While the country’s prolific gas resources have caught the imagination of our young politicians and international financial markets, tuna, one of the greatest natural and renewable resources of PNG, remains the best anchor yet for a brighter future.
Yet our politicians generally, and those who are advising them, are largely ignorant of this.
Papua New Guinea currently faces serious external and internal threats to the security of this great resource.
In the 1990s a key politician hailing from Southern Highlands – he happened to be the Mining Minister at the time - gave exploration licenses to Barrick’s then subsidiary Nautilus over large square kilometres of the Bismarck Sea.
There was no government policy on offshore mining, let alone a proper regulatory regime underpinned by legislation.
It was an extremely irresponsible decision for a minister to make without understanding its full implications.
That decision, aided by the Mining Department machinery at the time, has now plunged the nation into a major tussle between Nautilus, which has invested much money in exploration over large areas of our territorial waters, mining industry advocates and a raft of scientists on Nautilus’ side and the small man in the street who feels something is terribly wrong but can’t quite eloquently advocate why.
There is another threat that has greatly impacted on our tuna and other pelagic species that has gone largely unnoticed: pilfering, poaching and policy failure.
Through external pilfering and internal lack of policy to secure against it, this great tuna resource is at a crisis point.
At the centre of this unfolding tragedy is the lack of functional information and statistics as to the nature of the threats posed to tuna fishery and lack of comprehension and appreciation of the commercial magnitude of the crisis on the part of the government.
A recent regional fisheries conference in New Zealand was told by NZ government representatives and its Foreign Minister that the Pacific islands including Papua New Guinea are conservatively losing upward of $100 million a year to illegal fishing.
Whilst this figure should ring serious alarm bells for governments in the Pacific, the reality is that it simply does not make the political radar screen.
Other issues of internal political survival take the fore, leaving bureaucrats and policy makers to take a minimalist approach. The actual losses for a country like PNG are likely to be higher than what the New Zealand conference was told.
PNG’s waters extending to its Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ), at most times of the year host over 20% of the world’s tuna stock, mainly of the yellow fin species. This is valued at well over $20 billion at sustainable levels to the small countries of the South-West Pacific, including PNG.
It is a sacred act of God alone that the cold Okhotske currents emanating from Vladivostok and running off Sakhalin and the other islands off the northern tip of Japan should greet the warm Pacific current right here on our doorstep, creating plankton and other feedstock.
This in turn presents to us a solid platform for spawning of a prolific tuna and other pelagic fishery.
This fishery has been conservatively valued at $2 billion per annum at sustainable levels. It is likened, if you like, to PNG pulling a winning lottery ticket worth $2 billion every year.
Papua New Guinea, therefore, stands the envy of the world. Yet the abject tragedy is that we have failed to fully understand that we have the “winning ticket” in our hand.
There are schools, colleges, universities, roads, bridges, airstrips, health centres, hospitals, infrastructure, jobs and major industry literally swimming around the waters of PNG and yet the nation is yet to make the quantum leap at the leadership level to grasp the commercial reality of this asset and what it means for the future of the country.
A similar paradigm shift must occur with other resources such as timber, where the leadership must see chairs, tables, world class furniture and decent homes in every tree to fathom the possibilities for the people.
It is known that the tuna fishery in both Indian and Atlantic Oceans have been seriously depleted by purse-seiners and super-seiners capable of catching and holding anything from 900–1,500 short tons. These vessels can trans-ship and remain at sea for months at a time.
Last April’s National Geographic magazine referred to a UN Assessment Report that 30% of the world’s fish stocks are currently over-fished, but there is in PNG a level of apathy about our fish stocks that is borne out of lack of information on what is really going on in our own waters.
This situation is alarming and the government may not realize what it represents until it is too late for the country’s fish stocks. The degree of ferocity with which super-seiners have stripped the great oceans of the world bare can only be equalled to a tragedy of a bushfire on land where nothing is left standing and nothing green is seen for miles.
Over the last 15 years PNG has evolved a policy of tuna domestication aimed at seeking greater returns for its tuna resources. Under this policy a number of previously foreign licensed purse-seiners have been brought in and several onshore processing facilities have been set up.
However, whilst some industry participants have been genuine, others have taken more than commercial advantage of the domestication policy. A thorough economic analysis will reveal that the policy has had minimal success, if at all. It has not delivered the level of returns earlier predicted.
To this day, PNG has issued far more licenses to distant water vessels than it has the capacity to process their catch. The State has failed to monitor and ensure a healthy co-relation between distant water licences to seiners and capacity to downstream process, resulting in the bulk (over 80%) of catches of domesticated vessels going offshore.
If the country does not have the capacity to process or value add domestically it should not issue more licences than the volumes its processors can sustain. This is presiding over and legitimatizing its oceans to be raped and stripped bare for very little return, and this process clearly discounts the purpose of the domestication policy.
There is urgent policy and legal reform required on access and domestication policies to serve the national interest.
The Access and Domestication Policy has failed the people and the nation. It needs to be overhauled.
PNG is also losing hundreds of millions of kina annually to illegal fishing, illegal trans-shipping, illegal bunkering and illegal importation of goods in the EEZ. Illegal fishing and other illegal activities pose a serious and growing threat to PNG and its security on the international sea borders.
Not a week goes by without local people from Western, Sandaun, Milne Bay or Manus crying out to their Government to protect them and their fishing grounds.
Indonesian fisherman even set up camp several hundreds nautical miles into PNG territory where they fish for shark fin and other exotic varieties. On Kiwai Island, for instance, on the Fly River estuarine, only two years ago Indonesian nationals boldly sailed in, set up camp and engaged in the act of harvesting fish.
They have successfully destroyed their own fishery through over-fishing and by use of dynamite, cyanide and other environmentally destructive practices.
Unless they are stopped, they will disregard State borders and are not likely to abate with the pressure of a growing population of over 180 million people needing to be fed.
In addition to the increasing problem with Indonesia, there are unlicensed seiners and super-seiners riding the high seas off Milne Bay, Manus, Vanimo, New Ireland and North Solomons Provinces, illegally harvesting Papua New Guinea’s tuna.
They dart in and out and fish with impunity knowing very well PNG has neither the means of aerial surveillance nor the patrol vessels to catch them.
The degree and extent of pilfering or poaching is not known because the government over the years has not invested in a program of systematic aerial surveillance program coupled with research to garner necessary data.
Long after the oil and gas, and the mineral resources of PNG have been depleted, it is hoped that tuna will secure and sustain the economic future of the country.
However, that hope will be misplaced if PNG continues to stand by and watch while its oceans are pillaged and laid bare, to become a barren and silent void, to the enrichment of other nations.
Papua New Guinea has the opportunity now to act fast to avoid this seemingly inevitable tragedy.
In respect of Nautilus and its band of media-happy merrymen, whilst they have performed their license conditions under the respective exploration licenses they hold, they must understand that exploration is what they wanted at their risk, and that is what they got.
That license scheme does not automatically entitle them to a Mining Lease or a Special Mining Lease from the government and people of Papua New Guinea.
The people of PNG must understand that Nautilus does not have a right, or an automatic right to mining licenses in the Bismarck Sea or any sea area in PNG.
Seabed mining cannot give the same economic returns to PNG as our tuna and our pelagic species and other marine resources can. Nautilus cannot put $2 billion into the nation’s coffers every year at environmentally sustainable levels.
So who is this nation trying to fool by playing with the likes of Nautilus?
The day we engage them and their one-eyed scientists to dig and dump in our pristine oceans, is the day we kiss goodbye to one of the world’s remaining great fishery, great tuna spawning areas, and the children of PNG born and unborn may as well kiss goodbye to a prosperous future.
Nautilus is running a deliberate media campaign with the support of certain government ministers who are in bed with it and, without accusing anyone of corruption, we all know there are no free lunches in Port Moresby, so we will be keenly watching which minister is going to sell the interests of this nation this time for 30 pieces of silver.
Papua New Guineans must get behind the lone voices of brave young leaders like Hon Gary Juffa and stop this madness that threatens our tuna and our future.