Traders’ access to tuna in Honiara affected during COVID-19

by George J. Maelagi | 21 July 2021 | News

Honiara Central Market. Photo: JOG.

Honiara Central Market. Photo: JOG.

Story by George J. Maelagi

Tuna is a food consumed daily by the people in Solomon Islands and the demand for tuna is always high when fishers reach the coastal fisheries and people are relying on the fish for consumption for their daily needs.

During a visit to the Honiara Central Market, I had a chance to meet with one of the tuna traders and speak with him. Mr Rex Fifiri sells tuna to the market vendors. He speaks of the changes that the pandemic has brought to the coastal fisheries, especially these coastal fisheries located in the capital, Honiara.

Mr Rex Fifiri at the Honiara Central Market during the interview. Photo: George J Maelagi.

When asked if 2020 was a good year of tuna trade, Mr Fifiri says, “2020 was an unfair year for us, as we no longer went out to trade because there are not so many fishing vessels that are doing transshipment at Honiara port. Now in 2021, things are slowly returning to normal as ships are hopefully starting to resume transshipment in Honiara.”

Vendors displaying their tuna on their cooler at the Honiara Central Market. Photo: George J Maelagi.

Over the passing years, there has been a steady flow of tuna supplying the local markets and there are tuna ships coming to our shores all year round to transship. This resulted in the steady supply of tuna at the markets in Honiara. It was during the COVID-19 pandemic that the flow of tuna was limited and it couldn’t meet the demand at the market.

Traders Unload tuna from boat at Honiara Central Market. Photo: George J Maelagi.

Mr Fifiri says, “I usually transport my fish from the fishing vessel to the market using my own boat. I can trade up to 10 bags per day as my target.”

He added, “For a week, I can trade up to 60–70 twenty-kilogram bags of tuna.”

Usually coastal fisheries located in Honiara rely on the transshipment at Honiara port for trade, but since the outbreak of COVID-19 it is difficult to trade with the vendors at the local markets. Now they have to purchase tuna from the Noro National Fisheries Development and Soltuna Company.

Mr Fifiri also goes out to fish-aggregating devices (FADs) to fish tuna but with the COVID-19 affecting all aspect of money-generating activities, it is difficult to go out with the rising fuel price.

He states that before the COVID-19 ban lift, he can earn up to $4000 per day for a cooler but now he earns only $2000 – because the price of a tuna at the market is low at $20–30.

He says, “The fuel costs us $1700–1800. We only get $200–300 profit per day, which is very costly for us to go out to those FADs.”

During the stemming of the outbreak, fuel prices rose and people had to spend extra money on fuel. Mr Fifiri says that “to reach those FADs you have to go out very far; it is very expensive and costly when preparing for the travel to one of the FADS”.

Fishermen returning from FADs. Photo: JOG.

He said that COVID-19 has also dropped the price of tuna at the market – now he sells less than the average he usually trades at the market in a day, also receiving less than the average income he normally receives per day. It is not like before when there is no COVID-19 ban: people can trade up to 20–30 bags per day.

This is the result of the transshipment switch from the Honiara Port to Noro Port because of the pandemic restriction; this provides low supply from the fishing vessels to the traders and vendors at the market.

Most traders traded with locals onboard these fishing vessels. Normally, they buy a 20-kilogram bag of fish from them at a fixed price of SBD$100 a bag.

The types of fish they normally trade with vendors are skipjack, yellowfin and bigeye.

There are a number of traders than can be active when there is a fishing vessel in port for transshipment. There can be more than 4 traders for one vessel, so the number of traders depends on how many vessels come to port.

During the COVID-19 outbreak, local fisheries faced difficulties getting access to tuna. This forced them to run down in 2020 – some of them even tried going out to the FADs, but it was so expensive.

Even local restaurants are facing the same issue from the poor abundance of tuna sold at the market. It is not like before, when tuna comes at reasonable price with large quantities and sizes; now it only comes in small sizes along with higher prices.

Mr Fifiri says, “It has really affected the business because of the COVID-19 restrictions. People don’t often go out to fish because of the cost to go out fishing, and also with the transshipments switch from Honiara to Noro Port.”

The worrying part is the quality and the quantity: restaurants rely more on the fish traders to meet the demand of their customers, but because of the shortage, small restaurants are scaling down their productions.

These business owners are really struggling to find quality tuna at the Central Market because of the shortage of access to these fishing vessels, and also fishermen going out to the FADs to fish is very expensive.

The Honiara Central Market, once filled with quality tuna, since 2020 has been challenged by the outbreak for its flow of good-quality fish, especially tuna. Since the COVID-19 ban has lifted, the market had provided very limited fish for small businesses and the people who reside in the capital, Honiara.

Now that 2021 has brought a new norm to vendors, traders, businesses and the people, it has slowly recovered and the capital is starting to see fishing vessels coming back to Honiara Port.

Mr Rex Fifiri states, “Fishing is our tradition; it is our way of life no matter how difficult it is. In this time of the pandemic in difficulty getting access to tuna, fishing helps us generate income as well as for consumption by our families. So if we don’t manage to sell all of our tuna in a day, we will still be happy because at the end of the day we will still survive because of the fish.”

The trader adds that he hopes to see these fishing vessels coming back to Honiara Port to help them serve the capital’s market with a good abundance of tuna, and also hopes that pandemic will soon be over, so that everything will return to normal.