Tonga-based Pacific Sunrise Fishing had been on a steady upward trajectory since its humble beginnings until the nearby Hunga Tonga-Hunga Ha’apai volcano erupted in January 2022, resulting in a tsunami that caused half of its six longliner boats to end up on the rocks.
Founded in 1998 by husband-and-wife team Eddie and Rosemarie Palu, Pacific Sunrise Fishing started with just one small boat and what Rosemarie calls “a scale on a nail” in a small outdoor space. From there, Eddie would bring in a catch each day that they would sell mostly to the local market.
Fast-forward nearly two decades and the opportunity arose for the company to expand.
“This opportunity came up to acquire two other tuna longliners and move into their facility, which was a proper facility with a retail shop and freezers and chillers,” Rosemarie Palu told SeafoodSource during Seafood Expo Asia. “And everything tripled overnight. Suddenly we were really in the fishing industry!”
From there, the company has purchased three more vessels for a total of six longliners, and has grown to employ 75 local people on the small Pacific island of Tonga. The company has steadily developed an export market for its fresh tuna and mahi, and in a typical year ships out fresh fish on six flights a week to customers in a number of markets overseas, including the U.S.
However, the volcanic eruption, along with an accompanying cyclone, rapidly changed all that. Three of the company’s six longliners were put out of commission, and since that time in early 2022, only one has been fully repaired.
To make matters even worse, aid brought in from other countries to help Tonga in the wake of the tsunami brought in another disruptive force – COVID-19.
“We were doing quite good until the COVID, which pretty much affected the whole world,” Eddie Palu said. He compared it to being a boxer feeling good about a fight, “and then COVID came around and completely decked us!”
COVID-19 resulted in constricting markets, but more severely for Pacific Sunrise Fishing it meant fewer flights to and from the island nation. Tonga still has a number of restrictions in place related to the pandemic, including testing requirements that force all visitors to the country to take COVID tests every few days.
“The border is open up for travelers. However, you still have to have a COVID test 48 hours before you get there, and you have another test after three days, and another one after five days,” Eddie Palu said.
As a result, tourism is down, resulting in fewer flights and less opportunity to ship cargo abroad.
“The biggest thing for us is the air freight, because we only deal with fresh fish, our product goes out by air. So the company is only running at 50 percent capacity at the moment,” Eddie Palu said.
Still, the couple is optimistic about the future of their company. Eddie said it feels like they’re “turning a corner” as more flights begin to open up, and currently it appears as though flights will return to a relatively normal schedule by November 2022.
Now that things are returning to normal, the company said it was granted the opportunity to exhibit at Seafood Expo Asia – running from 14 to 16 September in Singapore – via the Pacific Islands Forum Fisheries Agency, an organization established to help a number of South Pacific nations sustainably manage and operate the seafood industries.
The goal, Rosemarie Palu said, is to meet new customers – especially new customers more insulated from air-freight issues.
“We’d like customers that are closer by,” she said.
Photo by Chris Chase/SeafoodSource