Interview: Pedro Celso

To what extent are the limits of the current vessel day scheme affecting stocks in Papua New Guinea?

PEDRO CELSO: The current system was put in place by regional governments as part of the Nauru Agreement to reduce catches of target tuna species, as well as to maximise the economic benefits by collecting the access fees paid by distant fishing nations. Although industry was supportive of this initiative, there are currently concerns about the sustainability of the scheme, based on statistical data we gathered from the PNG National Fisheries Authority. Indeed, the PNG administration has not managed to control the number of foreign boats fishing in the country’s rich national waters, which are considered to contain the largest and most valuable tuna purse seine fishery in the world.

A single vessel pays $10,000 on average in access fees for a whole fishing day, which is a considerable investment on their part. As a result, they have been fishing very aggressively to recoup the investment, frequently casting nets several times a day in the same area to maximise output and minimise costs. Fishing vessels nowadays are equipped with cutting-edge technologies, and use sophisticated satellite facilities and helicopters to track stocks, while most of the work onboard is carried out mechanically to boost efficiency. Vessel owners in the past used to pay on the basis of their catch with no time constraints, which was more effective in terms of sustainability. After all, if you fish constantly over the same area, the stock will inevitably become smaller. This is something we have noticed in recent years, and is also confirmed by statistics from the National Fisheries Authority.

What kind of management system would be more sustainable to ensure sustainability in the long run?

CELSO: The Palau arrangement was based on restricting the total number of vessel licences available, so that there would be a maximum of 205 fishing vessels casting nets in any given area. Today that number can easily go up to 300 or more, with undesired effects on the size of the stock. In more general terms, however, I believe that the government should focus on supporting onshore production for a more diversified sector by adding value to the industry’s output. The current approach of allowing an increasingly large number of foreign vessels to fish in PNG waters seems to me to be too simplistic in light of the existing context.

As far as we know, as many as 75% of these vessels process their catches overseas, with a significant impact on the growth of the canning industry in PNG. By making domestic processing plants more competitive, they would have a better chance on the international market. Despite the high cost of doing business in PNG, more investments and expansions are happening, resulting in economies of scale that enable investors to produce more, lower freight costs and spread out the fixed costs to many more units. That said, the northern coast of PNG has been attracting sizeable investments from other international companies willing to process fish onshore, who have taken advantage of the tuna stocks available in PNG’s 2.5m-sq-km exclusive economic zone.

What measures can be taken to counter the EU’s “yellow card” warning for lack of cooperation in the fight against unregulated fishing?

CELSO: The PNG NFA has initiated many reforms in order to satisfy the main demands of the EU. More specifically, the Fisheries Act has already been amended to reflect the changes that were being sought by the bloc. In addition to these, a Tuna Management and Development Plan reflecting major reforms is in place and other issues such as the Catch Documentation Scheme and Memorandum of Agreements with fishing partners and countries are as well. Many improvements have been made too: 100% observer coverage, a modern VMS system, the Catch Documentation Scheme, Catch Certificate details and others that have been in place. Thus, the industry expects that the yellow card issue will now be put to rest and that PNG will again be restored to its original green card status.