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Pacific 3 in global rivalry

Dame Meg Taylor
Friday, October 13, 2017

THE "Blue Pacific" region is making waves through a global seafood competition which promotes sustainable development in the fisheries sector.

Three fisheries companies from Palau, Solomon Islands and Vanuatu are finalists in the Fish 2.0 2017 competition for sustainable seafood businesses. They are among 37 finalists from an initial pool of 184 entrants.

Toata Molea of Didds Fishing Company Ltd (Solomon Islands) and James Sanderson of Indigo Seafood in Palau were still reeling from their finalist status when contacted this week. Both are now working hard with organisers to perfect the pitch they will put to potential investors during the final in November.

Toata Molea has ancestral wisdom of sea barrier reef systems and its inhabitants that cannot be taught. Before starting with DFC, he was undertaking doctoral (marine) studies in Australia but stopped when he ran out of funds.

"I still can't believe it," said Mr Molea, who comes from Makwanu, a community that builds and lives on artificial islands, in the northernmost part of the Solomon Islands.

"Our entire lives are on and around the sea. For crops and other similar needs, we would go to the coastline and use our catch in a barter system. To be a finalist is so very amazing and is something that was celebrated by the entire community - everyone is still celebrating."

Families in Makwanu use 15 boats, alternating weeks so everyone has the opportunity to earn some cash. DFC provides the boats, fuel and ice; a "carrier" boat travels between Honiara, the capital, and company base, and Malaita Province where the community is to drop off supplies and pick up the fresh fish for the local market and hotels.

Mr Molea acknowledges the banking accessibility through a store in the community. Once the catch is processed in Honiara, money for the family is deposited in their accounts in Honiara which they can access at the village store - they only use what they need, the rest remaining as savings.

"Fishing is line-specific, fish-specific - we do not go all out with nets or other unsustainable methods. And because the men are fishing about six kilometers off the reef, it relieves pressure on inshore fisheries so reef fish are actually spawning and thriving without much pressure on it," Molea said.

"Another aspect of our operations, which we are very proud of is, while it is men that go out fishing, the role the women play is significant and very important, something that is not always acknowledged but women do everything - clean it, prepare it for Honiara, then they take some for crops.

The Pacific Islands Forum Secretariat, together with Pacific Trade & Invest Australia and the World Wide Fund for Nature, partnered with Fish 2.0 in November 2016 to deliver the Pacific Hotspot Business Development and Application Workshop.

He attended the workshop, and says it helped build his confidence for participating in the initiative. Mr Molea said he saw the workshop as honouring an invitation, as just an information session. He baulked at the thought of pitching in front of hundreds of investors but then he scored well in the first phase of the workshop during which companies were analysed on the sustainability of their operations, approaches to conservation and the methodology of their fishing processes. The rest, as they say, is history.

Meanwhile in Makwanu, cash is making a huge difference to these sea-dwellers. It has boosted the capacity of families to send their children to school, to buy groceries and clothing.

DFC will now join other finalists from November 7-8 at Stanford University in the US to pitch to investors; the 24 highest scorers will then have three minutes to pitch to a panel of expert judges; and the 16 finalists will have 90 seconds to pitch directly to an audience of 300 seafood experts and investors who attend Fish 2.0 events to share knowledge and find opportunities. The audience will vote for companies they most want to follow up with.

Mr Sanderson of Indigo Seafood said to be a finalist was a "privilege and we are thankful". He is excited at the prospect of showing potential investors what they do and sharing their business ideas with the gathering at Stanford next month.

Indigo Seafood is an open ocean aquaculture company in Palau, growing fin fish for live fish export to Asia and for food security in Palau. The company successfully reversed the classification of waters in and around its ocean lease from protected to commercial, a sign of confidence in the methodology they use.

Mr Sanderson and his business partner James McVey knew they wanted to do aquaculture as a business but they needed a location. Palau appealed to them for many reasons including the country's heart for conservation and sustainable use of its territorial waters.

"It is an excellent location. We have been here now seven years now and it has been satisfying to be contributing to the conservation efforts with sustainable business practices while having an impact on the local community," he said.

"Palau imports around 80 per cent of its seafood. Its oceans having been fished quite a lot but we hope to reverse that sort of statistics with our restocking approach, our hatchery are growing fish which we are then putting back into the ocean for example."

And what kept Indigo Seafood determined to continue in the competition while others gave up halfway? "I think it would be the philosophical alignment; we want to raise fish and Fish 2.0 provides the opportunity to continue to do so with like-minded people."

Fish 2.0 founder and executive director Monica Jain said this group of finalists have been the "strongest group ever" and that the level of innovation was potentially both system-changing and profitable.

"We are seeing the rise of 'seatech' - new monitoring, visibility, production and processing tools for the seafood industry as well as other advances that remove barriers to growth and sustainability for fishers, farmers and buyers throughout the value chain," Ms Jain said.

Finalists stand out because of their market traction, global character and high potential for impact on the seafood sector. Ms Jain said the companies had also demonstrated a commitment for growth and had market strategies resonating with a varied group of investors who served as online judges.

Pacific Islands Forum leaders, through the Framework for Pacific Regionalism, have sought to address the sustainable development of the region's fisheries. In 2015 they called for a sustainable increase in the economic returns from the sector. In 2016, the leaders highlighted the importance of strengthening support for and resourcing coastal fisheries. In 2017, the leaders reiterated fisheries as a priority for the region.

Forum Secretariat director Programmes and Initiatives, Shiu Raj, said the region was richer with initiatives like Fish 2.0 which provided a platform to incubate and nurture sustainable fisheries businesses.

"It is our expectation that this innovative competition will serve to strengthen existing fisheries businesses, catalyse new and more resilient enterprises and strengthen existing business models," Mr Raj said.

"Fish 2.0 offers a bridge between the region's fisheries objectives, the private sector and industry experts. This proven tripartite approach is one that has already yielded benefits and can serve as a model to be replicated in other sectors of strategic interest to our region."

* The views expressed are the author's and not of this newspaper.

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