Dispatches from the Solomon Islands

Solomon Islands Dispatches

Members of Pew's Global Tuna Conservation Campaign are currently in the Solomon Islands, conducting a workshop for journalists who cover tuna issues in the Pacific. Over the next week, they will be sending back updates on tuna patrols in the Pacific Ocean, what the inside of a cannery is like, and more. Stay tuned.

Update 5: The Real Catch with Tuna

September 5, 2012

By Joanna Benn

There's one aspect we haven't covered yet, and it's an important one--the impacts tuna fishing has on other species and the marine ecosystem.

When we talk about ‘sustainable' tuna – it can mean two things.

Tuna in a freezer

The first is the amount of tuna we are taking out of the water, and the need to ensure we are not ‘overfishing' to the point that stocks are depleted.

The second aspect is how we catch the tuna, what gear is used, and if we harm other marine species when doing so.

Nets on dock

When vessels fish and catch anything other than the official target species, it is called ‘bycatch.'

Bycatch may be retained and landed but is often discarded meaning it is released or returned to the sea, dead or alive.

Shark bycatch

Much depends on the gear

Canned tuna is typically skipjack or albacore for US markets, and the purse seine nets and longlines used to catch these fish are often fatal and destructive to other marine species.

Millions of sharks die each year because of tuna fisheries. Some shark populations are down as much as 90 per cent. The resulting reduction in numbers of such major predators has a huge negative environmental impact. 

 Bycatch is also a major factor in the decline of marine turtle populations.  

Purse seines

Large nets encircle schools of fish, using fish aggregating devices (FADs) to attract them. These nets are then closed - like a drawstring purse - to capture the fish.

FADs (Fish Aggregating Devices)

Because fish are fascinated with floating objects and will gather around them in considerable numbers, tuna fishermen use FADs, such as floating buoys, to attract schools of tuna and other species, which they will then surround with a purse seine net.

Tens of thousands of FADs are deployed every year across the globe by the world's tuna purse seine vessels. These devices can be adrift for months at a time and attract a wide variety of marine life, including adult and juvenile tunas, sharks, billfish, and sea turtles.

Purse seine vessels set their nets around these to scoop up everything, but only keep the tuna and some sharks that they can sell, and throw the rest overboard, often dead or dying.

Unfortunately, FAD use is highly unregulated throughout the world's oceans, laying waste to a wide array of marine species.

Floating FAD

Long lines

Lines with baited hooks are strung at evenly spaced intervals along a central fishing line, which can be up to 100 km in length. Longlines are set near the surface to catch tuna. Non-tuna bycatch in longlines can include over 80 species, including billfish, sharks, seabirds and sea turtles. 


A hooked line is attached to a pole. Some are hand operated but mechanized systems are also used to catch tuna. This highly selective gear takes fish one at a time, with little bycatch.

Pole-and-line vessel

So what did some of the participants think of the workshop when all is said and done?

We wanted to tell the story of tuna in the Pacific and make it real and relevant.

We were lucky enough to be able to visit and talk with many people involved in the industry, as well as get an insider view into some of the current challenges and realities ongoing in the Solomons regarding tuna.

One workshop participant said “This was an invaluable experience I would not have got had I stayed at my desk at home”. Another said “I can now identify a fishy story when I see one.”

We hope for those of you following this back home, you will too.

Signing off from the Solomons.

Thank you for reading.

Group photo

Update 4: In the Factory

August 22, 2012

By Joanna Benn

The Soltai tuna processing and canning company will soon be known as SolTuna. It works in close partnership with NFD (National Fisheries Development Ltd.), a local fishing company, which provides it with fish.

Soltai factory

This bustling operation processes about 2.5 million cans of tuna each month.

Its popular brands include Solomon Blue, Chilli Taiyo, and Solomon Taiyo.

Soltai Brands

SolTuna has started exporting albacore to the United States. It also produces canned tuna sold in the Solomon Islands, Fiji, Papua New Guinea, and Vanuatu, as well as tuna loins sold to Italy.

The tuna processing operation employs about 1,300 people.

Soltai worker

Workers arrive for one of two shifts: 5:30 a.m. to 3 p.m., or 3 p.m. to 11:30 p.m.

Eighty tonnes of tuna are processed on average each day.

Processing tuna

Here you can see the fish cleaned, cooked, and canned.

Processed and canned tuna

It's a model of efficiency, and nothing is wasted.

From one fish, about 42 percent is light meat, 8 percent dark, 5 percent goes to produce fish meal (exported to Australia), and the rest is water.

To keep up with the supply and to raise profits, the company plans to increase production to about 100 tonnes a day by the end of the year and more the year after.

The tuna industry has spurred substantial local economic growth, with an increase in jobs and investment in services such as power, infrastructure, telecommunications, and police.

Some people think of tuna in the Pacific as the equivalent of oil: a resource that can lead to development, livelihoods, and wealth. The main exception is that if tuna is managed wisely, it can last forever.

With a regional tuna catch worth $5.5 billion, the comparison is a good one. The challenge is how to balance wealth, opportunities, and investment with sustainability and a healthy ocean.

Update 3: Catching and Canning Tuna

August 21, 2012

By Joanna Benn

Noro, the Tuna Capital

This is Noro, Western Province in the Solomon Islands, a town known as the tuna capital of the southwestern Pacific. It is lush, green, and quiet except for the murmur of activity by the docks.


NFD (National Fisheries Development Ltd.), a local fishing company, is based here. The tuna processing operation employs half the town of Noro.

NFD container yard

With five purse-seine fishing vessels and three pole-and-line vessels, NFD catches about 25,000 to 30,000 tonnes of tuna, worth around $US 45 million, every year.

It also unloads fish caught in Solomon Islands waters from foreign longline vessels and sends them to foreign markets. This year, the Solomon Islands government changed the terms of longline fishing licenses to require that fish caught in the islands' waters be unloaded and processed in the country.

NFD supplies tuna to the local cannery, Soltai, and to overseas buyers.

Pole-and-line vessel

 Much of the tuna goes to Soltai, but albacore tuna are bound for the United States, sashimi-grade yellowfin and bigeye tuna for Japan and elsewhere in Asia, and some skipjack to Bangkok for canning.

The fish being loaded into these 12-meter (40-foot) shipping containers are all caught in the Solomon Islands.

Tuna shipping containers

It can take a few weeks for the fish to reach their final destination, so they are frozen at different temperatures, depending on their size and quality and on whether they will be processed for canning, steaks, or sashimi.

Tuna freezer

Some are frozen to minus 20 Celsius, some to minus 35, and the coldest, bound for the prestigious Japanese sashimi market, to minus 60.

“Fishermen are the last of the hunter gatherers,” said Adrian Wickham, general manager of NFD. 

Adrian Wickham

Because of market interest, primarily from Europe, NFD has recently entered a new sector of the global tuna market with its pole-and-line-caught tuna, a method of fishing that is considered environmentally preferable because it does not involve the catch of other marine species or juvenile tuna. The fish are also regarded as being tastier and of better quality than those caught by other methods.

NFD's three pole-and-line fishing vessels supply 2,500 to 3,000 tonnes of skipjack and yellowfin tuna each year. Most is sent to Italy.

Wickham is excited about prospects for the future and hopes to expand the pole-and-line business. “The market is changing. We believe there will be a better price on offer, and it makes financial sense to go back to a traditional method, pole and line,” Wickham said. 

See what happens to the skipjack and yellowfin tuna at the cannery next.

Update 2: Perspectives on Tuna

August 18, 2012

By Joanna Benn

Perhaps this is a good time to learn some fast facts about the tuna of the Western and Central Pacific.

  •  Key species: skipjack, bigeye, yellowfin, Pacific bluefin, albacore
  •  Key markets: Japan, European Union, United States. 
  •  Approximately 65 percent of the world's tuna comes from the Pacific Ocean. 
  •  The Western and Central Pacific provides more than half of this, 50 to 55 percent. 
  •  Bluefin and bigeye are being overfished; yellowfin is fished to the limit of sustainability.  
  •  Skipjack (the tuna we mostly see in a can) is a critical economic resource for Pacific countries, and for the first time scientists are warning that limits need to be put in place. 
  •  Tuna worth $5.5 billion a year in the Western and Central Pacific alone. 

Tuna's value belongs to the countries in whose waters it swims, according to the Parties to the Nauru Agreement (PNA), a group of eight Pacific island countries with 30 percent of the world's skipjack tuna in their waters.


“I don't like the term Small Island Developing States. We are large aquatic States,” says Dr. Transform Aqorau, head of the PNA. “Currently we share the ocean space, but we don't share the same abundance of resources.”

Dr. Transform Aquorau

Dr. Aqorau recollects that 20 years ago, there was little concern over declining tuna stocks. Many years ago, members of the PNA decided to regulate the amount of fishing in their waters through the “Vessel Day Scheme,” which he likens to divvying up the local pick-me-up—betel nut.

“We all get the chance to have some betel nut. If I have a lot spare, I can sell it to you, but the amount we have at the beginning doesn't change.”

Betel nut

Dr. Aqorau calls the Pacific the last frontier and says local countries need to lead conservation efforts. Added to that, he says the countries of the PNA can increase the price of tuna and cites a doubling in the value of tuna from US$1.5 billion to $3 billion over the last two years in market price for their fish. 

“We wouldn't need aid money if we realized the true value of the resource,” he says. “Aid does not strengthen us; it weakens us. Our tuna is our pathway to development.” 

Solomon Venture

The eyes and ears of the sea

Have you ever thought about the people involved in tuna fishing and stationed on boats, other than those actually catching the fish?

Spare a thought for the lone independent observer stationed on a vessel for months at a time.

The Central and Western Pacific Region has about 600 observers, whose role includes verification of fishing locations, reporting of fish caught on vessels, and compliance with national and international requirements. It is now compulsory to have them on all purse-seine vessels in the region and 5 percent of all longliners in the region overseen by the Western and Central Pacific Fisheries Commission.

We caught up with Derek Suima, from the Ministry of Fisheries and Resources in the Solomon Islands, and John Aggi, senior observer, to discuss the realities of life at sea and what it takes to run an observer program.

Observers in the Solomons are predominantly male; only four of the 87 are women. Most stay at sea for 90 days, come back to base, debrief, submit data, and wait to be sent out again.

Suima tells us that observers record size and length of target species, where boats fail to obey the law, fishing locations, and interactions with species of “special interest,” which are the sharks, sea turtles and whales also caught in fishing gear. He also explains the complexity of an operation that spans the globe and requires observers boarding and disembarking at points usually in the Pacific or Asia on board foreign fleets.

When asked what it's like on board, Aggi says, “People on longliner boats go a little crazy. Purse-seine vessels are bigger and more luxurious. I speak a little Chinese, Korean and Japanese and try to get along with everyone on board, but it can get lonely and can feel a little like being in prison.”

“The best bit about my job? It is my income, I collect important data for my region, and … I have plenty of friends!” 

Patrol boat

Tune in next time to see a tuna cannery.

Update 1: Talking Tuna

August 16, 2012

By Joanna Benn

Lata is the name of the most Eastern town in the Solomon Islands. It's also the name of one of just two police patrol boats in this Pacific country, which lays claim to 1.6 million square kilometers of ocean within its exclusive economic zone.

Patrol vessel

The boats take turns at sea for two weeks at a time, traversing vast blue swaths of ocean, day and night, keeping a watchful eye for illegal fishing vessels that edge from the high seas into their territory. It's a tough job for the unarmed crew of 15 or more, never sure who or what they may encounter in their quest to guard a precious ocean gem—tuna.

Patrol captain

Tuna in the western and central Pacific is a hot topic worth a staggering US$5.5 billion a year. No wonder that monitoring, control, and surveillance is a 24-hour-a-day, 365-day-a-year herculean task for the 17 countries that make up the FFA—the Pacific Islands Forum Fisheries Agency.

Satellite tracking

Their tool of choice? The Vessel Monitoring System (VMS), a sophisticated satellite arrangement using ship beacons that emit a signal and can be mapped, creating a kaleidoscope of color (red, amber, and blue) within Google-based technology to chart vessels and their movements. The VMS is used in conjunction with patrol boats, aircraft, and data analysis to deter and detect illegal fishing vessels. But with few boats or patrol planes available, electronic systems combined with other technologies are the first line of defense to stop fish being stolen from the waters of Pacific Island countries.

Vessel Monitoring System

With both regional cooperation and country patrols, there is greater strength in challenging illegal fishers. But according to those who guard these waters, it's a never-ending battle. “We do our best, but so do they,” said Constable Edwin Talah.

Find out why tuna matters in the next installment from the first Pew/Parties to the Nauru Agreement (PNA) Pacific tuna journalism workshop.