BY GIFF JOHNSON
Marshall Islands Correspondent

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MAJURO, Marshall Islands — A door to a new part of the multi-billion-dollar global tuna value chain opened for the Marshall Islands Christmas week, offering the glimpse of a potentially lucrative new source of revenue for the country.

Walmart, the American mega-retail store, approved its first order of canned tuna from a Marshall Islands company — an order that launches Walmart’s monthly purchase of container shipment loads of canned tuna sourced through the Marshall Islands — using tuna caught sustainably throughout the Parties to the Nauru Agreement region in the central and western Pacific.

The Walmart order is the result of five years of collaboration by the Marshall Islands Marine Resources Authority and the U.S.-based conservation organization The Nature Conservancy to promote the dual goals of developing new opportunities in the tuna “value chain” while at the same time promoting sustainable and socially-responsible fishing operations.

“This is opening the opportunity for participating in the tuna value chain,” said Gene Muller, the general manager of Pacific Island Tuna Provisions, a limited liability corporation registered in the Marshall Islands. Set up to pursue commercial tuna opportunities that support sustainable fishing in the region, PITP is a joint venture between the Marshall Islands Marine Resources Authority and TNC. 

“We’re starting small with the Walmart deal,” said Muller, who spent 16 years as the fleet manager for Koo’s Fishing Co., a Taiwan-based company that operates several Marshall Islands-flagged purse seine fishing vessels, before taking up his new role with PITP. “We hope over time it will grow and lead to partnership with other retail companies.” For now, the company is focused on U.S. retailers, he said. Once the Marshall Islands gets certification for the European Union market, the corporation will add the EU to its focus, as it is the world’s largest seafood market.

“Now, the Marshall Islands is just selling access to fishing,” Muller said. The new order from Walmart is significant, he said. “This opens up the entire value chain.”

Muller said the way the new joint venture is set up, 60% of the profit will go to MIMRA, while 40% will be for climate resiliency and economic sustainability projects in the Marshall Islands. “One hundred percent of the profit will return to the Marshall Islands,” he said.

MIMRA Director Glen Joseph said PITP’s move into fish supply and distribution is risky, because this area of the tuna value chain is dominated by huge multinational corporations, making it a challenge for the Marshall Islands to gain a piece of the market. But the Walmart deal has opened the door and now it’s up to the new company to deliver for Walmart and pursue other opportunities that may arise as a result.

In the more than 40 years that the Marshall Islands has been a country, its involvement in commercial tuna fishing has been mostly limited to selling licenses to distant water fishing nations and more recently, selling fishing days to domestic and foreign fleets to fish in Marshall Islands waters.

A Marshall Islands Marine Resources Authority fisheries enforcement officer monitors the offloading of tuna in Majuro for processing at the Pan Pacific Foods tuna loining plant.
Photos courtesy of the Marshall Islands Journal, MBJ files

MIMRA has two joint ventures with Koo’s Fishing Co. purse seiners. And Majuro has private sector-led processing and transshipment operations. But all these activities are focused at one end of the tuna value chain. The deal with Walmart is the first small step for the Marshall Islands into a totally new area of the value chain.

The first containers of canned tuna are due to be delivered to Walmart in March and are to be canned at a tuna cannery in the Philippines under Walmart’s “Great Value” house brand.

Key to all of this is the Marshall Islands participation in the PNA’s vessel day scheme and PNA’s globally certified tuna fishery for tuna caught without the use of fish aggregation devices in members’ waters. A secondary foundation for the new joint venture is the major tuna transshipment operation in Majuro that provides product for export.

“We’re capitalizing on (PNA’s) sustainable fishing and our transshipment operation,” said Joseph in announcing the deal with Walmart just before Dec. 25.

“Walmart likes the sustainability and the governance behind the tuna,” he said. “Retailers are now focused on sustainably sourced fish. You have to know where it comes from. It is all about traceability and we can do that.”

This is because the PNA has established a world-class chain-of-custody system to track fish from the point of being caught through transshipment to delivery to processing facilities. The PNA’s free school tuna fishery is certified by the Marine Stewardship Council as sustainable, which opens doors for marketing the tuna in the U.S. mainland and other international markets.

“We can maintain the chain-of-custody from fishing to delivery of the finished product,” Joseph said. “Only PNA provides a chain-of-custody on free school caught tuna.”

He said the Walmart deal has its roots in a 2017 visit by PNA members to Alaska to see the fishery system used by Native Alaskan communities as a possible model for Pacific Islands fisheries managers. The Alaska tour was sponsored by the TNC.

The most important aspect of the partnership with TNC is that TNC “is working with us on what we’ve done, not cutting and pasting something from another island and expecting it will work here,” Joseph said. “They’re plugging into what we have, rather than telling us what to do.”

The overall goal is to get tuna marketing connected to sustainable fishing, he said, which is exactly what underpins the deal with Walmart. Joseph said the Marshall Islands has jumped in with TNC to initiate this effort. But both Joseph and Muller said that this opportunity is open to all PNA members and is not limited to the Marshall Islands. mbj