Marshall Islands Correspondent

A purse seiner unloads tuna into freezer containers at the Pacific International Inc. dock in Majuro.
Photo by Jojo Kramer

MAJURO, Marshall Islands — After more than a year of study and preparation, implementation of a big fisheries initiative will be launched in Majuro on Nov. 9.

This is the Marshall Islands Marine Resources Authority’s joint project with the European Union and the UN Food and Agriculture Organization known as FISH4ACP.

The aim of FISH4ACP is to develop greater domestic participation in the tuna value chain associated with the major tuna transshipment operation in Majuro. This initiative is now getting into the fine details for expanding local participation.

This would be by increasing the volume of tuna unloaded into on-shore freezer containers for export which increases employment, addressing key infrastructure needs in support of land-based fisheries activity, expanding onshore cold storage facilities for handling tuna, and supporting the Marshall Islands Marine Resources Authority’s ongoing work to establish a “Competent Authority” needed to gain approval from the EU for fish exports from the Marshall Islands. The Competent Authority is an agency that oversees compliance by local tuna processing plants with strict international food safety standards to be able to export tuna to the EU and other locations.

Important activity with FISH4ACP includes the need to increase shoreside freezer cold storage capacity for tuna — to expand shoreside use of Majuro facilities by the purse seine fleet — and to address the power needs of increased volume of freezer containers being used for transshipping tuna. Currently, most of the tonnage is transshipped from purse seiners to carrier vessels anchored in the lagoon. The shoreside unloading of tuna for export in containers has been increasing in the past several years with the opening of Pacific International Inc.’s net yard and fisheries dock facility in 2017, as well as Pan Pacific Foods tuna processing plant export of frozen whole tuna.

Sergio Bolasina, who is coordinating the FISH4ACP work locally, said there is much that can be done to increase the value locally of tuna transshipment in Majuro. The FISH4ACP is focused on developing “three pillars” in support of expanding the country’s participation in the tuna transshipment value chain: economic, social and environmental. “All three must be strong,” he said.

“Before COVID, Majuro was the biggest transshipment location,” Bolasina said. “The last two years, it’s been Papua New Guinea.” But, he added, Majuro’s port has good conditions that fishing companies like.

From the early 2010s, Majuro developed into the world’s busiest tuna transshipment port. In 2019, the last big transshipment year before COVID caused these operations to plummet, more than 400 purse seiners used transshipment for their catches, which saw 379,000 metric tons move through the Port Majuro that year. Bolasina said the value of the tuna moving through Majuro in 2019 amounted to $526 million, based on world market prices. 

Tuna transshipment statistics from MIMRA show that after a poor year in 2020, due mainly to COVID-19 related port entry restrictions, transshipment operations rebounded significantly in 2021 and this year, though they remain well below pre-COVID-19 numbers.

The 14 transshipments during September pushed the annual total to date to more than 200 — the second year in a row showing a rebound from 2020, when transshipments fell from more than 400 a year to 175. With the 14 in September, Majuro has now seen 202 transshipments through the first nine months. This is a monthly average of 22, well down from the 35 per month average during pre-COVID-19 times.

Through the FISH4ACP program, technical advisors will be provided who can assist with value chain efforts, training of industry, and other work, Bolasina said. “We are working on areas that others are not doing,” he said. mbj