Diesel fumes hang lightly in the early morning air as the sun comes up in Apia, Samoa, and one by one fishing boats quietly chug into the harbour to unload their freshly gutted tuna after two days at sea.
Popping open rusted icebox lids, fishermen dressed in shorts and sweat stained T-shirts dig into the ice to remove their catch. Measuring less than a metre long, yellowfin, albacore, and the occasional bigeye tuna are tossed carefully from man to man until they rest in a shipping container bound for a cannery in nearby American Samoa.
As the motorized catamarans unload, a Samoan fisheries officer pulls out his measuring tape and calls out numbers to an assistant who carefully records the size and type of fish for their records. Today’s catch is average — about 11 tuna per boat.
In the past five years, the Samoan tuna fishery has undergone a transformation from strictly a subsistence fishery to a commercial industry worth more than $30 million Samoan tala (approximately $14 million Cdn) a year. It is now the second largest source of income in the developing Polynesian nation, just trailing behind the money sent home from Samoans working overseas.
The change in the fishery is the result of an experimental tuna longline fishing project run by a former lobster fisherman from Margaree, Nova Scotia named Peter Watt.
In his Apia office, conveniently located next to rows of tied up fishing vessels, he watches the boats arrive most mornings laden with fish. As the commercial fisheries extension advisor at the Samoa Fisheries Division, Watt has come full circle in the past 10 years and is now working with the same fishermen who are benefiting from his earlier fishing trials.
“I just came here and didn’t do anything exceptional,” he says in between sniffles caused by a bad sunburn. “The fish were there.”
Like the highly migratory and lucrative tuna he has helped Samoa hook into, Watt has travelled and worked throughout the Pacific for the past 20 years on several fishing projects.
In 1982, a Canadian government sponsored fisheries project in the newly independent country of Vanuatu, a small nation made up of 90 islands located to the east of Australia, offered Watt his first taste of fishing in the Pacific.
Although he knew nothing about fishing in tropical waters, he learned quickly as he trained people to develop an offshore longline fishery and manage their new fishing cooperatives on an island 16 hours by cargo boat from Vanuatu’s capital Port Vila.
“Fishing is fishing whether you’re in Nova Scotia or Samoa in terms of the methods,” he explains. “It’s the same. Well . . . you can fish here in a T-shirt and barefeet, whereas in Cape Breton you’d be freezing your butt off.”
The tuna in the Pacific are also much smaller — approximately three to five kilograms — and different species than the 300 kilogram to 600 kilogram bluefins caught in the Atlantic Ocean.
Originally from Toronto, Watt took up fishing by chance after visiting a university friend from Cape Breton, Nova Scotia in the 1970s. Falling in love with the island, he stayed and fished for lobster and cod in the chilly waters surrounding the Margaree area for eight years.
Recalling his time there, he says his experiences as a CFA or “come from away” in Cape Breton are remarkably similar to those he’s faced in the Pacific countries he’s worked in.
“There’s a mistrust of outsiders, especially in Margaree, because of rich Americans coming up buying property and throwing money around.
“Here, you have the whole pattern of traditional mistrust and the feeling that they were treated as second class citizens by the colonists. It’s the same scenario.”
Back and forth between the Pacific and Cape Breton in the 1980s, Watt later sold his lobster boat and concentrated on his consulting work. He bounced around the Marshall Islands, Papua New Guinea, and the Philippines before arriving in Samoa in 1990 to work on a tuna longlining project for the Secretariat of the Pacific Community (SPC) and the Samoan government.
The results after six months of hauling in his nets were good, he says. But, not everyone was impressed.
“The fishermen didn’t take much interest, because it was a big commercial boat,” says Watt. “So, what I did was make everything manual, like manual reels to bring in lines. That was the start of the tuna fishery here.”
“To be fair, you have to give credit to the Fisheries Division, Peter, and SPC,” says Dr. Mike King, team leader of the AusAID Samoa Fisheries Project, which Watt now works on. “He was the one that did the trials and then private industry took it over from there. It was Peter’s trials that really got it started.”
Requested by the Samoan government to return in 1997 to do more exploratory fishing, Watt discovered his manual longline reels had been tinkered with and perfected by Samoan fishermen to catch more fish.
“The tuna fishery here is probably the most talked about fishery in the Pacific region because it’s all domestic boats,” he says proudly. “Most fisheries in other countries are run by large commercial boats.”
Presently, the Samoa Fisheries Division estimates 1,000 people out of a population of 163,000 are directly employed by the tuna industry working on more than 110 boats. Statistics for how many are enjoying its benefits indirectly are unknown, but are believed to be substantial.
The move from subsistence to a commercial fishery hasn’t been without hiccups. In 1998, 25 fishermen died at sea simply because their boats weren’t properly designed to handle the strain of larger hauls and collapsed.
Ice has also been a problem for fishermen traveling further out to sea. Two years ago, there were huge rejection rates for Samoan tuna, costing the country an estimated $2.5 million tala.
Concerns over the economic sustainability of the tuna industry are also leading government and the business community to examine a tuna management plan. If implemented, the plan will cap the number of licensed vessels operating, but won’t limit the catch, Watt says.
“Samoa has the smallest EEZ (economic exclusivity zone) in the Pacific, but it also has the most active domestic tuna fishery,” he says. “We want to keep it that way and we think the government does also. If it doesn’t get managed, it’ll happen like in Fiji where outside influences have played a management role in the tuna fishery and have received a lot of the benefits.”
Or in Canada, says Watt. Ever mindful of the lessons to be learned from the collapse of the fisheries at home, he says Samoa should take heed of the dangers of allowing larger and larger boats in their waters.
“Here it’s the same in some respects. Small fishermen say if the bigger boats are let in will there be anything left for them?”
Although Samoa is only putting a “dent” in the resource now, Watt warns that an increase in the number of boats in the next five years might make the newly formed industry economically impossible for the small domestic fishermen that now dominate it.
“Everyone realizes the resource has to be managed,” he says. “But they’ve also got to be able to make a living at it.”∗
This article originally appeared in March 2000 in the Halifax Chronicle-Herald in Halifax, Nova Scotia, Canada.
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