One field trip involved a visit to Noumea’s main fishing wharf to see what happens to tuna after they’ve been caught. Ben Chapman-Smith reports.
It’s early Wednesday morning in Noumea and the Quai de Pche (fishing pier) is bustling with activity. Local longline vessel Gossanah has just returned from a lengthy fishing campaign and its crew are unloading an endless supply of sleek, fat tuna from the chiller. Yellowfin, albacore and bigeye tuna are hoisted out by crane in their dozens, glistening in the morning sun. A salty-looking fisherman in blue overalls hoses down the fish as they dangle a few metres off the ground, then guides them into a large bin. Each bin is then whisked away by forklift into a processing plant, less than 50 metres across the wharf. From here, some of the choicest fish will be exported whole to Japan – destined for sashimi platters – but most are processed for local consumption.
Hugues Gossuin, New Caledonia’s Tuna Monitoring Co-ordinator, tells us more about what appears to be a sophisticated and efficient fishing industry.
The most startling fact is that the country allows no foreign fishing vessels inside its Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ). Every fish caught legally in New Caledonia’s waters is hooked by one of 17 longliners, which are owned by one of three companies. The vessels set lines ranging from 1200 metres to 60km in length, holding as many as 2000 baited hooks at a time.
“We set about 4.5 million hooks last year,” Gossuin says.
Peak season is between July and October and each boat catches an average 600 to 700 fish per campaign, with each campaign lasting 10 to 12 days.
Most of the 25 fishermen on each boat are locals - with a few from mainland France – and the country is trying to encourage young people to work in the industry.
“For some time now New Caledonia has been training its own local population. There are often times we have signed captains that have been working for many, many years and they are here to train the young generation. This is how we ensure experience is passed on.”
Gossuin says measures have been put in place to try and maintain a stable price for fish on the market. The number of boats allowed to fish at any one time varies, he says.
“We’re really trying to strike the right balance between supply and demand. In the past we sometimes had to sell our fish at a non-profitable price because we had too much supply.”
Yellowfin loins sell locally for about 2350 Pacific Francs (NZ$32.40 per kilo), and albacore about 1500 Pacific Francs (NZ$20.60) per kilo.
Gossuin boasts about the tight monitoring of New Caledonia’s waters. The navy is in charge and has two to three boats monitoring the area constantly. Spotting planes are also sent out on a regular basis, targeting particular areas. Vessel monitoring systems (VMS), used in commercial fishing, also allow the navy to keep track of fishing vessels’ movements.
“New Caledonia authorities are very stringent when it comes to policing the area. Three months ago we had to stop a Chinese boat. They were crossing in our waters and it was confiscated,” Gossuin says.
The run-down Chinese vessel is moored up at the other end of the wharf and we take a walk to check it out. We are alarmed to find the crew have been confined to the boat for the past three months while legal proceedings continue. They are walking around onboard, going about their morning routine, brushing their teeth and hanging clothes out to dry.
“The crew have to stay onboard all the time. They have a certain amount of freedom to go back and forth but they have to spend the rest of the time aboard the boat,” Gossuin says.
The fishing company has been hit with a hefty fine but no decision has been reached about the boat’s future.
“We’ll probably not be able to use it because it doesn’t meet safety requirements. The maintenance is not quite the same as our own boats. It’s quite shabby. I can’t even see any safety boats on board.”
Even the vessel’s catch is still in the cooler.
Gossuin says the last breach was a Taiwanese boat five years ago, nabbed catching sharks in the EEZ. “This is our main concern, that these boats are catching sharks. Shark fishing in New Caledonia is strictly banned.”
Meanwhile, most of the tuna have now been unloaded from the Gossanah and we journalists are keen to see the fish being processed.
Gossuin leads us up a steep flight of stairs into the Navimon processing plant which processes about 1200 tonnes of fish a year, mainly for local mouths. We each don a pair of white overalls, blue shoe covers, face masks and hair nets and are led into a large, chilled room. Tuna hang from hooks, lined wall to wall. There are hundreds in this room. Our eyes pick out the odd mahi-mahi and I spot a stack of huge marlin slabs lying on a pallet. We each take a minute to grab photos with the massive bigeye tuna.
From there, we are led into the next room, where the fish are being systematically filleted and skinned. Knives move so fast we can barely see what’s happening.
The crimson hunks of meat are transported through to another room, where a team of workers wraps them in cling film and bundles them onto a trolley. Most of these will be on sale at the public fish market within an hour or so. Some of the fillets are sliced up into smaller segments, destined for supermarket shelves. Each portion is weighed and has a price tag applied. We are shown into a room stacked with long cardboard boxes. Each of these contains a whole tuna, picked for the Japanese market.
As we exit the processing plant and enter the warm mid-morning air, wrapped tuna fillets are being loaded into a white truck. We later visit the public market to see the fish on sale, with chefs and everyday customers lining up to buy.
Our media group has been brought to Noumea to learn about the region’s tuna fishery and observe the local industry in action. We are each wondering the same thing. What could our own countries – Samoa, Fiji, PNG and Cook Islands – learn from this place? Is it desirable or possible to replicate some of these processes? How can Pacific nations protect their fishing stocks and local fishermen’s livelihoods, while extracting maximum profits in a sustainable way? These questions are in our minds as we head off hungrily to find a feed of local fish for lunch.