A lack of public information about the future of St Helena’s first offshore fishing vessel has been called “extremely disturbing” by a councillor – after months without a single fish being caught.
Public funds helped to pay for the MFV Extractor, which began landing large catches from the sea mounts around the island soon after arriving in James Bay in April 2014. But fishing ceased in late 2014, with no formal explanation.
The Hon Corinda Essex raised a question about the future use of the Extractor at the March 2015 meeting of Legislative Council. But she was told it was a matter for the private company set up to run it.
She said the directors at Saint Marine Resources Limited (SMRL) had declined to meet councillors to say what was happening.
The company issued a statement in February 2015 saying they hoped to use the vessel for maritime training and off-shore fishing within three months, eventually building up crews who could operate the vessel in rotation.
It said: “It was hoped that the MFV Extractor would return to operation in January 2015.
“Sadly, following the tragic death of skipper Trevor Thomas and subsequent notification from other crew members that they no longer wish to continue their involvement in this venture, the company is now in the process of exploring alternative options.
“The Directors of SMRL recognise the significant contributions to the fishing industry in general made by skipper Trevor Thomas along with other crew members.”
Trevor’s daughter, Tammy Williams, has written a letter to island newspapers after Dr Niall O’Keefe, head of Enterprise St Helena, made no mention of their achievements in a speech on island successes.
“I suppose the Extractor saga does leave a bitter taste in one’s mouth,” she says. “I thought at the very least the fish landed by the Extractor, amounting to some 60-plus tonnes of prime tuna exported last year, was worth mentioning.”
SMRL director Rob Midwinter said he was unable to comment on concerns raised at LegCo because he had been travelling back to the island on the RMS St Helena at the time.
Dr Essex had asked the chairman of the economic development committee, the Hon Lawson Henry, when the vessel would be operational again.
He explained it was a matter for the private company, but she said that “elected members requested the board of SMRL to meet with them but the invitation was declined.”
Attorney general Nicola Moore said: “Regrettably, it’s a matter for private company law. There is no requirement to provide information to members of the public.”
Dr Essex returned to the issue of government funding for the vessel in her adjournment debate speech.
“It is extremely disturbing that we as elected members are unable to obtain basic information regarding progress relating to that investment,” she said.
“Members who sit on Enterprise St Helena and Fisheries Corporation boards have been provided with some confidential information but this is not accessible to all members.
“We all have a responsibility to monitor the outcomes of public expenditure.”
She suggested there might be “a need to strengthen the company’s public accountability… perhaps there should be a change in the structure of SMRL’s board.”
Tammy Williams’s letter notes that the crew of the Extractor were presented with a St Helenian flag when the vessel arrived in James Bay on 19 April 2014, after overseeing the refit in South Africa.
“After some considerable time and sacrifice away from home and family for three months, the Extractor crew sailed into James Bay with all the hopes and dreams of building a fishing industry.
“The crew of the Extractor were a perfect example of local people making it work and helping to turn the island into a viable and prosperous place to live.”
She notes that Extractor left her moorings “after six months of lying idle” on Friday 27 March – the day Dr Essex was pressing for information in the council chamber.
Terry Richards, director of SMRL, has subsequently given this statement: “The company is currently pursuing a publically advertised commercial exercise, and is unable to comment further at this time, however the company has maintained that it will endeavour to keep the public informed via press releases as and when it is in a position to do so.”