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By Robert Keith-Reid

NUKU‘ALOFA, Tonga (March 14, 2000 - Islands Business Magazine/PINA Nius Online)---Fishing is the one bright star in Tonga’s economic firmament. Exports of fish worth $T 3 million to $T 4 million (US$ 1.842 to 2.456) a year doesn’t sound a lot. But it is one-quarter of Tonga’s total exports and seems bound to grow to at least 10 times that figure in the next decade provided private fishermen aren’t snagged by perils as yet unseen.

Not everything in fishing looks good. A great unspoken of embarrassment (government people don’t want to talk about it) is the government-owned Sea Star Fishing Company, of which Crown Prince Tupouto‘a is chairman. It went into business with a free, but unsuitable, Japanese-supplied boat and a million dollar loan.

Until five years ago only Sea Star was allowed to fish from Tonga for tuna. Islands Business was told that in February only one or perhaps two of the company’s boats were operating. Of the two new boats built in the United States, and clearly unsuitable for Tongan conditions, local fishermen say, one was in Australia being used by one of Sea Star’s creditors. A second was said to be out catching crayfish at Minerva Reef, between Tonga and Fiji.

The others were tied up at the Nuku‘alofa fisheries wharf.

Sea Star has moved into seaweed fishing. A brand new fish processing facility at the wharf is little used. Fishermen said the government decided to close the company down last July. But then that didn’t happen. The company is said to have received a $T 2 million (US$ 1.228) loan and to be looking around for foreign backers.

Who is doing the fishing? Twelve privately owned boats, five of them run by Alatini Fisheries, owned by Tricia Emberson and her partner, Bill Holden.

Alatini began with bottom fishing for snapper. It still does that. But it is increasingly moving to tuna now that it is allowed to catch them. It plans to have three more boats in the 60-80 feet class built in New Zealand over the next three years. The company began with just $T 18,000 (US$ 11,052) in the bank and with an unlikely looking boss, Emberson, who is used to not being taken seriously by people who first meet her.

Emberson is an old Tonga family. Her parents live in Australia, where she was born. She quit school at 16 after a row with her father, spent several years in the fashion business and then moved to Japan where she fell into a job doing feasibility studies for a Japanese company, now defunct. She landed in Tonga because she was drawn to it; the family history, you see. She teamed up later with Holden, a fisheries and refrigeration man of American Peace Corps origins, to begin fishing in a modest way.

Making fishing happen: While the private sector, banded together in a strong fishing association recognized by the government, is making fishing happen, so is the Honorable ‘Akau‘ola. As director of fisheries he seems to be unique in Tonga as a nobleman, who is with it as a bureaucrat.

He’s had a distinguished career as a diplomat and former director of the Commonwealth Foundation in London. But for his support, the private fishermen wouldn’t be achieving what they are achieving. ‘Akau‘ola expects within a few weeks to secure the government’s final approval of the removal of a 63% duty on fishing boat fuel, something he’s been working on for ages.

That step will add 50% to the profitability of capital-starved fishermen, he says. At least two fishing companies intend to follow Alatini into tuna fishing when it happens.

The Fisheries Department seems to be one of the most vigorous, high morale departments of Tonga’s government. It’s hard to find, three kilometers (1.8 miles) out of town and, its director laments, connected to only two telephones, one of which he spends a lot of time answering.

Funded by the Japanese the fisheries department is turning into a commercial proposition research on the culture of clams and other shellfish by breeding youngsters to be farmed out to outer-island fishermen-farmers. It has big hopes for seaweed, of which 1,000 tons was exported last year. This can fetch up to $US 20 a kilogram net weight on the Japanese market, ‘Akau‘ola says.

The department is engaged heavily in writing management plans for various sectors of the industry with help from the Forum Fisheries Agency, the Pacific Community, Australia, and other contributors. One industry plan is being implemented with more Australian aid coming in.

Government approval is awaited for a new aquaculture bill focused mainly on pearls and seaweed. It is working on a rewrite of a fisheries act including a review of foreign access to Tonga waters for foreign fishing boats. In the past Tonga hasn’t allowed foreigners to fish in its 200-mile exclusive economic zone. A Korean company based in Fiji has just been authorized to operate four boats in the zone for a fee of $US 10,000 each. Conditions are still being negotiated including a requirement to land and process fish in Tonga.

Italians, Canadians, Chinese and North Sea fishermen are sniffing around for licenses. But ‘Akau‘ola doesn’t want a lot of foreign boats admitted. The priority is to reserve fish for local boats to catch, he says. Tonga’s 200-mile exclusive zone isn’t attractive to big purse seiners, but small long liners can do well in it.

"We have a skipjack stock here, but not enough for purse seiners to target. We are under pressure to try to maximize foreign exchange. But I myself don’t think it is in our interest to get invaded by the distant water fishing fleets. They tend to play small countries off and small islands countries are the losers in the long term," he says.

Need to be geared up: "We need to be geared for local fishing and have to build up the capacity of the local fleet. We have just completed a draft tuna management plan to cover the relationship between the ministry and private sector in developing this scene."

The Pacific Community will write a management plan for bottom fish and red snapper, and a management plan for seaweed is complete.

Seaweed exports are from natural stocks. But a Japanese company is moving into the farming of the stuff. 1998 was a bad luck year. It was unusually hot so that a lot of the heat-sensitive weed died. The United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization is to support a seaweed farming feasibility study.

"We are the only industry that has not gone from boom to bust," ‘Akau‘ola says. "I want to see steady incremental growth. Airfreight for fresh fish export is currently adequate. It hasn’t always been. The fisheries department is looking at direct flights to markets and is talking to a subsidiary of Malaysian Airlines, which did one pilot flight last year. It will take some time to set up," ‘Akau‘ola says.

"We are having discussions with Chinese companies interested in fishing. But I don’t see the need to sell ourselves. Our need is to develop local capacity. That is the long term interest of Tonga." It comes as no surprise to learn that Emberson was in the fashion trade. But fishing? Well, she’s always liked numbers and she got herself an M.B.A by correspondence in between running Alatini. She runs everything that happens after fish are landed. "We made a hell of a lot of mistakes along the way. I bought a boat and it sank. From the wharf it is my responsibility."

Helpful sideline: Since Alatini has to invest in refrigeration one thing led to another. People asked it to import meat and then seafood. People wanted refrigeration advice. So an air-conditioning subsidiary is now Tonga’s largest, and frozen food imports are a helpful sideline.

The fishing association, of which she is secretary, started in 1994. "It took us a long time to have it accepted. The problem is that the government tried to control things," she says. "Fishing would have developed a lot quicker if the government had let it."

Alatini is building a fish store in Vava‘u since its boats do a lot of fishing north of those islands. It also buys fish from local fishermen.

"In 1990 there were about 40 boats operating. Nearly all went out of business due to poor management," she says. "When fuel prices go down it will open up a little boom. Existing companies will expand and some foreigners will come in as joint ventures. We get a lot of approaches and take all of them very cautiously."

"Unfortunately fishing does not have a good name; too many fly-by-nighters; too many people come and go. We will go slowly and cautiously. We have nobody to impress except our bank."

Emberson’s family, comfortable in Australia, thought she was crazy to make a new life in Tonga. "I am often sure that we have exported all our good people," she says in mentioning the difficulties of managing her 70 staff. I am here and this is home. There is still this tendency for the government to keep it all Tongan. We have had horrific charlatans here, and it has tainted the idea of foreign investment."

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