By Erasmus Baraniak

As the reserves of Papua New Guinea’s oil and mineral resources available for exploitation decline every year, the focus must of necessity shift to other natural resources as an exercise in prudence.

While the prolific gas resources of the country have caught the imagination of our young politicians and international financial markets, tuna, one of the greatest natural and renewable resources of Papua New Guinea, remains the best anchor yet for a brighter future. Yet our politicians generally, and those who are advising, are largely ignorant of this.

Papua New Guinea currently faces serious threats both external and internal, to the security of this great resource.

In the ‘90s a key government Minister who hails from Southern Highlands, who happens to be the Mining Minister at that time, gave exploration licenses to Barrick’s then subsidiary Nautilus over large square-kilometres of the Bismarck Sea, without any government policy on offshore Mining, let alone a proper regulatory regime under pinned by appropriate legislation.

It was an extremely irresponsible decision for any government Minister to make without understanding the full implications of that decision. That decision, aided by the Mining Department machinery at that time, has now plunged the nation into this major tussle between Nautilus, who have invested so much money in exploration over large areas of our territorial waters, the Mining industry advocates and raft of scientists who rally on Nautilus’ side and the small man on 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 the external pilfering, and internally, by lack of appropriate policy to secure it, this great resource is now at a crisis point. At the centre of this unfolding tragedy is the lack of key functional information and statistics as to the nature of the threats posed to tuna fishery, and general 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 New Zealand Government representatives and its Foreign Minister that the Pacific Islands including Papua New Guinea was losing conservatively upward of US$100 million per annum 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 appear to take the fore leaving bureaucrats and policy makers to take a minimalist approach. The actual losses for a country like Papua New Guinea are likely to be higher than what the New Zealand conference was told.

Papua New Guinea’s waters extending to its Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ), at most times of the year hosts over 20% of the worlds tuna stocks, mainly of yellow fin specie. It is valued well over US$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 door step, thus creating plankton and other feed stock. This in turn presents a solid platform for spawning of a prolific tuna and other pelagic fishery for us.

This fishery has been conservatively valued at US$2 billion per annum at sustainable levels. It is likened, if you like, to Papua New Guinea pulling the winning lottery ticket worth US$2 billion every year.

Papua New Guinea, therefore, stands the envy of the world, and yet the abject tragedy of it all is Papua New Guinea has failed to fully understand that it has the “winning ticket” in its hand.

There are schools and schools of schools, colleges, universities, roads, bridges, airstrips, health centres, hospitals, infrastructure, jobs and major industry etc, literally swimming around the waters of Papua New Guinea 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 also occur with other resources such as timber, where the leadership must see chairs, tables, world class furniture, decent homes etc in every tree, to fathom the possibilities for the people.

It is a known fact that the tuna fishery in both the 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. Whilst this last April’s National Geographic magazine depicts a UN Assessment Report that 30% of the world’s fish stocks are currently over-fished, 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 with our fish stock. This situation is alarming and the Government may not realize it for what it represents until it is too late for the country’s fish stocks. The degree of ferocity with which super-seiners have left the great oceans of the world bare can only be equalled to tragedy of a bushfire on land where nothing is left standing and nothing green is seen for miles.

In the last fifteen years Papua New Guinea 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 (Distant Waters Vessels), purse-seiners, have been brought on shore 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 domestication policy has had minimal success, if at all. It has not delivered the level of returns earlier predicted by the policy.

To this day, Papua New Guinea 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 the catches of domesticated vessels going off-shore.

If the country does not have the capacity to process or value add domestically it should not issue excessive number of licences than the volumes its processors can sustain. It is only 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 therefore 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.

Papua New Guinea is also losing hundreds of millions of kina annually to illegal fishing, illegal transshipping, illegal bunkering and illegal importation of goods in the EEZ. Illegal fishing and other illegal activities pose a serious and growing threat to Papua New Guinea 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 Papua New Guinea Territory and fish for shark fin and other exotic varieties. On Kiwai Island, for instance, on the Fly River estuarine, only 2 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, cynide 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 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 Papua New Guinea 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 of Papua New Guinea over the years has not invested in a program of systematic aerial surveillance program coupled with other research to garner necessary data.

Long after the oil and gas, and the mineral resources of Papua New Guinea 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 Papua New Guinea 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 Papua New Guinea 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.

Sea-bed Mining cannot give the economic returns to PNG as our Tuna and our pelagic species and other marine resources can. On numbers along it is doubtful Nautilus can put US$2 Billion in the nation’s coffers every year at environmentally sustainable levels. In fact it can’t, and it won’t.

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 both 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 any one 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 such brave young leaders like Hon. Gary Juffa now and stop this madness that threatens our tuna, and our future.