Papua New Guinea’s tuna sector at a crossroads between growth, sustainability

Sylvester Pokajam, the president of Papua New Guinea's Fishing Industry Association, is calling on his country's government to reform its National Fisheries Authority's policy document, which guides its regulation of the sector.

Sylvester Pokajam, the president of Papua New Guinea's Fishing Industry Association, is calling on his country's government to reform its National Fisheries Authority's policy document, which guides its regulation of the sector.

In a 4 March statement, Pokajam said the policy – adopted in 2013 – had never been discussed or approved by the NFA, which he ran from 2004 to 2014, claiming it was “hijacked” by outside interests and sent directly to former PNG Prime Minister Peter O’Neill for approval.

The policy is dragging on efforts to improve and grow the country’s tuna industry, according to Pokajam. Between 1998 and 2013, six new tuna-processing plants were built in PNG, but investment has been scarce since then, he said.

“In fact, we had two project agreement signed by the state and the companies from China and South Korea but they (companies) pulled out,” Pokajam said. “They pulled out because the problem is this, the policy was not able to address their interest. Therefore, the government, through NFA, must review its policy in terms of vessel scheme rates and so on.”

The most-significant problem with the current policy document is the higher prices it charges for the country’s vessel-day scheme, which governs its tuna-fishing sector. Pokajam said other Pacific nations are charging USD 6,000 to USD 7,000 (EUR 5,470 to EUR 6,380) for daily access for their domestic fleets, but in PNG, the cost is USD 10,500 (EUR 9,600) daily. Those higher prices are passed through to processors, which have threatened to close due to high operational costs, he said.

“The processing plants will close down and fishing will go bilateral and there will be no more PNG flag,” Pokajam said. “This is the danger and that is the advice I got from the industry.”

In late February, Pokajam told The National the number of tuna purse-seiners flagged to Papua New Guinea had dropped significantly as a result of the higher prices.

"More PNG flagged vessels are reflagging to other PNA countries, especially Nauru and FSM (Federated States of Micronesia),” Pokajam said. “Since 2019, a total of 37 vessels reflagged to Nauru and 28 reflagged to FSM.”

Pokajam said these two countries "offered discounts vessel day scheme fees and facilitated access for vessels to fish in the first Eastern Indonesia fishing zone."

Only a dozen purse-seiners remain flagged to Papua New Guinea, Pokajam said.

National Fisheries Authority (NFA) Acting Managing Director Justin Ilakini previously told The National the country needed "conducive policies in place to attract vessels to carry the PNG flag and fish in the country’s fishing zones."

The standoff comes as FIA said it will pursue FISH Standard for Crew certification for 32 of its purse-seiners, operated by five separate companies.

An accredited third-party certification program, the FISH Standard for Crew seeks to ensure that fish sold all around the world is harvested by crews who are ethically hired, treated with respect, paid properly, and allowed fair access to address grievance.

Besides ensuring crews are treated fairly, the certification provides assurance to buyers that their tuna comes from a responsible source, according to PNG Fishing Association Sustainability Director Marcelo Hidalgo.

“This journey took FIA PNG across a robust due diligence process implementation that started in 2018 that included policy development, procedure development, and implementation, audit tools, internal webinars to increase awareness, and internal audits," Hidalgo said.

The commitment follows from FIA PNG’s adoption of a responsible sourcing policy in 2018, Hildaog said.

The audit for the FISH Standard for Crew certification will take place in Papua New Guinea in the first week of April 2022. Fourteen purse-seiners operated by Frabelle, eight operated by Trans-Pacific Journey (TPJ), six owned by TSP Marine Industry, and two each owned by Bluecatch and International Food Corporation (IFC) will be included in the audit.

“With an average crew onboard of 28 crew per tuna purse-seiner, this certification process will assess almost 900 crew working onboard FIA PNG tuna purse seiners operating inside PNG's archipelagic waters and its exclusive economic zone fishing area with a [Marine Stewardship Council] tuna availability of 129,000 metric tons,” Hidalgo said.

In late 2019 and early 2020, Frabelle and RD Fishing initiated a trial of the FISH Standard for Crew audit process. Out of that effort came a standard procedure, training program, and audit tools for the FIA to disseminate to its members – an effort that was supported and reviewed by an international stakeholder technical working group that included Human Rights at Sea, Conservation International, the Global Tuna Alliance, and FishWise.

“This stakeholder working group provided critique and feedback to increase the comprehensive approach that is aligned with more than 20 guidance documents, regulations, good practices, and standards-based in ILO C188, IMO, and human rights conventions that look after the crew welfare and working conditions,” Hidalgo said.

The Papua New Guinea Fishing Industry Association’s purse-seine skipjack and yellowfin tuna fishery received Marine Stewardship Council certification in May 2020. The fishery includes onshore processing plants in Papua New Guinea (PNG), supported by PNG-flagged vessels and locally-based foreign fishing vessels. According to an FIA fact sheet, the tuna industry organization collectively operates 48 tuna purse-seiners with MSC certification and six factories with MSC chain of custody certification, with a combined processing capacity of 980 metric tons daily. The fleet has 100 percent onboard observer coverage despite COVID-19, and 91 percent of its tuna is caught from unassociated, free-school sets. Data from the fleet is collected via the Papua New Guinea government’s Fisheries Information Management System (iFIMS), Hildago said.

“We’ve got the certificate and now we are moving to work on the tropical rock lobster in the Torres Strait, following a treaty between Australia and PNG,” Hidalgo said. “It takes time to do the right thing in a responsible manner. In this way, FIA PNG members are increasing the recognition of their good practices with the people working on the fishery, the natural resources, and the planet.”

Pokajam said the MSC certification and the PNG fleet’s other efforts toward sustainability are a major selling point for the country’s tuna. And he said the fleet is now pushing for MSC certification of its other fisheries.

“We are now certified Marine Stewardship Council (MSC) fisheries so that is the way to go,” Pokajam said.  “We’ve got the certificate and now we are moving to work on the tropical rock lobster in the Torres Strait following a treaty between Australia and PNG.”

Photo courtesy of FIA PNG


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