By Jason Brown

SUVA, Fiji (Islands Business Magazine, March 2004) – "I'll be honest with you," says Marine Resources Secretary Alavaía Navy Epati at half past three one Tuesday afternoon. "I've got golf at four." Barely half-an-hour later, Epati finishes a concise and seemingly blunt oversight into the alleged boom and bust of the Cook Islands newest industry, fisheries.

When do you finish?

"Friday, bro. Friday," says Epati, one hand on the door, and with a nod, is gone.

There may be better illustrations of the Wild West nature of the Cooks' marine sector, but no one else sums up the industry better.

Admired by some for his open door policy and an easy grasp of local, regional and international fisheries issues, Epati is also loathed by others for, among other things, starting his own fishing company and competing as a businessman with those he was supposed to oversee as a public servant.

Epati is open about this conflict of interest, not bothering to move a file marked with the name of his company, Te Maroro Fishing Company, from a pile on his desk at the ministry office.

Contracted until the end of next year, Epati handed in his resignation last month, effective as Islands Business went to press.

He has already publicly explained his reasons. He also leaves behind a multi-million dollar industry that has come literally from nothing. Exports exploded from zero in 2001 to US$1.2 million the next year, and, by September 2003, US$2.7 million.

"This is an industry that will one day earn more than tourism," Epati enthused at the start of the boom. Lots of smug sashimi chomping could be heard in agreement around capital Avarua.

Last month, however, Epati was sounding less enthusiastic. "If anyone who goes into it is not prepared for the natural attributes of fisheries, then they are idiots."

Fisheries policy director Josh Mitchell says that catch figures show big peaks and troughs.

Research is planned similar to studies already conducted in the West Pacific to show whether the fluctuations are tied to weather phenomenon like El Nino.

Some have not survived what some industry players describe as regular "seasonal" dips in catch.

Of the 46 licensed boats, 18 are local with 26 "locally bought foreign licenses" and two exploratory licenses. Eight of the foreign boats have returned to New Zealand.

Some companies have run out of cash, with one part of the country's main harbor being dubbed "skid row".

Smaller players allege industry foul play, not weather, is behind their problems.

Epati agrees that there's been a lot of "complaints, rumors and allegations" of heavy-handed management by certain players in the industry. Specific allegations include onshore pack houses overcharging small players, allowing them to run up "huge debts and basically tell them to trade the debt for your quota. That's a very serious allegation."

Even foreign licensees are allegedly suffering strong-arm tactics, says Epati, with the same high charges "designed to kill them and deliberately act to force some of the New Zealand boats back to New Zealand, and use that as a legal leverage to compromise their quota in New Zealand."

Marine Resources minister Tapi Taio‹one of the industry's early fishers‹instructed Epati to begin a "full inquiry" into the allegations. Unlike Fiji, where similar allegations persist, it will not be a proper commission of inquiry.

Like Fiji, however, there appears little hope any inquiry will be acted upon, if previous efforts in education, justice, land and political reforms are anything to go by.

All of which is a long day's sail from original hopes for the industry as a means of growing a small and lively, Samoa-style fleet of locally owned and staffed fishing vessels.

Coming from Samoa himself, Epati has had to weather criticisms over his failure to recreate a similar industry in the Cooks.

In its Budget Policy Statement of March 2003, government said it would provide continued support "through an environment of fiscal incentives and user-friendly regulatory regime to promote local business participation." Epati admits that government has not kept its original promises to support small, local players.

The problem is that those promises may have been based on a politically driven misconception of what the industry would be.

The Cooks' waters are 10 times bigger than Samoa's, says Epati, with 10-meter Samoa-type boats limited to a 60-mile range when fishing grounds in these much deeper waters can be as far away as 600 miles.

Epati says the industry has evolved rapidly since its inception but that policy has not kept pace.

"I've had 15 years in managing fisheries and lately it's been like trying to panel-beat a moving car. It's a headache."

With such rapid growths, Epati agrees that growing pains are inevitable. Even with all the controversy, he remains optimistic about the industry's potential.

"If every journey of one thousand miles begins with a single step, and marine resources is that journey, then we are on step two, with pearls being number one."

What of his own company, named after a flying fish and which licenses Korean boats? Or that of his boss, Marine Resources minister Taio, who favors Taiwanese operators?

"We are not rapers and pillagers of the sea," Frank Yang, manager of Cook Islands Fish Ltd, told daily Cook Islands News.

"Some boats may be doing things wrong, but it is not just Asian boats that do that. Maybe the Korean boats are doing things wrong but that has nothing to do with us."

Yang may be right, at least partly. Epati says another allegation received, this time by the New Zealand licensees against their local partners, is that they are being forced out in favor of the more experienced Asians. Says Epati: "Asians are the acknowledged experts when it comes to our fisheries. They've been here a lot longer."

And Epati, for not much longer. He says he only started his own fishing company after mixed signals from government about his continued role as head of the ministry.

In the past, Epati had criticized government for promising licenses to foreign operators without consulting ministry officials first.

"The main reason I am leaving," he told the daily newspaper, "is because of the public perception, even though it is being perpetrated by those with certain interests, that my companies are in a position of advantage and I have to have that removed. I cannot put the integrity and credibility of the ministry at risk."

Epati told Islands Business that he had hoped to stay on and see through the new Marine Resources Act tabled with cabinet last December, after two and a half years of drafting.

What hope do scattered and poorly resourced Pacific Islands like the Cooks have at protecting their own fisheries, realistically, when far bigger and richer countries have already failed miserably?

Epati pauses. Studies his shot. Winds up. Swings big.

"All the advice we've received in this ministry with regards to the mistakes and disasters of the other Pacific Islands countries, and other fisheries in the world, have been made available to government and fishermen. If we still go ahead and make those same mistakes, then we really are a total bunch of idiots."

March 31, 2004

Islands Business:


Rate this article: 
No votes yet

Add new comment