I have been working on transhipments controls and Port State Measures for a while, I think this year in between all my jobs I’ll be doing over 100 boardings in total. Most of them, of course, took place here in Majuro.
Last week we had at some stage 14 carriers and 28 Purse Seiners, and in general we hit over 420 transhipments controlled a year quite consistently. But what makes Majuro such a desirable transhipment port, over other regional alternatives, such as Tarawa, Funafuti or Pohnpei?
I have been making my self this question for a while and besides trying to answer it as a fisherman, I been talking to observers, captains and company reps… and, as in anything else in fisheries, there is not a straightforward answer, but rather a series of natural and operational advantages that combine nicely.
Obviously, this is my take on this, and I will be stunned if I did not forget to consider other factors… as Oscar Wilde said “I’m not young enough to know everything.”
Good anchorage: As you can see in the map above, the Majuro lagoon is very protected but what you don't see is that it has very good anchorage grounds: good deep sand. Most operators I talked never had issues with anchor dragging on high winds (a big problem in Tarawa) and that corner of the lagoon is remarkably stable to groundswell, only wind chop sometimes. This may not come up in any economic type analysis… but is incredibly important. Honestly, you don't want to have someone continually triangulating position to see if you anchor is dragging. And this is particularly important for carriers that often have two Purse Seiners transhipping (one on port and one on starboard) and all depending on the carriers anchor.
Easy port access: to come to Majuro there is a deep well-marked channel without shifting sandbanks or exposed coral heads
Town Access: the lagoon has access to downtown via the Uliga wharf, you can be in any vessel in the lagoon in 10 -15 minutes from there. The crew can go down, and stuff can come up. Supermarkets, entertainment, phone cards, pharmacy, etc. all nearby. On top of that an easily accessible airport with flights to the US, Australia and Fiji via Nauru and soon PNG, which is good for Observers… and all with connections to Asia which is good for companies and crew.
Services access: Purse Seiners and carriers are floating little cities… imagine everything you need on your daily life, well is the same there. Vessels need shit loads of stuff. And there is an incredible amount of machinery that needs parts and maintenance: from propulsion, to electricity generators, to hydraulics, to refrigerate 900 tons of fish, to maintain the electronics, to cook, etc., etc., etc. Most things can be repaired here or can be sent to repair in Hawaii 5 hrs away.
Big wharf access for net repairs: There are two big wharves to load or unload heavy gear, and one of them has a net repair shed with a Net Master based there… A Purse Seiner net is a marvel of craft and design that weight tons…
The dimensions of these nets can reach a length of 2,000 m and 300 m in depth. The measures vary depending on the characteristics and the power of the boat yet each part of the net (aft and fore strut; aft cutter; central body, vertical panels; horizontal panels; bag mouth and bag) have their own intricacies and twines. Then you have to include the floatline, floats, leadline, bridle line, sein rings, purse line, and so on… it never stops… a net master has to have all this in his head and also understand the characteristics of the vessel and gear as to make changes and adapt each or some of the parts. The Panamanian net master here is indeed a master.
Helicopters: While the role of helicopters on board is coming to an interesting situation, as they compete now with drones and by the fact that most fish are caught on FADs with sonar buoys… they still an important element of the industry.
The tuna helicopter world is a subculture inside a subculture… the helicopter doesn't belong to the boat, but are subcontracted by the boat owners from specialised companies, that provide the helicopter, the mechanic (mostly Philippinos) and the pilots… once the niche of NZ and Australians, now is they have been replaced by much cheaper out of work former military Nicaraguan, Salvadorian, Guatemalan, Panamanian, Venezuelan and Colombian pilots. Helicopters need lot of maintenance, their own fuel, and their own “set up”usually not going beyond 40 nm from the vessel they are used to spot fish schools…
Majuro has an airport that is 5 minutes flight from any PS and a local base for Hansen one of the key helicopter service providers worldwide. Meaning that if a helicopter is broken beyond onboard repair, just come to the wharf (see above) crane down the helicopter and there is another one in the airport ready to fly to your boat, and you can go no fishing.
Ubication and distance from where to the fish is: When in “normal” conditions (what ever-shifting meaning this has these days) the fish tends to be on the western side of the Pacific, so vessels have the options in PNG of Rabaul or Vidar (near Madang) but this is mostly for Philippine vessels or associated with PNG based companies (and in the case of Vidar it belongs to RD). Or the other option is Honiara (very exposed harbour when the fish is south or Pohnpei in FSM, which is a good harbour, but the access to the vessels is more complicated (bigger distances) and the available wharf is closely related to a fishing company. But the reality is that the fish is moving to the central Pacific particularly in Nauru, Kiribati, eastern PNG, and the high seas in between Kiribati’s EEZs, then the options are Funafuti (almost no services), Tarawa (quite exposed anchorage and minimal services) or Majuro with all the advantages. Also if you plot it, is quite an easy navigation to Bangkok. Now on la Niña years… then stuff changes and Kiritimati becomes the hub… even is the anchorage is not protected… but thankfully does not happen a lot.
Agents: Agent plays a key role in the pacific tuna world, and is a role I love to study in depth as I mention here (any of my powerful NGO readers: here is a hot topic no one is touching, so an opportunity to contribute and I’m available). In any case there six Agents (3 Taiwanese, 1 Chinese, 1 local and 1 Korean) that kind of got it all sorted and can arrange for most things while providing translation since the bulk of the fleet speaks some form of Chinese. They lease in between vessels owners, captains, traders ( FCF, Trimarine, Itochu), carriers, and the line agencies (see below)
Regulatory requirements and costs: While I would love more integration and efficiency among all the line agencies (Customs, Quarantine, Immigration, Environmental Protection Authority, Port authority, Maritime Police, and of course Fisheries) everyone is there to do their job and is a quite straight affair with the boarding parties, and other than request for fish (something I oppose and thankfully fisheries boarding officers don't do) I have not seen backhanders.
A big part of my job has been to align our MIMRA processes with PSM best practices and be more investigative and streamlined on the operations and controls we do, but as well provide incentives to industry to comply. Furthermore, the PSM controls we do as to approve transhipments we are on the process to share them with Thailand’s Dept of Fisheries under a MoU… but that is a topic for another blog.
Vision and leadership: last but not least, MIMRA’s management has been stable and clear on their vision of becoming a transhipment and (hopefully, shortly a landing, sorting and containerisation) hub and they have a rare virtue in the fishing administration world: foresight. Needless to say, this is partly why I like working here and I been very fortunate to have their trust and support to do my job.
The point is, there is no one reason why vessels come here in such numbers but a combination of reasons as well as a vision. I profoundly believe that even if other port was to invest massively in some aspects of the “transhipment hub equation” there are aspects that can’t be changed. And in this combination, part by nature and part by practice, Majuro is and will continue to be the main transhipment port in the Pacific.