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By Marc Neil-Jones

PORT VILA, Vanuatu (September 13, 2001 - Vanuatu Trading Post/PINA Nius Online)---Consultants participating in an Asian Development Bank-funded project found alarmingly small numbers of food fish around Éfaté, the island that is home to Vanuatu's capital, Port Vila.

The three consultants are helping Vanuatu's Fisheries Department determine current levels of aquarium fish and food fish.

Their preliminary findings show that while food fish numbers are small the reefs are healthy and not damaged by coral bleaching as in some other Pacific islands. There also are abundant supplies of tropical fish suitable for a small export market, they found.

Local fishermen have confirmed that there is nowhere near the large number of large reef fish around Éfaté compared to the 1980s.

The consultants believe that subsistence fishing for local consumption could face major problems if the export market is opened up to outsiders who cannot be monitored.

The government Fisheries Department currently does not have the manpower to assess current fish stocks and monitor what fish species are being threatened.

Fisheries called in specialists to see whether Vanuatu can afford to open up its tropical fish export market and allow companies to export live fish for the restaurants of Hong Kong.

Moses Amos, the Director of Fisheries, is held in high regard by the visiting consultants. Vanuatu is setting a good example in the use of taboo areas to stop over fishing of reefs and the government has acted swiftly to stop exploitation of endangered clams.

The three consultants and Amos unanimously agreed that Vanuatu should not allow any company to export live food fish, a growing trade causing deep concern to fishing authorities.

This is because only certain fish like groupers and Napoleon wrasse are exported. They are being fished out all over the world to feed the insatiable demands of Chinese restaurants.

Consultant Terry Donaldson, an American who is a senior scientist with the International Maritime Alliance, advised: "The fisherman know that the groupers and Napoleon wrasse and coral trout spawn in aggregates once a year. So if they know where they are spawning, they can wipe out all of them very quickly.

"Restaurants in Hong Kong pay huge money for these rare fish, up to US$ 50 a kilo, and they prefer the young ones that have not yet spawned. It is becoming a major worry that there are hardly any of these food fish to be seen in Vanuatu anyway because of subsistence fishing. So if Vanuatu allows export of these fish, there will be none left."

Fellow consultant Steve why, who has spent a lot of time in Vanuatu observing fishing patterns over the years, confirmed: "Lelepa Island food fish stocks are very low because of over fishing. Some of the taboo areas set by chiefs around Éfaté are in the wrong locations.

"Taboo areas should include the productive fish areas on reefs and not beaches. Food fish are naturally slow growing, have offspring late and have large territorial areas, making them easy to catch.

"A local company owned by a Chinese set 200 traps and caught 160 grouper fish, which all died because they were not looked after. They had no approval from Fisheries and now in that area we could find no grouper at all. They are likely to have been fished out.

"These live food fish exporters have a reputation for going from island to island fishing out everything and moving on and Vanuatu needs to be very careful how it controls them as in our travels there are no places where this kind of fishing hasn't caused problems.

"There has been plundering of grouper and Napoleon wrasse in Palau, Solomons, PNG, Fiji, Kiribati, Marshall Islands and Tonga. They are now setting their eyes on Vanuatu. We need to ensure cyanide poisoning to catch tropical fish is not practiced here as it kills everything around its path."

Moses Amos said: "We do not have the manpower to control the industry and monitor it effectively so we will not allow it to take place. We can look at proposals from other islands but how are we going to control it?"

He advised that tropical fish export for aquariums would be allowed but after the over exploitation of clam shells by a French exporter a complete ban on exporting certain types of clams would remain.

In the survey, teams of divers descend to certain depths and swim along a line measuring and recording every fish seen over a large distance.

Fisheries believe that potential exists in the outer islands for tropical fish export.

The fish counting exercise this time only encompasses Éfaté as this island is fished heavily and has a large population growth.

Pacific Islands News Association (PINA) Website: http://www.pinanius.org 

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