Most coastal Pacific Islanders know how to land themselves a feed of fish, especially those who live where land-based resources offer slim pickings. Over the centuries, Islanders have learned to conserve the fruits of the sea. When a lagoon shows signs of being over-fished, village leaders declare a closed season or carefully lay down who can fish where or when.
Solomon Islands myth has it that the souls of successful fishermen are reincarnated in sharks which, in turn, protect schools of fish. Each landing stage has a guardian. For thousands of years that was all the protection Islands fishermen needed.
It was at the turn of this century that things began to change. Demand mounted for protein in industrialised countries, their own coastal waters having been fished out, some species driven to the point of extinction. In America and Japan the taste for tuna-fish sandwiches caught on.
Soon the waters of the Pacific were being prowled by long range fishing fleets, all seeking the prized tuna. Japanese fishermen sailed with the slogan 'From the coast to off shore and off shore to the distant seas.' They probed outward, ever outward, in search of the Pacific's itinerant tuna. They found the waters of the South Sea Islands both rich in tuna and convenient as a source of bait.
By 1971 Japan had become the world's largest fishing nation with 40 per cent of its annual catch coming from the waters of foreign countries. Also on the high seas by that time were fishing vessels from Korea and Taiwan.
Today the South Pacific yields an annual tuna catch of around $250 million - all of it caught in depths less than 200 metres. Tuna are basically surface fish but they swim only over deep water, usually out of reach of local fishing canoes which are restricted to lagoons and reefs. Consequently there is no direct competition for tuna between Islanders and foreigners.
Where the friction lies is the foreign fishermen's need to obtain bait fish - sprats and anchovies which are thrown live to tuna schools. This keeps them feeding wildly just beneath the surface. Snapping up anything that moves, the tuna become easy prey for lures and hooks.
Baitfish are caught inshore and have to be used within 24 hours or they die, thus confining foreign fishermen to the coastal waters of the Islands. The taking of baitfish can rapidly deplete lagoon and reef fish supplies - sometimes with drastic dietary consequences for Island people.
A further threat to Islanders' fishing grounds came in the 1950s when the fast-growing perch-like tilapia fish was introduced. It immediately started killing indigenous species of fish, once again threatening the welfare of local fishermen.
In the Solomon Islands people complained that if the sharks lost their natural prey they would start attacking people.
Despite Islanders' protests, foreign fishing vessels continued to take bait fish. Islanders also were helpless to prevent fishing just outside the old 12-mile limits.
With the coming of 200-mile economic zones in 1976 and with 90 per cent of the annual tuna catch being taken within 200 miles, it looked as if Islands nations, at last, were in for a bonanza.
Possession of tiny, remote atolls legitimated claims to vast areas of ocean. By the time all 200-mile boundaries were drawn the Islands nations theoretically held sway over a gigantic sheet of water with only an isolated pool of unclaimed water here and there (see map).
The idea was that foreign fishing companies would have to negotiate for fishing rights and pay for licences. But it didn't work out that way. Once again big business was one jump ahead of the Islanders. There was no rush to buy licences. Foreign companies simply chose to negotiate with selected states, totally ignoring others. It became a buyers market. Many Islands states were left high and dry in control of a massive resource they could not afford to exploit.
It is almost impossible for small Islands nations to set up their own fishing fleets. The fuel costs of a single vessel exceed the annual fuel bill of say Tuvalu or Niue. A workable fleet needs at least 10 boats. As well, fish processing needs fresh water and power - scarce commodities in most Islands states.
In the years the Islands have been fighting for a return for their fish, the biggest threat to profitability of the extended zones has been United States insistence that the prized tuna is a highly migratory species which cannot be claimed by anyone.
Capable of cruising at 30 km an hour, tuna released in Papua New Guinea have been found near Hawaii.
US trawlers sometimes intercept migrating tuna by using underwater radar. They can net an entire school in a single sweep. In practice, US interests rarely needs to trespass in foreign waters; they prefer to buy the catches of other fleets.
Through its huge canneries in American Samoa, the United States interests have tried to force US Government membership of the regional fisheries agency set up by the South Pacific Forum nations. This would thwart any plans for OPEC-style cooperation between Islands governments. Now the Reagan administration is stalling on the signing of the Law of the Sea accord, a document which has taken many years to resolve. Islands governments are convinced that had Jimmy Carter won a second term, the US would have signed the Law of the Sea. Reagan obviously is concerned that should the Law of the Sea be ratified as it is the United States would only be one among equals.
Japan's response to the problem of maintaining long-distance fishing interests has been to set up overseas business. There are now at least 225 Japanese fishing enterprises in 57 countries, more than 40 per cent of the $60 million investment coming from the big five fishing multi-nationals - Taiyo, Nihon Suisan, Nihon Refrigeration, Nichiro and Kyokuyo.
In the Pacific, Japanese companies have favoured 'joint ventures': setting up business with local shareholders, usually governments. Pioneer in this oceanic empire-building has been the Taiyo Fisheries Company which, by 1976, had 2500 overseas employees working in 33 on-shore joint ventures.
Taiyo's Pacific interests have tended to be on a foot-in-the-door basis. In 1973 it signed an agreement with the Solomon Islands giving an interest of 25 per cent to the then colonial government.
With independence in July 1978 this was increased to 49 per cent. Meanwhile Taiyo invested $7 million in a cannery at Tulagi. With the new 200-mile limit and the coming of independence, Taiyo's 'special relationship' was honoured by an agreement allowing its boats to fish within the 12-mile limit.
Benefits to the Solomons are employment for 500 of its citizens plus tax on both their wages and the exported processed fish. But the latter is limited because at least 90 per cent of the tuna catch in Solomons waters is frozen and shipped to processing plants in the US, thus avoiding the high US import tariff on processed fish. The lowest quality tuna is canned for sale in the Solomon Islands.
Former Solomons Opposition Leader Bartholomew Ulufa'alu is highly critical of conditions at the Taiyo factory, complaining that local employees are paid lower rates than their expatriate counterparts and are forced to live in concrete bunkhouses, separated according to their language groups. Management is entirely Japanese with training ruled out because of 'language barriers'.
Taiyo's policy is to maximise benefits with a minimum of investment - just enough to keep governments interested in joint ventures. No attempt is made to increase the productivity of small-time local fishermen. 'Once they have depleted the resources and business drops off,' says Yamaka Junko in his study of Japanese fishing companies, 'they simply withdraw, leaving only devastated waters and unemployed people.'
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