With help from academia, the blue economy swims into focus

The 2050 Strategy for the Blue Pacific Continent was adopted by the 18-member Pacific Islands Forum (PIF) at their 50th anniversary summit in Tuvalu in 2019. The PIF member countries are sending high-powered delegations to the 2022 UN Ocean Conference starting in Lisbon on 27 June to get the strategy officially adopted by the United Nations as a development priority for the region.

The University of the South Pacific (USP), which has its major campus in Suva, Fiji, with a number of smaller campuses across the region, has several projects led by the university’s experts, working with government agencies, international partners and communities to assist in the successful implementation of the 2050 strategy.

One such project addresses Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) 14 – ‘Life under water’ – that is critical to the future of the South Pacific Island nations. USP is partnering with the Japan International Cooperation Agency (JICA) – which is providing funds and experts – to mould, mentor and coach officials from the Ministry of Fisheries in Fiji to enable them to become effective fisheries managers and influence community leaders to adopt sustainable fishing practices.

“Fisheries are important for the Pacific Islands. It is a very important part of their diet [and] there are now climatic change impacts over fishing, [thus] the fisheries sector is showing signs of decline,” notes Dr Rajesh Prasad, aquaculture programme leader in the discipline of marine studies at USP.

Smaller projects

The main focus of the project is to work in smaller projects to understand what the requirements are [to make fisheries sustainable],” said Prasad, who directs the project. “We need to do mitigation measures like assessing what the stocks are and what the community capacity building needs are.”

In an interview with University World News, Prasad said marine studies includes oceanography, fisheries management, offshore fisheries management and other smaller courses in maritime training.

Minoru Tamura is the chief advisor from JICA, working with Prasad on the project at USP. He told University World News that Japan’s expertise in managing small-scale fisheries in island communities is appropriate to Pacific Island communities.

“Japanese-style management of fish is at a small scale, not like the bigger-scale Western style. We have over 60,000 fishing villages [operating] on very small scale and they manage the resources on their own. Those management styles can be adopted in the small Pacific Island countries,” he said.

“Japan has advanced technology in tracking fish, processing fish and managing the fish. We also have advanced research techniques related to marine studies,” said Tamura.

The project, which started in 2020, will run until 2025 and during this period it is envisaged that about 130 fisheries officials from Fiji will be trained and such training will be extended to Vanuatu, Samoa and Tuvalu.

Fiji’s fisheries ministry is responsible for making the laws and enforcing them. They also ensure that the fisheries sector is operating within the rules and regulations set for the industry.

“Fisheries officials are expected to work with communities to ensure that they are getting the best out of the resources,” Navneel Singh, senior fisheries officer, Fiji Ministry of Fisheries, told University World News.

“They also help in advising on regulations and take data on catches, so they play a management role regarding the fisheries resources.”

Singh said that the fisheries department is expected to enforce the regulations at the point of sale, ensuring that fish being sold are proper sizes and are sold under hygienic conditions.

However, he said some of these processes had “not been well managed in the past [because] new management techniques were not available to them. That’s where this training comes in”.

Mud crab fishing

Mud crab fishing, mainly from the mangrove areas, is a popular livelihood option for many poor villagers. Along the highways people often sell their catch to make a living. Some can make about FJ$100 (US$46) on a good day.

In markets in the city, a kilogram of mud crab is about FJ$25-35, but for those selling on the roadside, a string of seven to eight crabs could fetch between FJ$80 and FJ$140. However, many of these crabs are smaller than the 14 cm length recommended by fisheries regulations and people can be fined for selling them.

USP has set up a pilot ‘mud crab fattening’ project with the fisheries ministry at a river delta community near Suva in the village of Vunuku, which was the topic of a feature article in the Fiji Sun newspaper last month.

“We have set up experimental work at moment,” said Prasad. “We are taking data with the community to find out how long it takes to make a crab into the legal length of 14 cm. The fisher people are also getting the training on how to manage that kind of project.”

Village headman Vilikesa Koroi said mud crabs are the lifeblood of the community, which has depended on the income from the crabs to sustain the community and even to build new houses. He sees the project to make the crabs bigger and increase the sustainability of their livelihood as “an exciting prospect”.

The villagers collectively see the project as an opportunity to learn to breed bigger crabs and hence increase their income.

The Rewa River is the largest river in Fiji and has many tributaries that flow into the sea. The tributaries are lined with extensive mangrove forests where the mud crabs are found in abundance.

A hapa net has been erected in one of the river outlets in the village to catch smaller crabs. These are then fed with a combination of animal and plant-based products which fatten the crabs.

“If the crab farming project is successful, then we can convince other communities to use it,” said Prasad. “We use very simple technology. The point here is if we have too many smaller crabs on the market, they are not breeding. That means we are reducing the size of the resource to the public”.

Vocational training model

At the moment 130 fisheries officials are enrolled in the training programme that includes a type of vocational training model, with workshops and fieldwork.

If officials remain in the programme for four years, they will receive a certificate that will help them in becoming trainers for other Pacific fisheries officials in the region, said Prasad, adding that they cannot grant a degree because this is not a university-accredited course.

“USP is providing technical support and JICA the funding. Fisheries department manpower takes it to the community,” said Singh.

“We also have Japanese experts providing training online and we also send some fisheries officials to Japan for training. So we have some very scientifically trained fisheries officials who can oversee how these projects are run,” said Prasad.

The USP project has been helping in other areas such as assisting fisheries officials in collection and management of data on fin fish stocks in Fiji, and in increasing the production of tilapia in aquaculture facilities.

“The system of fish farming in Fiji is not at a large commercial stage. If we can increase the production of tilapia, the pressure of fishing [offshore] will slowly release,” said Prasad.

“Investing in the blue economy and Blue Pacific is the only way available for us. Our oceans are still very productive. We have to save the Pacific Ocean because it’s a very productive ocean,” said Prasad. “While there is income to be made, we need to ensure we are looking after it.”