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‘We’re lucky they didn’t charge us for days lost’

By Douglas Marau HONIARA, Solomon Islands (Solomon Star, Feb. 25, 2010) - The two foreign fishing boats detained for alleged illegal fishing in our Solomon Island’s waters have escaped a SB$3 million [US$361,000] fine after the Ministry of Fisheries and Marine Resources released them on legal grounds.

Minister Nollen Leni told the Solomon Star in an interview yesterday he had written a letter for the two vessels to be released.

He said this was because the vessels had issued documents that showed they have valid licences to fish in our waters and not as it was reported in the media.

Mr. Leni admitted that the fault was with his ministry because of the fact that the licence department had delayed the processing of their licences, which they have already paid for in December last year.

He said because of the delay in issuing the licences, the Director of Fisheries Edwin Oreihaka had issued a letter of comfort to the two vessels stating that they could fish within our waters until their licence is ready – a decision Mr. Leni said he was not aware of.

The minister said without any knowledge of the arrangement, he drafted a letter for the vessels to be charged and fined SB$3 million [US$361,000].

But he said he was stunned when approached by the vessels’ agents last week with all the documents showing the letter of comfort and paid licences.

"We can’t lay charges and we were lucky that the vessels did not charge us for the fishing days lost because of their detention," Mr. Leni said.

He added the government could compensate a substantial amount of money to the fishing vessels if he had charged them and held them in captivity.

"The fault is within the ministry and I was not aware of the decisions done by the director," the minister said.

Mr. Leni added that according to the fisheries act, there is nothing such as a comfort letter and he would be calling for an internal investigation.

[PIR editor’s note: In the fisheries act, it states that under the bilateral access agreements, purse seine, longline and long-range pole-and-line vessels from Japan, purse seine vessels from Korea and purse seine and longline vessels from Taiwan were licensed to fish in the fishery limits of Solomon Islands during 2004.]

"I will be conducting an internal investigation into this matter when my permanent secretary returns because we are at fault and this is a serious matter that could have backfired on the government," he said.

The minister said he has also confirmed the legal implications regarding the licence of the two vessels with the Attorney General’s office before releasing them.

The two vessels have been berthing at the Aola base for more than 3 weeks after they were intercepted by patrol boat Auki in our territorial waters on 30 January.

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