LOWER BASE Saipan — Preparations are in its final stages to open a first-ever “wet market” on Saipan that would put together all roadside fish vendors through a cooperative.

Joaquin T. Ogumoro on-site coordinator for the Northern Mariana Islands of the Western Pacific Fishery Council; said the plan is to have the facility in operation by January 2007. He said $150 000 of funding for the project was granted through the WESTPAC Community Demonstration Project Program in October 2005. The non-profit Saipan Fishermen’s Association which used to be a solely sport fishing-oriented group applied for the grant as part of its plans to help develop the NMI’s fishing industry. "We are now in the process of doing what we are required under the grant condition and that is to put together a financial control system. We’re almost done with this " Ogumoro told the Journal.

If Guam is used as the standard Saipan’s proposed cooperative can look forward to the possibility of thousands of dollars in annual sales. The Guam Fisherman’s Cooperative reached about $1.6 million in sales in 2005. (See “Co Op catch; Fishermen snag new Hagåtña building” on the front page of the Feb. 6 edition of the Journal.)

Ogumoro said they are negotiating an agreement with a Saipan businessman for the rental of the building space in Garapan near the American Memorial Park for the wet market.

Richard B. Seman former acting secretary of the NMI Department of Lands and Natural Resources and director of Department of Lands and Natural Resources Division of Fish and Wildlife; is working on the project through the association. He said the rent offer is $2 000 a month. "In our opinion the offer is very reasonable considering the location in Garapan " Seman said. He said the site is approximately five to 10 minutes away by car from Saipan’s two major fishing docks: Smiling Cove Marina at AMP and the Garapan launching pad in front of Kristo Rai Church along Beach Road.

Seman said the building which used to be a restaurant has a reverse osmosis water treatment facility — a must for wet markets. Seman also said that display cases and an ice-making machine would be brought in. "We are targeting to open the fish market in January of 2007 " he said.

According to Seman the cooperative’s members will pay an annual fee of $50. He said in return they will get discount in fish purchase and ice; a fleet card for fuel purchase for their boats; and immediate purchase of landed fish.

Seman said “The idea is to put together all roadside fish vendors.” He also said that the cooperative would also set the price range for the fish catch.

The $150 000 Seman said would be used as initial capital. "Eventually the cooperative will rely on fish sales and set up a revolving fund. We can also apply for other grants and this will provide us the opportunity to run our operations in a subsidized manner " he said.

There have been several efforts to open a centralized wet market where fishermen could bring in their catch. Three years ago a 5 000 square-meter parcel of land across from Kristo Rai at the Garapan launching pad was designated for Department of Lands and Natural Resources. The land was set aside for a proposed $1.7 million Garapan public market project which was designed with stalls for fish catch Seman said.

Seman told the Journal the Department of Lands and Natural Resources was in the process of awarding a bid to construct the facility early this year. However he said the new administration of Gov. Benigno R. Fitial disapproved the plan because it considered the area a prime piece of property and preferred a "high-yield revenue generating venture" like a hotel instead.

He said a centralized wet market is necessitated by the rising cost of fuel and the fact that fishermen rely mainly on roadside vending to dispose of their catch stocking them in ice-filled chillers with price dropping as the catch becomes less fresh. He said a wet market would be capable to add value to the catch by prolonging freshness and having better packaging. The cooperative will also conduct training on the proper handling of catch. According to the NMI Department of Commerce there are approximately 300 small and medium sized fishing vessels on Saipan.

Utility trucks pulling fishing boats on main roads to the docks are common sights on the island. MBJ