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Fish stocks slump in spite of scheme, says PNG industry

Papua New Guinea’s tuna industry leaders are calling for reform of the regional Vessel Day Scheme, saying it is counterproductive, speeding up stock depletion, with the size of catches getting smaller.

The Vessel Day Scheme (VDS) has been operating since 2005, designed to ‘constrain and reduce catches of target tuna species, and increase the rate of return from fishing activities’ by a complex system of fees paid to member countries of the Parties to the Nauru Agreement (PNA).

The scheme limits the number of fishing days, which are then allocated by country and sold to the highest bidder.

Fisheries Minister Mao Zeming announced last week 309 licences had been issued to fishing companies mainly from the Philippines, Korea, Taiwan, Japan and China for 2015, with access to Archipelagic Waters reduced from 9000 to 5500 days.

PNG Fishing Industries Association President Pete Celso says the scheme has been counterproductive, despite the good intention, because of the recent hike in fees.

The latest PNA agreement saw fees rise to US$10,000 per day, providing an estimated US$300 million(K792 million) for participating Pacific nations.

‘The increase in fees has meant boats are staying out longer, catching or setting nets twice or even more a day, and the average size of the fish (is) getting smaller and smaller,’ he told Business Advantage PNG.

According to researcher Matthew Dornan at the Australian National University in Canberra, access fees or their equivalent were an estimated US$218 million in 2013 and US$91 million in 2009, after the Vessel Day Scheme was introduced, compared with figures of below US$70 million in the years before the scheme was introduced.

While scheme has been successful in improving economic returns for Pacific nations, it has failed to stop the decline in fish stocks.

Professor Glenn Hurry, the outgoing Executive Director of the Western and Central Pacific Fisheries Commission (WCPFC), says stocks of yellowfin, bigeye and bluefin tuna have all been reduced. Stocks of bigeye are now down to 16 per cent of their original numbers.

More than 60 per cent of the world’s tuna is caught in the Pacific by vessels from distant water fishing nations such as China, Japan, Taiwan South Korea, Spain, North and South America. The PNG fisheries zone of 2.4 million square kilometres is the largest in the South Pacific, and between 10% and 20% of the world’s tuna catch is caught in PNG waters.

Annual catches are up to 580,000 tonnes per year. The Pacific Tuna Forum estimates that the value of the annual tuna catch in PNG is about US$1.3 billion (K3.43 billion), which could double to US$2.7 billion (K7.1 billion) if the industry explored more value-added activities.

To achieve this, Celso (who is also Managing Director of R D Tuna Canners) has suggested PNG authorities provide incentives to the fishing companies and/or on-shore processors that are off-loading fish and/or processing fish on-shore.

‘This would help us achieve our goal of processing in-country 100% of the tuna catch from within our exclusive economic zone,’ he says.

‘This would help us increase the volume of production on-shore using a natural incentive scheme.’

EU market
Driving much of the expansion of onshore processing is the European Union, which has an Interim Economic Partnership Agreement with PNG that allows for tariff-free imports of tuna.

However, in June 2014 the EU issued what it calls a ‘yellow card’ to PNG because it is failing to ensure the sustainability of tuna fishing in its waters, after more than 720,000 tonnes was caught in 2012, well above the maximum sustainable yield of 500,000 tonnes estimated by PNG’s National Fisheries Authority.

A EU report stated the country loses approximately K65 million annually due to illegal, unreported and unregulated (IUU) fishing in their waters.

Late last year, the PNG Government gazetted a new tuna management plan and has proposed amendments to the Fisheries Management Act to forestall a possible EU import ban.