Back in Majuro with plenty to do! (and coffee) / by Francisco Blaha

It has been a pretty hectic 1st week back in Majuro (as part of my Offshore Fisheries Advisor role supported by NZMFAT), even if it has been quiet from the transhipment perspective. Don't get me wrong we have 32 vessels in the lagoon in between Purse Seiners and Carriers but not much transhipment is happening, and the roots of this pause are not here.

the Tuna Armada (drone pic by Garry Venus)

the Tuna Armada (drone pic by Garry Venus)

The canned tuna industry value chain is a bit like those domino effect videos, where one event at one end has effects all along the chain. Canneries in Bangkok have good skipjack inventory supplies at the present due to good fishing since the end of the FAD closure last year, add to that the Trump tariff war (that includes tuna), plus lots of Chinese processed skipjack heading to the EU, the tuna price per ton price is very low (1200USD/ton), therefore not much is sold. 

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As processing coolstores are full the demand is low and the unloading in Bangkok is slow, so the carriers are used as temporary storage and the waiting time prior unloading for carrier waiting to enter Bangkok can be up to 1.5 to 2 months at the present (imagine being waiting at anchor for over a month maintaining a boat that cost 10 to 20K a day just to stay afloat and keep up to 1000 ton of fish frozen). Check the IAS screenshot of Bangkok and surroundings that shows you the amazing number of carriers actually in port and waiting in the gulf.

So carriers here are full (and kept as floating coolstores) and waiting for space in Bangkok to depart. We do have some “big” carriers coming over in the next weeks to clean up the backlog

Vessel owners are then confronted with a complex choice, they may don’t want to sell their fish too cheap (or even below cost), but then is “cheaper” in the long term to be empty (to either to go back fishing or just stay with minimal use of fuel) than to stay full burning fuel to keep the fish cold.

In the meantime, we have most boats full of fish in the lagon (you can see this from the logsheets and the normal flotation line that is way below water) waiting for the carriers to come over, which is good for crew and maintenance… 

This the 1st time I’ve seen it so bad in almost two years coming here, and some way it means that the Asian DWFN and foreign owned domestic companies are catching more fish than the ones being consumed…. And that cannot be good, and I mean at all levels, not just in terms of management and bio-economics… I just have no idea how much fuel is being burnt into maintaining fish frozen unnecessarily, since it could have stayed in the water alive and growing for free… and when you live in place where the high tide line is less than a meter below your house… these issues resonate quite strongly.

On the other side this allow me to focus on the many other aspects of my work-plan as agreed with MIMRA and my employer NZMFAT. So I’m focussing on other various areas. 

I don’t like procurement, but we have various needs identified so I worked on the technical specifications for them, our priorities are:

New boarding boats: we have been struggling with issue of boarding boats for a while and we are mostly dependent on the Pilot boat or the agents and vessels good will, which they have so that is OK, but is not the right thing to do. And with up to 20 PS sometimes in port we need 2 .

The one boarding boat we have is not really fit for purpose for various reasons:even if it is advisable to have 2 boarding officers, if we go in the present boat one has to stay on board and wait far from the PS, since we cannot leave our boarding boat tied up to the boarded PS as  they will “knock” against the port or starboard sides and as our one is made of fiberglass with very minimal contact protection (bumpers) it damages it quite badly, since is made of fibreglass and it cracks at each hard knock against the FV.

It also has two very thirsty 100 HP petrol engines, that need to be perfectly calibrated in terms of tuning to be used efficiently. Furthermore it makes the boat very heavy on the stern when manoeuvring at low speeds (as when you get closer to a vessels to board it) in fact if you have to fast reverse chances are water will enter the hull. Hence besides being expensive to run is not safe, and reality is that officers don't need high speed to chase anyone, as we are in port. On top of all this is really heavy, and the engines are exposed at the stern making it hard to lift from our own wharf now, so the only chance is to retrieve with trailer and ramp, so you need a truck, go to the ramps and so on, which is silly when you are literally next to the water, as the new office is.

So from experience, the most appropriate boats for this functions are the RIB (Rigid Inflatable Boats) and worked on the following specs: They need to be made of welded marine aluminium (at least 6mm) with Hypalon heavy duty tubes that can absorb any impact with the side of the fishing boats, and are literally unsinkable, have a single inboard engine centre weighted with a jet drive system that makes it very stable on low speed manoeuvring, and with very low draft and no propellers. Besides the easy maintenance, it can be ordered with a spare set of jet shafts, so if one needs maintenance the other one is easily mounted to replace it, and the boat keeps operational.

The safest I’ve know is motorbike type seating, with secure and solid tow points at bow and stern and a solid bow platform for boarding vessels and with secure stowage area for gear. And also have heavy duty lifting lugs and without a roof / canopy so we can have a single crane lifting it up on the wharf in the new building. 

This also implies that I had to work out the specs for a  3-4 ton jib crane to lift the 2 boats, and then also safety gear for the officer, and rugged PC tablets, and inspection tools, and so on…

And honestly it take for ages to do technical specs for World Bank procurement, so I do not enjoy the writing part of it.


In the meantime I’m also procuring Hook Type Crane Scale with Wireless Remote Display for increase the accuracy of our transhipment monitoring scheme… which is another project in itself, since we want to test what is best in terms of find what fits best in terms of accuracy safety, sturdiness, easy handling, connectivity to our IMS and price.

If that wasn't enough, my work plan includes to help with the development of a Corporate Strategy and updating the  Tuna Management Plan, since the present one is from 2014 and not really been used. 

I’m been always very aware of my limitations as a writer, and this type of documents need to struck a balance in between VERY good and concise writing yet being usable, and to do a good one a certain sets of skills are needed that I don't totally have. 

And while I believe I can certainly contribute to many aspects of these documents, I’m not the right person to write them. Yet I have read quite few of them, and always find the lesser pages and the more graphical they are the better. 

These are after all documents that supposed to guide decision making, so the simpler and more graphically you can follow up the objectives of your organization in line of what you are trying to decide the better.

The best strategies I’ve read where are produced with the help of Lars Olsen a fellow consultant (and good surfer), that is based in Hawaii but lived in NZ and Ozz for while, and besides doing great work he is really nice guy. So I reached out to him and to NZ MFAT to enlist him to guide the document and both came to an agreement so he is leading this work, and I’m eager to contribute and keep learning from him.

In terms of Tuna Management Plans (TMP), I always liked the NZ ones, for similar reasons to the strategies… linear simple and graphical documents. But here I’ve experience that the model of having a consultant coming to do them does not establish sufficient ownership by the local counterparts (independent of who and how good the consultant is) and I wanted to avoid that, so I approached NZ MPI to see if they could allow some of their management plans specialist to come and run a “collegiate” type workshop with us, and thet agreed!

Everyone was supportive or that concept and we have Aimée Komugabe-Dixson and Hillary Ayrton (whom I’ve known socially for a while and besides being really cool she is a top spearfisher back home in NZ), so again I’m looking forwards to be part of the process and keep learning.

So over the next two weeks we will meet in the morning and go through the process of developing ourselves the TMP while they facilitate and guide us, and in the afternoon we can keep going on with our work and the specialists “polish’ our ideas and data into the format of the TMP… so they are not the ideas of someone that talks to all of us and then wrote a document, but rather our ideas and work moulded into a accessible format.

Now the only reason I manage to do this is because the awesomeness and full support of Joanna Anderson and Cheryl Brown my bosses at NZ MFAT, Arthur Hore from NZ MPI (whom I knew from my industry days in NZ) and of course the support of MIMRA’s management in particular Sam, Berry and Glen.

I also took the time to accompany the social responsibility auditor of mayor tuna conglomerate to go on bard and witness their interactions with the crew, and offer some feedback not only in terms of my own past as contracted fisherman in the pacific fisheries but also on my present role on social responsibility in fisheries values chains. But that is a topic for another blog post.

And finally is also the issue of the coffee… I’m the kind of guy that is happy to go anywhere anything but I have one hang up from urban life… good coffee, so much that so that even if travel minimally and never dispatch my luggage I bring always my Bialetti Elektra with me. And good coffee has been a bit of a struggle here in Majuro… there was only one expresso machine in the whole island, and it was the USP campus (a good 15’ by bike from the office)… 

We talked about this my Glen Joseph the MIMRA boss quite few times since he likes his coffee too and had one of those capsule machines that contribute to the plastic and rubbish problem (Majuro has a prohibition on single use plastic bags and a good plastic bottles and cans recycling programme)

So based in the principle of “aguyjevete” a guarani word (the language used in the area I grow up in the border of Argentina and Paraguay) which I don't think there is a European word that translate to it... is something in between gratitude, recognition, reciprocity and pride... and is "expressed" as a gift or a contribution – and it helps maintaining social relationships and acknowledges reciprocity.

Surely, not coincidentally, Maori have a word that means something along those lines and is Koha, and it reflects the Mana (stature, prestige, goodness) of both the giver and the recipient of the gift, reflecting what the giver is able to give, and the esteem they hold of the person or group they are making the gift to - and hence plays an important part in cementing good relations.


So knowing that Glen is happy with my work and lobbied my bosses in MFAT for an extension of my contract for another year, and this is of incredible help to me and my family... and I wasn't raised to take others support and trust as granted, but rather something to be earned every day.

So I gifted my colleges here at MIMRA HQ a good expresso coffee machine… as a minimal and simple representation of this traditional ways (koha / aguyjevete) not uncommon in many pre-european cultures where social capital and relationships are way more important than bank accounts and papers... hence I’m doing the barista training too…

So yea… Is not all transhipments in life!