The tuna transhipment hub of Majuro / by Francisco Blaha

Very little is known about the Republic of Marshall Islands (RMI), even if they are at the crossroads of many of the developed world consequences... 4 colonial masters in less than 100 years (Spanish, Germans, Japanese and the US), then 2nd WW hotspot, followed by American imperialism, then nuclear tests and fallout, set up as tax heavens, FoCs (flag of convenience organizations), sea level rising and climate change, airlines duopoly squeezing fortunes of them, just to name a few...

 the beautiful front line

the beautiful front line

However, its location and magnificent protected lagoon make it a fantastic transshipment hub for the Pacific tuna trade.

Last year they had 704 transshipments involving nearly 450,000 tonnes of tuna, which at the Tuna prices on the Bangkok market (that have started to weaken) to$1400/mt are worth 630 million USD, which is ridiculous when you consider that RMI annual budget is 90millon (U.S. aid and reparations accounted for 60% of it).

 repeat this image 10 times a day

repeat this image 10 times a day

So every day millions of dollars worth of tuna are transhipped in the Majuro lagoon, while most Majuro's inhabitants live in tough conditions and the remoteness of the outer atolls makes mostly accessible only by boat, even if at any time they would be several helicopters on top of the purse seiners transhipping.

From the fisheries compliance perspective, their role is fundamental and is entrusted to the Oceanic Division of the Marshall Islands Marine Resources Authority (MIMRA). I have been their guest for this week.

 my hosts

my hosts

The key issue is that for biggest part of the purseine tuna, this is the last stop before they leave the region forever, and by the nature of fishing, the verified weights (hence how much fish was actually caught) is only known at the dockside on the processing states, where the fish is weight in for payments and prior to processing. The rest is all estimates.

And as the processing nations for most of the WC Pacific Tuna (Thailand, Philippines and increasingly Ecuador) don't communicate back the weights per vessels, the transshipment weight estimations are our best opportunity to know how much was caught.

Furthermore, fish does not become illegal at the factories, is caught and unloaded illegally. And as all these movements occur here, RMI needs to be a responsible port state. Let me use my standard explanation: “A” steals a stereo from “B”, and then it goes to “C” house and sells it… “A” is a criminal and “C” is an accomplice, and “B” is the accuser. Pass this to the IUU fish world, “A” is responsibility from the Flag State, “B” is the Coastal State where the IUU fishing occurs and “C” is the Port State.

 Beau doing the checks

Beau doing the checks

And while there is solid argument on question why a country with such a limited resources as RMI, is to take responsibility of controlling the operations of vessels from DWFN that ridiculously subsidize their industry and have abyssal level of compliance (Taiwan – 400millon US/year, China around 2 billons, including 1 million fuel subsidies per Purse Seiner).Taiwan – 400millon US/year, China around 2 billons, including 1 million fuel subsidies per Purse Seiner).

Well… that is a big topic… one that deserves its own discussion (not today). The reality is that many of the PICs do take the responsibility as fish is one of the few sources of revenue they have, and then the pressure from civil society and the EU that will point fingers and shame them with labels of non cooperating countries, or pirate ports or whatever.

 Coming from the paper work

Coming from the paper work

And, since all vessels come and go from here, is a hub for the Fisheries Observers (in no many places in the world you will see guys with fisheries observer t-shirts in shops, walking the streets and so on). Hence the place is at the forefront of what we try to do regarding tuna fisheries in the Pacific. Not in vain, the PNA Office is based there.

Needleless to say MIMRA has only limited resources available, but very good people! Therefore in many ways RMI is a great place to test run the Unloading Authorization Code model, integrated into FIMS (wrote about this in the past), so I came here to scope the system design… and it has been great.

 Catch monitors, mostly former or off duty observers... unsung heroes in fisheries

Catch monitors, mostly former or off duty observers... unsung heroes in fisheries

I’m exploring the opportunities of integrating various sources of data we already have: VMS, licensing, e-logbook and FFA compliance Index. The idea is that because vessels need to provide 72 hrs notice prior port arrival, we can use these data streams to remotely pre-assess the legality of the catch prior vessel arrival and then focus the limited resources in targeting those vessels with lower compliance indexes and add the observers notes on compliance, interactions with species of special interest and marine pollution that we receive on a daily basis via the e-Obs app. The aim is to focus arrival inspections on those that deserve it more, then we come on board with tablet App that is preloaded with the data of interest, so the inspection is not about finding problems and questions… but finding answers to the problems we already know, while keeping eyes open for the ones we may see.

And while the FAO Port State Measures Agreement in not compulsory, nothing stop countries from using some of the elements it has. In this case, pre-screening and denial of permission to transship or unload if IUU fishing has been detected. The biggest penalty you can put on a rogue vessel is not a fine… is not letting them unload.

 This is the key issue

This is the key issue

But then, a fully hard-core attitude towards compliance, if not regionally adopted… will imply that the fleets will simply move to other regional hubs with a lesser incline or capacity to be a responsible port state. Transshipments generate good revenues ashore as well. Mike McCoy estimates in his 2012 transshipment study figures in between 9 to 14000 USD per vessel (not including fuel). So unless the system is implemented and maintained regionally, the fleet will move somewhere else that, while less convenient geographically, may let them get away with less scrutiny.

In any case, while a lot of these days here involve sitting and thinking, writing (hate it!), exploring data capabilities, designing App and screen interfaces, I also get to go on board and accompany the MIMRA crew and embed myself into their day to day activities… which is something I love!

And here is were my days on vessels pay back… you look at numbers and operations, and you know if bullshit is nearby… i.e. is no way that those drums with oil have been there since you left port a month ago… no fish slime, scales or rust on rims… no saltishness on the backside? Or you him to sign a paper that says that vessel xxx did a 300ton set in a day (and was able to freeze it!)… and then was able to transship 800 tons in less than 48 hrs… really!!

 man on a mission (observers are the corner stone of fisheries management in the pacific)

man on a mission (observers are the corner stone of fisheries management in the pacific)

So yeah… jobs like this one make my days happier… I’m trying to design something new and useful, using new technologies, to help improve traceability and levels of compliance. And I get to go up and down from boats, and I like that :-)

But the best of it, is that I get to hang out with cool people, like the young local fisheries deputy director Sam (check his other side as a local street artist that makes awesome t-shirts), Beau a young enforcement officer and ocean man (surfer, fisher, freediver, boatman, etc, etc) and lots of other people that are working hard to control this transhipment hub and let their people have a fairer slice of what is, after all, their fish.

You, ladies and gentleman, have my full respect.