Pacific tuna hub? Investment needed

Meeting at MIMRA: Representatives of tuna processing companies, consultants, MIMRA staff, and facilitators of the FISH4ACP tuna transshipment project met last Thursday at the MIMRA HQ to discuss two new reports that offer pathways to dramatically increase the economic impact of the large and ongoing tuna transshipment operation in Majuro. Photo: Hilary Hosia.

Two studies about the Marshall Islands by the global fish value chain development initiative FISH4ACP show that investing in cold storage facilities and tuna loading equipment can transform the Marshall Islands into a hub for tuna containerization, boosting economic growth and employment, while managing the environmental impact.

“Tuna accounts for nearly all fisheries production and exports from the Marshall Islands – now it’s time to bring more value of tuna fishing onshore,” said Glen Joseph, Director of the Marshall Islands Marine Resources Authority, at a meeting of key tuna industry stakeholders where the studies were presented last Thursday. “It is possible to transform the Marshallese tuna sector and increase the economic and social benefits for our people.”

In recent years, Majuro has become one of the world’s leading transshipment ports for tuna. A total of 191,000 tons of tuna passed through in 2022. Yet only 5,000 tons, or about three percent, was landed locally for exports in freezer containers.

The new studies show the potential of converting the Marshall Islands into a Pacific hub for tuna containerization, provided that significant investments are made in cold storage and tuna loading facilities.

Freezer containers containing tuna, like these currently at Pacific International Inc.’s dock awaiting shipment to overseas canneries, are the focus of new studies. The studies say that investment in onshore cold storage facilities and new equipment needed to efficiently offload tuna from purse seiners directly into containers could add hundreds of new jobs and millions of dollars a year to the local economy. Photo: Giff Johnson.

Currently, both Pacific International Inc. and Pan Pacific Foods handle tuna unloaded at dockside for export in freezer containers. But the volume being unloaded at dockside is minuscule compared to the tonnage being handled by carrier vessels in the lagoon.

The studies are among the first steps of an ambitious strategy to upgrade the Marshallese tuna value chain over the next 10 years. It aims to expand local containerization to 30 percent of tuna catches, estimating that this would generate $33 million of direct value added to the economy and create over 1,000 jobs. Expanding the use of renewable energy would keep the ecological footprint of developing the tuna hub under control.

One study, exploring the technical feasibility, environmental impact and economic role of a cold storage facility on the Marshall Islands, concluded that a facility with storage capacity of 3,000 tons could be profitable, while putting the initial investment needed at $30 million and yearly operating cost at $2.5 million.

The other study assessed the technical and financial feasibility of using tuna loading machines to load fish from fishing vessels into freezer containers. It proposes to invest in one star loader, using blended capital to raise the required $600,000, partly financed by FISH4ACP and partly by the private sector.

The upgrading strategy of the tuna value chain in the Marshall Islands is spearheaded by FISH4ACP, an initiative of the Organization of African, Caribbean and Pacific States implemented by United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization with funding from the European Union and the German Federal Ministry for Economic Cooperation and Development.

Representatives of the tuna sector, government officials, financial partners and affiliated organizations have rallied behind this strategy and have come together in the multi-stakeholder platform known as MI-FISH to provide input and oversight during its implementation.

The MI-FISH meeting last Thursday at MIMRA’s headquarters looked at the status of discussions facilitated by FISH4ACP with potential public and private sector investors aimed at transforming the Marshall Islands tuna sector. In addition, the meeting focused on the implementation of activities, including a communication strategy aimed at making tuna more attractive as a place to work and the outcomes of an assessment of the workplace, which analyzed gender, cultural and safety issues.

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