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By Giff Johnson

For Marianas Variety

MAJURO, Marshall Islands (May 10) — For the third time in the last six years, copra production in the Marshall Islands this year will barely make it to 4,000 tons.

By comparison, from 1951 to 1998 – a 47-year period – there were only two years that copra production dropped below 4,000 tons.

There have been two years already since 1999 when copra has fallen below 4,000 tons, and unless shipping service picks up dramatically in the remaining seven months of 2004, this year will be another dismal year for copra producers in the outer islands who depend on the commodity for income.

Only 841.85 tons of copra were brought in the first three months of this year, according to the Tobolar Copra Processing Plant. If this level continues for the year, there would be just 3,367 tons of copra produced for 2004.

Last year, 4,271 tons was brought into Tobolar. While this was a rebound from the terrible year in 2002 – the worst year on record for Marshall Islands copra production at just 2,791 tons – it still was far short of the annual average of 5,395 tons.

During the first three months of this year, copra pickups trailed off significantly as a result of fewer ship visits to the outer islands.

All ships are currently in port, with only one of the three government ships – the Litakbouki – in working condition, though even it would soon to be pulled out of service because of serious engine problems. The government vessels Langdrik and Ribuk Ae are also out of action, and the former captain of the Langdrik has been suspended and demoted for running his ship aground at Utrik Atoll recently when he violated Ministry of Transportation policies banning pre-dawn port departures.

The grounding caused serious damage to Langdrik’s propeller, which must be replaced. The Ribuk Ae, meanwhile, is currently dry docked awaiting long-overdue parts.

Some islands, such as Likiep, which produced just 16.52 tons of copra last year, are not making as much as in the past, said Tobolar manager Witon Barry. But for most islands, shipping problems continue to reduce the level of copra processed in Majuro, he said.

For virtually all of the outer islands in this central Pacific nation, copra – the dried meat of the coconut, which is pressed into coconut oil – is the primary source of income.

But while government shipping is virtually non-existent, the government has allowed its shipping contract with a private company, Pacific International Inc., to expire. The contract for PII’s Mercy K cargo vessel to operate outer island field trips ended last month. The ship’s crew has been laid off and the vessel is anchored in Majuro lagoon, according to PII’s operations manager Kenneth Kramer.

Ministry of Transportation official Betwel Lekka said, while funding for an annual contract for the Mercy K has already run out, the ministry is hoping to negotiate a one-trip charter for the vessel to operate an outer islands’ service at the end of May.

Lekka indicated that the ministry is also hoping to charter a larger privately-owned cargo vessel, the MV Neidaga, for one trip later this month.

Kramer said PII is happy to do a one-time charter for the ministry, but it doesn’t solve the problem of lack of regular outer island shipping.

He said the contract with the government expired in April and he was told by Transportation officials that they will not have funds for a new annual contract until the next fiscal year, which starts in October.

The Mercy K has had contracts on and off with Transportation since 1999. But, said Kramer, this is the first time that a contract expired without a new contract being discussed between PII and the ministry.

"This is the first time we’ve laid off the crew," he said, adding that while contracts had expired previously, there were always negotiations on a new contract. "There are no negotiations happening now," he said.

Lekka confirmed that the contract with Mercy K expired last month, explaining that the Nitijela or parliament approved only $120,000 for the current fiscal year for Mercy K’s contract. He said this was down from $180,000 that Nitijela approved in previous years for the ship’s operations.

It costs $30,000 per trip, so the Nitijela funding covered four outer island field trips the Mercy K made since October, he said. With the funds exhausted, the ministry cannot engage the vessel on a long-term contract, he said.

Because of the current problems facing the government vessels, the ministry is aiming to negotiate one-trip charters for both Mercy K and Neidaga to go out in late May, he said.

"If we need more trips before the end of the fiscal year (September 30), we’ll charter these two vessels again," Lekka said.

Ribuk Ae has been in dry dock since mid-February and is awaiting the delayed arrival of generators. Lekka said the American supplier told them it would take one month to get the generators to Majuro, but it has now been three months. Lekka is hopeful that the generators will arrive later this month.

The Langdrik is also out of commission and the captain has been suspended and demoted for running the ship aground, according to Lekka. "It’s our policy that ships wait until daylight to depart," he said. But the Langdrik left Utrik Atoll at about 4 am late last month and ran aground as it attempted to navigate the shallow passage. "I don’t know why he was in a rush," Lekka said of the ship’s early morning departure that caused major damage to the propeller.

"We’ve ordered a new propeller that we hope will be here by early June," he said. He said it will take about one week to install, and hopes that the vessel can be back for outer islands service by mid-June.

May 10, 2004

Marianas Variety: www.mvariety.com

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