Marine Resources in Papua New Guinea

The Papua New Guinea (PNG) fisheries zone of 2.4 million square kilometres is the largest in the South Pacific. The coastline and offshore islands of PNG comprise a great diversity of marine environments. The Gulf of Papua contains large delta areas, mud flats and mangrove swamps, while the north coast of the mainland and the coasts of the high islands are characterised by fringing coral reefs and narrow lagoons. Some of the smaller island groups are adjacent to large submerged reef systems or broad shallows. Extensive inland river systems are present in some provinces, such as East Sepik and Western.

PNG’s fisheries reflect the diversity of its marine environments. Along the coasts of the mainland and islands, fishing activities include gleaning on reef flats; spear fishing; shallow water handlining from dugout canoes, outrigger canoes and outboard-powered fibreglass dinghies; netting; and trapping in the freshwater reaches of the larger rivers. In the swampy coastal areas, fishing activities centre around netting barramundi, catfish and shark, while in the southern part of Western Province a village-based lobster fishery supplies a commercial facility at Daru. Invertebrates are collected throughout the coastal and island areas for commercial purposes, the most important being bêche-de-mer (sea cucumber) and trochus shell. Giant clams are widely harvested for subsistence. Pearl farming is conducted around two islands in Milne Bay Province, with juvenile oysters derived from a hatchery on Samarai Island. Commercial prawn trawling is carried out in the Gulf of Papua.

A domestically based foreign-owned purse seine fishery is rapidly expanding within PNG’s Exclusive Economic Zone. Aquaculture is practised in many inland locations including parts of the highlands.

Subsistence fisheries

Little reliable information exists on the subsistence fisheries sector, but it is thought to be the most valuable component of PNG’s fishing industry in terms of both volume and value. It is estimated that more than 500 000 people participate in both coastal and inland subsistence fisheries, harvesting 25 000–50 000 tonnes of marine produce per year. The best estimate of fish production at the household level comes from the 1996 PNG Household Survey. This survey recorded production of fresh fish, dried fish and shellfish as 50 000 tonnes/year, with an estimated value of K60 million (K142 million in 2007 currency equivalent). Around 60% of the subsistence catch comprises an estimated 20% invertebrates; 30% coastal bay, lagoon and reef fish; and 10% pelagic fish (fish that live in the open sea).

Local area marine food sales

Many people earn some income from selling fresh fish, dried fish and other marine foods including shellfish, lobster, octopus, crab, turtle, prawns and dugong. Fish is sold in fresh food markets; from informal roadside stalls; and directly to individuals, hotels and other institutions with large boarding populations. Long-distance trade in fresh fish to the larger urban areas is limited, and is constrained by inadequate transport and cold storage facilities, particularly access to ice. Fish and other marine food is sold, and sometimes bartered, in a number of locations, especially from small islands, so that people can buy carbohydrate foods such as sago, sweet potato, imported rice, flour and banana.

In the period 1990–1995, sales of fish and shellfish generated an estimated income of K3.8 million for more than 400 000 rural villagers. Over the past decade, the prices of domestically marketed foods have increased and the volume of imported fish has decreased. Hence the value of fish and shellfish sold in 2007 will have increased from the early to mid 1990s, but no recent estimates are available.

Numerous types of marine and some freshwater fish are sold, most of which are native species. Some introduced species are important in a number of locations, particularly tilapia (Tilapia mossambica and T. rendalli) in the Sepik River area and in parts of Madang and Morobe provinces. Some trout are caught for sale from high-altitude streams (over 2000 m).

Family-based fish farms increased from 5400 in 2001 to an estimated 8000 farms by 2006. As well, an estimated 10 000–15 000 potential fish farmers have constructed earthen ponds, which are not stocked. Most (83%) of the fish farms are in Simbu, Eastern Highlands and Western Highlands provinces, with a further 13% in Morobe, Southern Highlands and Enga provinces. The remainder are scattered in various lowland locations. There is little information on output and sales from inland fish farms. The three main fish species cultured in inland locations are common carp (Cyprinus carpio), rainbow trout (Oncorhynchus mykiss) and GIFT tilapia. The Highlands Aquaculture Development Centre at Aiyura in Eastern Highlands Province is the major hatchery in PNG and distributes common carp, GIFT fish and Java carp (Puntius gonionotus).

Commercial fisheries

There has been a sharp increase in the overall volume and value of marine exports since the late 1990s. The major commercial fisheries in PNG are, in order of value, tuna, bêche-de-mer, shell products such as trochus and mother of pearl, shrimp, shark, lobster, and fish and crab. Prior to the late 1990s, shrimp was the most consistently valuable commercial fishery. However, over the past decade, the tuna fishery has dominated the industry. In 1996 tuna accounted for about 14% of the total value of marine exports but, by 2006, tuna products had increased to around 75% of the total value of marine exports.

Tuna caught in PNG waters accounts for 20–30% of the South Pacific tuna catch and about 10% of the global catch. About 30% of tuna processed in PNG is sold on the domestic market, with local consumption of tinned tuna estimated to be about 15 000 tonnes in 2006. PNG supplies about 10% of the global market for bêche-de-mer and is the third largest producer.

The increase in the harvesting and export of tuna, and of the value of fisheries exports in general, has occurred as a result of the establishment of the national fisheries policy framework (as articulated in the Fisheries Management Act 1998); the reform of the PNG National Fisheries Authority (NFA); interventions made under successive donor-funded projects; changes to taxation regimes; the development of a domestic tuna fishing industry, including the establishment of canneries in Madang, Lae and Wewak; and the depreciation of the kina. The quality of information collection and monitoring has also improved significantly, but not enough to account for the considerable growth in export volume and value.

It is important to note that the tuna export figures mentioned above do not include the relatively large amounts of tuna harvested in deep waters by foreign-owned purse seine vessels that pay access and licensing fees to the NFA. Domestically based foreign-owned fleets that operated in PNG during the 1970s left in the early 1980s due to unfavourable duties imposed on tuna exports. Until 1995 distant water fleets paying access fees were the only commercial tuna fisheries in PNG. With policy and governance reform during the late 1990s, the domestic tuna industry expanded rapidly. This includes a domestically based purse seine fleet, which is intended to supply the increasing number of onshore export-oriented processing plants, and a domestic long-line fleet.

Since the domestic long-line fleet is made up of vessels that are smaller, cheaper and of lower technology than the purse seine fleet, this sector was able to incorporate more PNG business people and employees on the vessels. However, with increasing fuel and freight prices, this fishery has proved uneconomic for operators away from the transport hub of Port Moresby, and during 2004–2005 the number of vessels active in the fishery declined by about half. A ‘pump boat’ handline tuna fishery operated by local fishermen was established near Lae in 2006, with 12 local fishing groups involved. There are plans to extend the use of pump boats to New Ireland, Manus and Sandaun provinces.

Processing, exporters and markets

Tuna not only accounts for around 75% of the value of PNG’s marine exports, but also represents an important source of revenue in the form of access and licensing fees paid by foreign fishing nations. Most tuna is caught by foreign purse seine vessels. Annual bilateral access agreements are negotiated with a number of countries, particularly Taiwan, Korea, and the Philippines; and a multilateral agreement exists with the United States. Under these agreements, approximately 130 purse seine vessels fish PNG waters each year. Frozen tuna from the foreign fishing vessels is transhipped in the ports of Wewak, Lorengau, Kavieng, Rabaul, Lae and Madang for shipment to canneries in Thailand, the Philippines and American Samoa. The foreign fishing vessels catch around 250 000–300 000 tonnes of tuna per year, with an estimated value of US$350–450 million. Access fees paid to the PNG Government by foreign-owned fishing companies increased from US$5.8 million (K15 million) in 1999 to US$13.6 million (K48 million) by 2003.

The domestic long-line industry catches mainly yellowfin tuna and, to a lesser extent, bigeye. Forty licensed locally owned long-line vessels were estimated to be operating in 2003. (According to industry sources, the official figures have consistently underestimated the number of boats because the figures are based on licences and there are chronic problems with the licensing system. There may actually have been between 70 and 80 vessels operating around the peak of the industry in 2003, and about 35 operating in 2005.) Around 1000–2000 tonnes are harvested each year. Most of the fresh catch is exported in chilled form to Japan, while the remainder is exported to Australia. Tinned tuna is exported to the United States and European markets, while fishmeal is mostly exported to Australia and Japan.

The main export destinations for all marine products are Europe and Asia, particularly Germany, the United Kingdom, Hong Kong and Japan.

Future prospects

Tuna fisheries in particular have the potential to provide substantial long-term economic benefits for PNG. While few Papua New Guineans are employed on, or manage boats in, the purse seine fleets, the domestic fishery generates thousands of jobs in the processing sector onshore and should continue to do so. The domestic long-line fishery has suffered from declining catches as well as freight problems and is unlikely to recover unless these issues are addressed. Small village-based commercial tuna fisheries ‘piggybacking’ on large-scale operations in Lae could be an important source of income generation and small business experience, if environmental and economic factors are carefully managed, although similar activities have failed in Madang.

The sea cucumber (bêche-de-mer) fishery can benefit rural people because bêche-de-mer is predominantly export-oriented, although there are concerns over the sustainability of this fishery. The National Fisheries Authority has recently developed a K15 million Fisheries Credit Facility with the National Development Bank to assist rural fisher groups access microfinance.

Future prospects for fisheries in PNG depend upon several factors: the NFA’s policy objectives and regulatory ability; greater compliance by all stakeholders; the provision of technical and material support (particularly processing and post-harvest handling); adequate and affordable transport; marketing networks; and a better understanding of the susceptibility of most commercial species to over-harvesting.

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