FIJI'S tuna industry started from humble beginnings with the establishment of the cannery at Levuka in 1966 and supported by small pole and line fleet targeting the surface occurring species.
Today, the tuna industry is Fiji's second largest exporting industry after tourism. The ndustry has significantly contributed to the Fiji economy since its establishment in the 1960s.
Within the last five years, the contribution to the economy rose from $21 million in 2006 to just over $200 million in 2011, according to the Reserve Bank of Fiji report (Fiji Offshore Fisheries Association (FOFA) submission, 2012).
The cannery at Levuka, namely PAFCO was established for canning light meat and white meat tuna. The light meat was from pole and line fishing vessels employed in Fiji and Solomon Islands. And the white meat materials sourced from foreign long line fleets that were ranging oceans of the world.
In 1988, long line fishing targeting the "fresh chilled sashimi market" in Japan started in Fiji with one company that had two boats. This grew but the rate depended on the available infrastructure at the time in terms of air freight space, available flights, wharf space and berthing and availability of parts for maintenance and repair and also working crew expertise.
The development of this industry however was through the efforts of private investors. The fleets also developed from small to medium and large size long liners that were fishing for the fresh chilled sashimi market, frozen fish market and super frozen fish market.
Overall the sector is highly demanding and competitive and the success of Fiji-based or Fiji-owned companies all goes well for the Fiji economy. An average company that exports 60-80 tonnes a month of frozen fish earns around $1.8million ( Fisheries Development in Fiji: The Quest for Sustainability By Joeli Veitayaki, University of the South Pacific).
In the region, Fiji's experience in this industry is the envy of other nations due to the local plants established, local employment created as a result, foreign revenue earned, substitution of canned products and contribution to growth of local fishing industry infrastructure. The involvement of government and other agencies are thus very important.
Issues and challenges
Foremost in discussions around the world in as far as the tuna industry is concerned is on how far and how best can we sustain this industry considering the increase in consumptions against the very real event of tuna stocks in the region being depleted.
The Fiji Long line Fishery Industry is currently managed by restrictions on vessel license numbers according to a Bio-economic report tabled by the Forum Fisheries Agency and Secretariat Pacific Agency.
Recently, the stakeholders of the local tuna fishery industry met to review the Tuna Management Development Plan of 2006-2010.
A number of assumptions were made in the analysis regarding the cost structure, data structure and fishing strategy of individual vessels.
According to the submissions made by FOFA at the meeting, there has been a fluctuation in the number of vessels operating inside Fiji's Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) in the past seven years while there has also been a considerable drop in catch.
In addition to these are foreign fleets who use Fiji's ports to transship, for storage and for maintenance purposes.
In the past two decades Fiji has developed into a shipping hub for fishing fleets. These foreign vessels also contribute to the economy via casual labour, payment of services and goods during their stay in Fiji. Now the challenges that accompany this as was raised at the meeting was the lack of space at the Suva wharfs, which has often led to loss of time, increased conflicts between boats and hindrance to the processing procedures of offloading on time and transportation.
Owners of fishing boats and production factories said these issues were raised too many times in the past ten years.
Seven major companies now own onshore facilities to support their own fleet and also others in the tuna long line fishing industry.
These companies - Golden Ocean, Solander, Sea Quest, Tosa Busan, Celtock, Hangton Pacific, Fiji Fish and Tri Pacific - to name a few have contributed greatly to the economy.
In addition Golden Ocean, Solander, Sea Quest and Tri-Pacific have upgraded their factory and vessels to meet EU standards, now that Fiji has been re-listed on the European market.
Other markets now include USA, Japan and China.
The greatest challenges that exist in this industry however is the availability of land to help develop processing sites for other potential investors.
Fuel prices versus catch are an issue that the industry has had to grapple with in the past 20 years. Fuel has tripled over the years while fish prices have not changed much.
The fishing costs says FOFA will always be a part of the process, paying the crew, repairs and also satisfying the border agencies in order to leave port.
There have been discussions on the one-stop shop set up but is yet to be realised.
Raw materials search is an ongoing issue with local operators and as such processing plants are usually at 50 per cent capability, local fishing fleets cannot also compete with foreign fleets.
There is also the issue of qualified local crew to man the boats or work in the plants, there is no fisheries school in Fiji despite the fact that Fijian crew are considered very tough people and one of the best once they gained the experience.
Next week we take a look into the proposed way forward in developing the tuna and also other views on the overall Fishery industry in the country.