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Sell the fishing, not the fish [The Fiji Times, 17 Dec 2000]


  When Rex Hunt’s fishing programs appear on Fiji TV’s off-periods, most Fijian fishermen laugh themselves silly.

We see an enthusiastic Rex Hunt,  charging around in an expensive fishing boat (easily costing two hundred thousand dollars), casting away with costly high tech fishing gear- all for the eventual catching of a daniva!  Or something just as small.

Yep, often, the fish that Rex Hunt kisses on the nose, and puts in his frying pan, or throws back because he already has a bucketful, is less than a foot long.

Bigger stuff in Fiji?

  InFiji, Rex Hunt’s successful Australian fishing catch would most times be used for bait or thrown back.  Not kissed on the nose, not filmed, and certainly not framed for posterity.

While we can afford to laugh at Rex Hunt’s tiddlers, indigenous Fijians who own fertile fishing grounds, should be laughing all the way to the bank.

All overFiji, there are fantastic fishing grounds, some highly protected against commercial fishing.  Often, the fishing grounds are well within the outer reefs, resulting in much calmer seas than would be found in the open.

And villagers, in little wooden punts, and hand lines rolled around plastic bottles, catch a great variety of fish, big and small.

The tasty sabutu (Emperor Perch); the massive kawakawa (rock cod); the fighting razor-toothed oqo (barracuda), or often a powerful thrashing six-foot qio (sharks).

What would commercial fishing earn for the resource owner?  A 100 kg fish catch sold to middlemen at $3 per kg, may fetch them $300.   And the fish catch will be gone, eventually eaten by their customers.

A bigger income requires a greater volume of fish caught, often leading to over-fishing of the resource areas.  But it need not be like that.

 More money from sports fishing for tourists

  Imagine, if the villager were a tourist operator, catering to visiting sports fishermen or women fromAustralia,New Zealand,Japan,Korea.

The gross revenue, to take 6 tourists fishing, for a day or night, at even a paltry $30 per person, could be $180. It could be more, if the operation was a bit more up-market.

The tourists would be only interested in the fishing, not the fish itself.  All the fish caught (with the tourists’ “free labour”) would still be available to the fishing operator for sale or consumption.  Of course, one or two of the choice fish could be cooked up and served to the tourists after the fishing trip.  The Japanese and Koreans might like fresh sashimi on the spot.

Of course, such an enterprise is not easy to set up.

Need for standards

  The operation would require a safe and certified boat, protected from the weather- certainly better quality than the usual wooden punt.

The boat operator must have some basic certification on boat engine maintenance and repair.  There must be back-up engines, should the main one expire in the night (asFijiboat engines seem to do with amazing frequency, indicating grossly inadequate maintenance and care).

There must be safety equipment, such as life jackets for every tourist (and crew member).  The last thing one needs is a tourist drowning through inadequate safety precautions!

The operator would need to provide proper fishing rods and reels.  But many of the keen tourist fishermen would bring their own fishing gear.

Money to be made everywhere

  And look at all the spin-off revenues.  The business could provide on-shore budget accommodation (at $60 per night).

Meals and drinks would generate additional sources of revenues.

On the boat, there could be a basic video camera, recording any “big catches”, with the tapes being sold to the tourists (for a very small profit)  to take home.

I say only a “small profit” because the beginning and ending of every tape would also advertise the fishing holiday, the fishing operator, the safety features, the official certification by the Fiji Visitors’ Bureau, and how to book into the trip.

By the time the tourist has proudly shown to his dozens of bored friends and family member, his genuine “big catch that didn’t get away” inFiji, he will also have sold a few more fishing holidays.  Virtually free advertisement, and effective.

There would be other spin-offs.

Other benefits for villagers

  Year after year, dozens of fishing boats or villagers’ coastal transport have their engines breaking down in mid-voyage, without back-up engines, sails, or oars, drift around with the tides.  With no safety gear, and no means of calling for rescues, these events sometimes end tragically.

The safety requirements of  sports fishing geared towards tourists would therefore go a long way to educating our coastal people to improve their safety practices at sea.

A tourist fishing operation would also encourage sustainable harvesting of the fisheries.  What the tourist remembers is the “big catch”, not the dozens of tiddlers.  And the big ones would need to be encouraged through policy.

Fishing could be strictly rotated around the protected fishing grounds so as not to exhaust any one area.  Small fish caught, could be released back into the waters.

There could even be systematic fish feeding in certain areas, to ensure that sufficient fish kept getting attracted to the areas in which the sports fishing would take place.

And if our fisheries department got their act together on fish breeding programs, they could be judicious stocking of fish in certain fishing areas. Annual re-stocking of fish is done all over the developed world, usually in fresh-water lakes and rivers.  Why not in our protected reef areas?

Need for government support and initiative: it won’t happen by itself

  It is unfortunate, that tourism-oriented sports fishing ventures of the kind I am suggesting here, are extremely unlikely to “happen” by themselves, especially where indigenous Fijian operators are concerned.

While many non-Fijians have started similar more up-market operations already, educated Fijians are not interested in this kind of operation.   What a pity.

And the majority of our coastal villagers (who own the protected fishing grounds) are not educated enough to tackle this niche market.

The kinds of boats required, the safety features, all require a level of capital investment, which most villagers will not be able to obtain from either their own sources, or the commercial financial institutions.  The Fiji Development Bank could help.

The safety standards and the quality of service called for, do not prevail at the moment, and definitely require special training and monitoring.

How can such enterprises get going, on a large scale?

Handouts are not the answer

  It is easy for development professionals and bureaucrats to attend conferences, talk a lot, and write up big plans.  And leave it all to the multinationals.

It is easy to legislate “compulsory shares in ownership” for indigenous Fijians.   It is easy to give financial handouts, easy credit and tax holidays.

But that does not help our small people.

The history of such “easy answers” is that enterprises may start with a bang, but die out quietly without a whimper.

No entrepreneurs are created.  Certainly, there is no creation of a sustainable, credible enterprise which has the confidence of the tourist clients.

Projects which train ordinary villagers into becoming professional tourism operators (even small scale) require long-term co-ordination, planning and hard-work from the professionals and bureaucrats of a number of institutions inFiji: the Fiji Visitors’ Bureau; the Fiji Development Bank; Fiji Marine Department; FIT’s Marine Program, and the Ministry of Rural Development, to name just a few.

Can Government get its act together for the small people in fisheries?

[Appeared as “Sell the fishing, not the fish” The Fiji Times, 17 Dec 2000].

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