Belau Offshore Fishers Inc. (BOFI), established last year as the “sole administrator for tuna” in Palau, offloaded a three-ton catch of yellowfin and big-eye tuna between Monday and Tuesday of this week.
The three tons of fish were brought ashore at BOFI’s market at Rebaimelachel in Malakal, and around half of the haul was sold on Monday to local buyers such as restaurants, hotels, and stores. The second half of the haul, which is still fresh, is currently being sold at BOFI’s office next to Neco Yamaha.
Administrators at BOFI say that the company is expecting buyers such as supermarkets to purchase more of the haul in the coming days. However, the demand is slow compared to pre-COVID years, when comparable hauls “would all be sold out on the first day”. With tourist clientele traditionally making up a large percentage of the pelagic consumer base, the three-ton catch may be bigger than the immediate demand. Those fish which are left over will be frozen for future sale, which will lessen its market value.
Mr. Temmy Shmull Jr. of BOFI says that, right now, the company is concentrating on selling to the local market, with border closures complicating the export process. But he added that BOFI will likely look to sell to the international market in the future, when the impact of COVID-19 settles.
The three-pound catch was harvested entirely from the Domestic Fishing Zone, the 20 percent of Palau’s Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) in which local fishing is still permitted.
Currently, the company operates with one long-line vessel, says Mr. Shmull. The Taiwanese vessel originally operated under Kuniyoshi Fishing Company (KFC), before the company suspended operations in Palau.
Last year, a Memorandum of Understanding between the Ministry of Natural Resources, Environment, and Tourism (MNRET) and BOFI made the company the sole administrator of pelagic species in Palau, responsible for purchasing, storing, processing, and reselling the fish on the Palauan market. The MoU in effect made BOFI the first fishery-related enterprise to come out of the Palau National Marine Sanctuary (PNMS), the ambitious marine conservation area which closed 80 percent of Palau’s EEZ to commercial fishing in an attempt to replenish fish stocks.
But BOFI Chairman Okada Techitong stressed that building up domestic fisheries will take “national commitment”, adding that the government can help fishermen with costly expenses like fuel.
Studies conducted by the Palau International Coral Reef Center (PICRC), in collaboration with the Bureau of Marine Resources (BMR), have sought to pinpoint locations where local fishermen can reliably use FADs to catch juvenile yellowfins, in waters which are within the lagoon and accessible by small motorboats. But mature pelagics like those marketed by BOFI are only caught in deeper waters, and thus require larger ships and greater amounts of fuel.
President Surangel Whipps Jr. has identified the development of local fisheries as a top priority for the government in building up the economy. So far, the government has invested in training for local fishermen in proper management of large fishery enterprises, while the Government of Japan is procuring a pole-and-line fishing vessel.
In May 2019, the National Government initiated a “Choose Pelagics” program in the effort to increase local consumption of pelagic fish species and decrease consumption of reef fish.