Marshall Islands Correspondent

Pacific International Inc.’s Majuro net yard repair facility is shown in 2019, before COVID port entry restrictions caused the tuna transshipment business to plummet.
Photo by Jojo Kramer

MAJURO, Marshall Islands — A major change to the COVID port entry protocol by the Marshall Islands government has fishing industry representatives cautiously optimistic that Majuro can begin to lure back some of the tuna transshipment business that evaporated over the past 15 months.

The country’s National Disaster Committee in May eliminated the 14-day quarantine requirement for fishing vessels in response to lobbying by the Marshall Islands Marine Resources Authority and private sector operators.

Beau Bigler, chief fisheries officer at MIMRA, delivered a presentation to the NDC that showed a 60% drop of transshipment activity and port entry revenue, loss of jobs, and transshipment business pushed to other ports in the region as a result of COVID port entry restrictions.

Bigler said there had been few breaches of Covid restrictions by vessels and their crews in the more than a year since they were imposed to reduce the threat of COVID getting into Marshall Islands, which remains one of the few countries globally to be COVID-free.

The NDC responded by agreeing to lift the 14-day requirement for fishing vessels, meaning they can enter Majuro without waiting extra days to meet this requirement. The question is, is the easing of entry restrictions on fishing vessels in response to the negative economic impact felt over the past year enough to bring transshipment business back to Majuro?

Wanjun “Young” Yang, general manager of Pan Pacific Foods; said the 14-day entry restriction has been the biggest hurdle for vessels. Pan Pacific Foods operates a tuna loining plant in Majuro, as well as half a dozen associated purse seiners. The last six months of 2020, the plant produced no product for export, mainly because of the difficulty of getting purse seiners to off-load their tuna in Majuro.

When the Marshall Islands implemented its 14-day quarantine and other requirements for port entry in March 2020, most carriers and purse seiners moved to Tarawa, Kiribati and Papua New Guinea, where there is no quarantine requirement on these vessels, Yang said.

Tarawa and PNG have seen a boom in the transshipment trade as Majuro’s operation has dropped off dramatically.

From 2014 to 2019, Majuro was the busiest tuna transshipment port in the world. But that tanked with a 60% decline in transshipment operations last year. So far, the first four months of 2021 are even worse.

MIMRA reported that Majuro has seen only 44 transshipments through April, an average of 11 per month — a decline from last year’s nearly 15 per month. In 2018 and 2019, Majuro averaged nearly 40 transshipments each month.

To be sure, it isn’t only the COVID prevention protocols that impact transshipment activity. But Majuro’s dominance in the transshipment picture from 2014 to 2019 confirms that purse seine companies and crews like Majuro as a port for a variety of reasons: convenience, air links, available fueling and supplies, and shoreside facilities. But fish location and ease of business dictates where these companies do their transshipment.

A table prepared by the Parties to the Nauru Agreement on regional transshipment trends shows that PNG has dominated the movement of tuna since late last year. In March and April this year, an estimated 40,000 metric tons of tuna each month moved through ports in PNG to canneries. That compares to fewer than 5,000 metric tons transshipped in Majuro each in those two months. Kiribati is the second busiest port in the region next to PNG, with 20,000 metric tons transshipped in March and April.

As recently as 2019, Majuro was averaging over 30,000 metric tons transshipped per month.

After over a year of the transshipment dry spell, local businesses are hurting. Joseph “Jerry: Kramer, CEO of Pacific International Inc.; said his company was forced to lay off dozens of workers “because we need essential professionals and skilled labor not available in Majuro.” Border restrictions have largely prevented importation of foreign workers since March 2020. 

Kramer said, “Just two years ago, the Marshall Islands accounted for nearly 50% of the PNA area (tuna) transshipments. [The] Marshall Islands is losing this revenue stream regularly every month and others are picking up the business.  PII is being forced to stop working on our dock project once present material runs out. This means more job losses, and a decline in tax and fee revenue for the national (and local) governments.”

With the NDC’s action in easing port restrictions, tuna industry officials hope to see a rebound in activity over the coming months. mbj