TONGA FISH EXPORTS HURT BY CANCELLED FLIGHTS

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Planes cannot fly on Sunday so catch was stuck

By Mary Lyn Fonua

NUKU΄ALOFA, Tonga (Matangi Tonga, Mar. 26, 2009) - A sulphuric mix of Tonga’s sabbatical laws and last week’s volcanic eruption on Hunga Ha’apai that led to the cancellation of Saturday evening’s Air New Zealand 767 flight into Fua’amotu International Airport, is causing headaches for Tongan fish exporters who had perishable cargo destined for the USA and Japan.

At least three fish exporters were trying to ship out cargo at the weekend.

Part of ‘Alatini Fisheries shipment of 3,000 kilograms of fresh fish that was supposed to leave Tonga on Saturday night, was still in overseas transit today. A Sunday flight into Tonga was not allowed and then ‘Alatini could not repack the shipment in time for Monday’s early flight because its staff are not allowed to work until after midnight on Sunday.

President of the Tongan Fishing Association, ‘Etimoni Palu of Atlantis Fisheries, Nuku΄alofa, was another Tongan fish exporter who was unable to get out to the Japanese market a ton and a half of "pristine Big Eye tuna" caught 400 nautical miles south of Tonga last week. The fresh fish is not frozen and is packed on ice to meet the high standard demanded by the overseas market. But on Monday, after assessing the fish, he abandoned his attempt to sell it in Tokyo.

"In the fishing industry here we rely entirely on exports," he said.

Tongan fish exporter, Tricia Emberson, the sole owner and managing director of ‘Alatini Fisheries in Nuku΄alofa, believes that Tonga needs to cope with these unforeseen events that are hurting exporters.

"My fish is still in transit and it is going to get there today. It is not going to be in the same condition that it was on Saturday. I am waiting here expecting to receive phone calls and emails later today about my smelly fish!" said Tricia today, Thursday March 26.

"We cancelled the fish going to Tokyo because the market won’t tolerate the delay... it was 800 kilos - worth JPY800,000 [US$8,000] - and we cannot recover that amount by selling the fish locally," she said.

"I believe that with the economy in jeopardy, the point is that if Tonga is serious about exports, and that includes attracting the tourist dollar, then we have to act in times of emergency.

"We are not asking that scheduled flights come in on Sundays, but that provision be made for unexpected events such as the eruption, and cyclones and other things that are going to happen in future," she said.

Last week’s catch of tuna and bottom fish was worth about US$25,000 on the export market, she said, and it was also booked on connecting flights from Auckland to Tokyo, Los Angeles and Honolulu. "It was no easy task rescheduling the cargo this week," said Tricia.

The fish had to be repacked into smaller 50 kg boxes and sent out on three different flights - the last of which went out of Tonga yesterday, Wednesday.

Air New Zealand’s Tonga agent, Sue Gardiner had contacted Tongan officials on Friday evening in an attempt to request a Sunday flight to ease disruption caused by the postponement and cancellation of two night flights at the weekend because pilots cannot see the ash plume coming out of the volcano at night. But she was told, no.

There is an emergency clause in the sabbatical laws that allows flights on Sundays in special circumstances.

But Tricia said that ‘Alatini Fisheries had not attempted to contact government officials on Saturday to try and get the perishable cargo out on Sunday.

"No, why bother? I know they don’t want to hear our sad story that we have lost a lot of money on this," she said. "I don’t think they are even aware of the effort we go to, the costs involved and the returns that we get, and the loss that we’ve made."

"But in this global recession, that nobody admits is affecting Tonga, we have to seriously look at the costs involved. For example, Air New Zealand had to fork out extra costs to look after their passengers who couldn’t come in or go out on Saturday night. The hotels, the airlines, the passengers and the exporters all have extra costs. Somebody somewhere is paying for all this.

"Of course, it’s not a life-threatening situation as defined in the Sunday law but it is unnecessary expenditure and a huge waste of money that could have been avoided," she said.

"Yes, I believe that a special flight should have been allowed to come in last Sunday. Let it happen!" she said. "We are not asking for it to be a regular thing."

‘Etimoni Palu who runs the "Pacific Sunrise" longliner said the fishing industry in Tonga has big problems.

"Because at this time of year the catch has dropped off. Last week we had to go 400 nautical miles down south of Tonga trying to scratch a catch. We got a ton and half of pristine Big Eye tuna that was destined for the Tokyo market and, of course, that got stuck on the Saturday flight that was cancelled."

After assessing the quality of the fish on Monday he decided to not risk the export market and has taken the tuna and some swordfish out into the local market.

"I totally disagree with the Sunday law. There is a need to bend the rules to bring Tonga forward with the world. If the churches don’t want this, then they must consider that when they are asking for donations in church where do they think the money is coming from?"

"The fishing industry in Tonga has hit the bottom in the last few years and the only way now is up. But if this problem continues, then the industry is not going to survive for much longer," he said.

"Our decision makers in the government have to look at the whole issue again. Because, really, the whole world has moved on.

"Or maybe, we will become ‘The Land that Time Forgot’, with dinosaurs walking around - and volcanoes," ‘Etimoni said.

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