Tonga has only two domestic tuna longline vessels in operation, a significant and continuing decline in fishing activity compared to 26 vessels operating in 2002, according to a a report released last week.
A Tonga Tuna longline development strategy report was carried out by the Pacific Island Forum Fisheries Agency for Tonga's Fisheries Department in July.
The two domestic tuna longline vessels included one locally-based foreign tuna longline vessel. In addition to this were six recently licensed foreign tuna longline vessels, which are flagged and owned in Taiwan.
"This is a significant decrease in the number of licensed vessels in Tonga from a high of 26 vessels in 2002, which included 14 local and 12 locally based foreign licensed vessels. Tuna catches also fell from 1,880mt to 360mt from 2002 onwards", said the report.
At the same time the southern longline fishery is seeing a rapid expansion in activity from vessels operated from China and Taiwan. Many of these vessels have gained access to Pacific Islands EEC through a combination of reflagging or chartering and such that Tonga, Fiji, Vanuatu, Solomon Islands and Cook Island collectively host 220 out of a Chinese Taiwanese fleet of 590.
The decline in Tonga's domestic based longline fishery is a major concern for both Government and the private sector. Government is understood to be seeking to both optimise rentals from commercial fishing within the EEZ but also support the recapitalisation of the domestic industry.
The main difficulty facing industry members is the high cost of doing business in Tonga, including very high freight costs, labour, power costs and vessel fuel costs which are 20 to 22 percent higher than neighboring Fiji and Samoa.
These high costs have stifled the investment and led to the progressive decline in the domestic tuna longline sub-sector. The private sector is seeking to operate in a more favorable economic environment that can allow for a reinvigoration of the domestic industry.
The report recommends that the Tongan Government needs to maximize its returns from the offshore tuna longline fishery and work towards a model for the distribution of fishing rights in the Southern albacore fishery like yellowfin, bigeye tuna, swordfish which are considered important opportunities.
Richard Banks and Semisi Fakahau complied the 10 page strategy report.