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20 percent decline this year

By Giff Johnson MAJURO, Marshall Islands (Marianas Variety, Oct. 15, 2010) - With shipping increasingly sporadic as the government shipping fleet ages, copra production in the Marshall Islands dived for fiscal year 2010, dropping to its lowest level in five years.

For the Marshall Islands’ fiscal year that ended September 30, 5,405 tons of copra — dried coconut meat — was received for milling at the government’s Tobolar Copra Processing Authority, a nearly 20 percent decline over the previous year, said Tobolar plant manager Wilfredo Candilas.

Four government ships used for collecting copra from remote outer islands have needed dry-docking for major maintenance for the past three years, but the government has not provided the money to do this, say officials with the Marshall Islands Shipping Corporation, a government-subsidized agency established to oversee the country’s ship service. This has resulted in increasing "down time" for vessels requiring more maintenance work to continue operations, said shipping agency board chairman Alson Kelen.

"The government has told us to delay dry-docking the vessels for two years," said Kelen. "But we’re already three years behind schedule for dry-docking. None of our ships meet international (safety) standards."

Copra is milled into coconut oil and sold to international buyers, generating about US$2.5 million annually for the Marshall Islands. Making copra is the primary way that the 17,000 people living on remote coral islands in this western Pacific nation earn cash.

Foreign Minister John Silk said Wednesday that the government has put top priority on getting new vessels and is in negotiation with the Japanese government to fund the construction of two new ships for servicing the Marshall Islands. A Japanese Embassy official in Majuro confirmed that a team from the Japan International Cooperation Agency will visit in January to conduct a detailed review of the proposal for two ships estimated to cost more than US$10 million, with a final decision on the plan to be made after the visit.

In 2008, 7,182 tons of copra was collected from remote islands as the government shipping agency was able to maintain its copra collection schedule. But with vessels forced to spend more time in port for maintenance, copra has showed a two-year decline — to 6,550 tons in 2009 and 5,405 this year.

Demonstrating the impact shipping has on copra production in the outer islands are the statistics for Wotje, an atoll located 150 miles to the north of Majuro and historically among the top five or six copra producers.

For fiscal year 2010, it struggled to come in at number 10. Its copra output plummeted 70 percent compared to FY2009, dropping from 517 tons to just 150 tons — but not for lack of coconuts.

Tobolar Copra Processing Authority records show that Woje had only two ship visits in FY 2010 — one in January and the other in May. In contrast, number two producer Ailinglaplap Atoll had seven ship visits during the year that brought in 816 tons of copra.

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