rosemarie Palu at Pacific Sunrise Fishing. Supplied: Pacific Sunrise Fishing Facebook

IT: How many overseas but Tonga-licensed companies and vessels are here in Tonga?

TH: Right now we are supposed to have 10 vessels, but we only have two that are operating. They are currently in Fiji where they are trying to get crew and get through the current COVID-19 restrictions there.

IT: For the last five years, how much was Tonga able to earn from tuna fishing? 

TH: The Ministry of Fisheries used the free-on-board value to calculate the estimated cost of catch for local tuna. The value is an historical estimate and may not represent the true present value. We estimate that we earn TOP$10 million per year from tuna catches.

Because we do not get the total income made by local operators who export tuna, we are not able to give a real value, but we estimate that it would be around TOP$30 million annually.

IT: What was the total tuna catch annually in the last five years that the Ministry is able to report?

TH: We have estimated a total catch value of 3,000 metric tons annually over the last five years.

We know that can increase if we have all the resources and are able to have the [maximum] number of vessels and operators. The potential is there if we are able to meet the need to ensure that we have the vessels sailing and going out to get the tuna in.

IT: Are we able to meet the demand locally?

TH: That is another issue: the inability to meet the local market demand. We are just not able to do that yet.

There are a number of reasons, but basically the main one is that we do not have the operators and the vessels. That is because the cost of operation is very high. Most who were interested quickly lost hope and stopped.

With the current situation and what we have just gone through, it makes it tougher than ever before. We have local fishing vessels sitting at the wharf because they cannot meet the costs… they cannot find the crew to go out.

And the current costs of things going up does not help; fuel costs, costs of parts and everything else is changing and most of our locals are not able to meet those.

Then we have the focus on domestication—making more locals get into the sector. So, we do not also have the foreign companies who could be here to supply the market and meet the demand as a result.

Now, we are working hard on the partnership scheme where we can have foreign boat owners partner with a local to register a business here, and they provide that service. It is something we are pushing hard because we know that our locals do not have the resources to be able to secure vessels.

IT: What are some of the issues that we face that hamper the tuna industry here?

HT: Right now, I would say, it is a tougher time for tuna-fishing operators here than ever before. COVID-19 has been a big challenge because of the lockdown and restrictions. Hopefully, with Tonga slowly easing off restrictions, and plans to have borders open around June or July, this would help with the situation we are in.

Second, we do not have the crews now to sail and work on local and foreign vessels because of the COVID-19 restrictions. For the local operator, a lot of our people are going to New Zealand and Australia on the Pacific Australia Labour Mobility scheme.

That means those who might have been to sail are now going away. While it is bad for us, it is good for them—because they at least have some income. Our foreign vessels usually depended on foreign crew from Indonesia and the Philippines, but they are not able to come and work at the moment.

Operation costs have gone up and that makes it harder for those in the industry. It has been tough before but now, with the current situation that is being felt across the globe, things are certainly tougher. The cost of fuel, spare parts and almost everything else has gone up and continues to increase, so that will be something everyone will feel in the industry.

And because of the policy to domesticate the tuna industry here, we are not able to lure in more foreign operators. That is a drawback also for us, but we are trying to push the partnership scheme through.

IT: How has government been able to assist the industry?

HT: Government has and is still giving fuel subsidy and various other assistance for the tuna industry. The Ministry of Fisheries has annual allocation from government to support the industry, and that is available for operators.

IT: What are Tonga’s main concerns that you take to the regional and international tuna meetings?

HT: One of the issues we are serious on is the management of the Pacific albacore, because that is critical for our industry. Tonga joins other South Pacific Group countries like Fiji in pushing for this issue at regional and international tuna meetings.

Another big one now is the Multilateral Treaty on Fisheries or ‘the US Treaty’. The Treaty will expire in 2023. It entered into force in 1988 and has since been renewed twice, with the last renewal in 2003 allowing the US Treaty to continue for an additional 10 years until 2013. The treaty allows up to 40 US purse-seine vessels to fish in the waters of the 16 Pacific Islands Forum Fisheries Agency (FFA) member states.

These countries are Australia, Cook Islands, Federated States of Micronesia, Fiji, Kiribati, Marshall Islands, Nauru, New Zealand, Niue, Palau, Papua New Guinea, Samoa, Solomon Islands, Tonga, Tuvalu and Vanuatu.

The US contributes an agreed annual amount, regardless of how much fish they take out, to the countries and FFA.

That is important for us in the South Pacific Group, because there is the possibility that the US will move to the high seas and fish there if the Treaty ends—and we will lose out if that does happen—so getting the Treaty extended and renewed is very important. Managing the high seas as well is critical in that regard for Tonga and other countries who do not enjoy the opportunities that others have.

Also having a fair ‘share of the pie’ is something that Tonga and the South Pacific Group of countries are looking at.

IT: How can we improve as we move forward?

HT: Government, through the Ministry of Fisheries, will continue to work with locals and work on the continuing domestication of the tuna industry here in Tonga. That is critical, because our foreign operators do not contribute to the Gross Domestic Product of the country.

That is the reality that we face. Although we get US$14,000 annually per foreign vessel licensed here and five percent of the total value of catch annually per vessel, that is it. Their earnings do not contribute to the local GDP.

So the focus is on us to push for the domestication and keep working at it, because that contributes to the GDP.

While the agriculture sector exports are little in comparison to what tuna fisheries export annually, the agriculture contribution to the GDP is almost 15% annually, while tuna fisheries just contribute around 1%. So that is the challenge, and one we are working hard on.

There are certainly a lot of improvements needed in the sector, and we continue to work with our operators hoping that things will get better.

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