You are herePapua New Guinea: The Elephant in the Room Revealed?

Papua New Guinea: The Elephant in the Room Revealed?

By jml - Posted on 12 January 2011

PNG SEASMART fisher with net-caught fishes in 2010, before the Papuan government prematurely cut off funds to the fledgling program.

Essay by Ret Talbot

Just months ago, the Papua New Guinea SEASMART project seemed the Great Sustainable Hope, a program based on good science, sound fisheries practices, and a promise of delivering superbly healthy marine livestock to the marine aquarium world.

Today that promise has been shaken, as a law suit has SEASMART's founders, EcoEZ Inc., headed by American David Vosseler, battling PNG's National Fisheries Authority, which prematurely cut off funds to the Program. Collection of livestock has stopped and the state of the art holding and shipping facility in Port Moresby is idled.

In an opinion piece I penned for CORAL last week following the announcement that the EcoEZ PNG SEASMART Program was taking the Papuan government organization responsible for its funding to court, I asked “What price sustainability?” 

A week later, thanks to an NFA press release and a series of interviews with both NFA and SEASMART sources, we can begin to speculate on the answer. We also find ourselves face-to-face with the elephant in the room—the question that last week’s SEASMART press release did not address and that has been the center of so much speculation. 

To wit: “Why did NFA cut SEASMART’s funding prematurely?”

On the first point, we all have learned a lot in the last week about what has been spent on developing a sustainable marine aquarium fishery in PNG. For example, we know, according to an NFA press release sent to CORAL on Tuesday, that the PNG National Fisheries Authority (NFA) allocated approximately $US 5 million over three years to develop a sustainable marine aquarium fishery in PNG.

We know that NFA sources say that all but about $US 300,000 of that five million has been paid, and we know that a SEASMART source has confirmed these numbers. We also know that both NFA and SEASMART agree there is still work to be done before a profitable PNG fishery can be certified sustainable. Of course that will take more money.

How much more money? When it became clear that NFA funding at the $US 5 million over three years level would run out before the end of 2010, SEASMART, according to one NFA source, requested an additional $US 1.1 million to make it to December 31st. This request was followed, again according to an NFA source, by a SEASMART proposal for a 10 year plan for an additional $US 27 million. Apparently this proposal, combined with a $US 120,000 reimbursement request for MACNA 2010, which an NFA source told CORAL was an unapproved expense, led NFA Managing Director Sylvester Pokajam to immediately cut any additional funding to the SEASMART Program. 

MACNA? Has the real elephant in the room been revealed?

Why did NFA cut SEASMART’s funding prematurely? Apparently NFA lost confidence in EcoEZ’s ability to develop the marine aquarium trade at a cost and within a timeframe NFA considered reasonable. According to an insider, the money spent to bring a SEASMART contingent to Orlando was the spending straw that broke this camel's back. Put another way, an incensed Pokajam made the executive decision to stop what he saw as money hemorrhaging.

The EcoEZ side of this story has yet to be heard, at least partly because EcoEZ seems reluctant to engage in airing of soiled family laundry.

“[Pokajam] felt that is was the right thing to do,” a PNG source close to NFA told CORAL in an interview. “He saw that spending was way too high—over 65% of money going to ‘admin costs’—and outcomes were way too low. He felt that as [managing director], he needed to take charge and stop the loss of money.” The source went on to explain that “it was clear the last round of $US 300,000 dollars would provide no real tangible output, as SEASMART was spending over $US 200,000 per month. It was clear they needed millions more to meet their mark, so NFA felt the responsible thing to do was to immediately stop the hemorrhaging of PNG government money.”

NFA brought some of the specifics into the public arena with Tuesday’s press release. Specifically, NFA points to key “contractual objectives” not delivered despite the money being spent.

For its part, a SEASMART source told CORAL that the deliverables in question are ready, but NFA never provided the opportunity to present them. Anyone close to this story knows by now that there is an endless and profoundly disappointing battle of he-said she-said going on behind the scenes. Unfortunately, this war of words probably only threatens to tarnish the image of whatever fishery emerges in PNG, deserved or not.

A response to the NFA press release detailing the deliverables undelivered was posted this morning on SEASMART’s Facebook page and states that SEASMART was “surprised and disappointed to see the NFA press release.” The post goes on to reiterate SEASMART’s position that it is inappropriate to discuss most of the matters brought up in the NFA release in public. The release continues saying that SEASMART managers “[disagree] with the NFA statement and are taking the appropriate steps to ensure that the program continues.” 

As indicated in my opinion piece for CORAL last week, we are going to simply have to wait and let the PNG legal system sort things out. In the interim, both SEASMART and NFA are moving forward with their respective plans to resume exporting sustainably-collected marine aquarium life from PNG.

Sources close to SEASMART say this could occur within the next month or two, although they acknowledge that given the heightened public tension between NFA and SEASMART, SEASMART’s ability to secure an export permit from NFA may not be as easily forthcoming. SEASMART’s previous export permit expired at the end of 2010. 

In its press release, and again during interviews with CORAL, NFA sources laid out their plan to begin exporting PNG marine aquarium life. “The NFA still recognizes that the enormous untapped marine resources of PNG’s reefs can bring great benefit to the coastal people of PNG by channeling these resources through a sustainable, equitable aquarium trade,” an NFA spokesperson said.

The NFA plan, as it was explained to CORAL, is for a six-month, but possibly one-year, internally run operation, which will bridge the gap between the current state of the fishery and “a fully developed, private sector run industry.” NFA sources are clear that whatever program emerges “will be largely based on the core principles of the SEASMART program.” 

“A work plan and budget have already been established for the 2011 PNG marine aquarium program,” says Kema Mailu, caretaker of the new NFA-run PNG marine aquarium program. Mailu was previously SEASMART Program Assistant Director. “This next year of operation is expected to deliver a great range and volume of marine aquarium organisms to our international customers. Fish from around the coast of PNG, as well as inverts and cultured corals, should be available at your local fish store by mid-2011.”  

We will have to wait and see, and while we wait, we should consider what price we as an industry are willing to pay for sustainability.

At the risk of oversimplification, we can say that SEASMART projects it will cost somewhere in excess of $US 32 million over 13 years to establish a truly sustainable marine aquarium fishery in PNG ready for full privatization.

Clearly NFA does not agree with that, but what about other people?

One industry veteran with a longstanding involvement in the trade and plenty of firsthand experience working in developing island nations throughout the Indo-Pacific is appalled at the amount of money already spent in PNG. He points out that most South Pacific collection stations have been started with private money totaling, at most, no more that $US 300,000. 

“Sustainability does not cost money,” he told CORAL, “it costs common sense.”

So what is the sustainably-minded aquarist to think?

There is a lot of wiggle room between $US 32 million and $US 300,000.

I have been interviewing many people with wildly varying perspectives about what the creation and management of a sustainable marine aquarium fishery should cost, and it has become abundantly clear to me that the discrepancy in projected cost often arises from a fundamentally different definition of sustainable.

As such, before we can answer the question of “What price sustainability?” we must arrive at a mutually agreed upon definition of what we mean when we say "sustainable."

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