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Trawler visit is first step to buying island boats, says Rob

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Southern Cross could yield vital information about fish stocks. Picture by Bruce Salt
Southern Cross could yield vital information about fish stocks. Picture by Bruce Salt

St Helena could build up its own fleet of off-shore trawlers if exploratory fishing off the island’s sea mounts is successful, according to enterprise chief Rob Midwinter.

He said investors would demand proof that there were enough fish to catch before they would help island fishermen buy their own vessels – and visiting trawler Southern Star could provide it.

That could bring an end to years of frustration for Saints who have not been able to exploit the riches of their own waters, he said.

Rob, director of Enterprise St Helena, spoke after fears were raised that the African vessel’s short-term licence could be the start of overseas companies moving in on the island’s 200-mile fishing zone.

Saint FM Community Radio quoted one unnamed source saying: “Some of our local fishermen have been trying for the past 15 or 20 years to obtain a decent offshore fishing boat or two that could safely fish our sea mounts, but were never successful in raising financial support – only now to have our fish stocks ravaged by foreigners under the guise of an exploratory fishing licence agreement with St Helena Government.”

It said the Southern Cross had been successfully fishing the Bonaparte sea mount and by Sunday (23 June 2013) had caught 45 tonnes of big-eye tuna, with prospects of quickly achieving a load of 80 tonnes.

The station’s informant said local fishermen were worried by the impact on inshore fishing:

Southern Cross passes close to the RMS St Helena. Picture: Bruce Salt
Southern Cross passes close to the RMS St Helena. Picture: Bruce Salt

“We know for sure that this number of fish which swam into our exclusive fishing zone will never have the potential of reaching our inshore baited hooks and poles, on top of which it will be transported and offloaded somewhere on the African mainland in due course.”

But Rob Midwinter told St Helena Online that without the exploratory venture by Global Fish SA, the island fishermen might never fulfill their dream of raising funds for their own offshore boats.

The company had offered to train local fishermen and had an island observer on board.

Negotiations in 2010 led to four conditions being imposed on the temporary licence. They were:

  • No fishing within 20 miles of the island
  • Carrying a fisheries observer
  • Making data on catches available to the island
  • Offering Saints a chance to gain experience as crew members

In fact, the company offered to limit itself to fishing at least 30 miles offshore. 

Rob said: “We have on numerous occasions made it very clear to local stakeholders that our own ideal scenario is fully aligned to the long-standing plight of the local fishermen – namely, to see a small number of locally-owned and operated vessels fishing our sea mounts.”

But he said lack of physical evidence of the number of fish to be caught had long been a stumbling block in the way of funding, especially from British taxpayers.

He said: “Any funding body – public or private – will want to ensure risk of failure is minimised prior to making the level of capital investment that is needed.

“Funding bodies are not interested in hearsay regarding what local interests believe is currently available.

“They demand scientifically-based evidence to support the business case.

“The exploratory fishing venture that SHG has licensed has been structured in such a manner.”

He said it took into account concerns raised by government officials in the UK and members of the fishing industry task force set up under the previous governor, Andrew Gurr.

He countered complaints about lost catches by pointing out that the island is already missing out on potential earnings because it can only export frozen fish.

The island was also unable to protect its waters from illegal, unreported and unregulated (IUU) fishing operations, “which it is widely suspected have been going on for several years.” 

Global Fish was paying a fee, offering training, and providing data on catches – “and they are also providing an observation role in terms of deterring IUU activity.”

Rob said: “I am aware that it has been suggested that ESH is pursuing some form of hidden agenda in relation to our dealings with Global Fish, and that it is secretly our desire to see more foreign vessels operating within our waters, which is a complete falsehood.

“We do, however, wish to see the island benefit from the revenue that we believe can be generated from this industry, if it is developed in a sustainable manner prior to the airport opening.

“We anticipate that this could be the second largest economic driver for the island after tourism.

“We have consistently stated that we wish the local fishermen to work with us to achieve this goal, as we would like to see the local industry benefit from these developments.

“It is, however, also a fact that Global Fish have indicated that they would be interested in a longer term initiative, which could involve them working in partnership with local fishermen to address the funding issue that has been a barrier for so many years.”

He said it would depend on the size of catches made – and on further negotiations, including with the island’s fishing task force. Enterprise St Helena could help bring this about, he said, but was not the decision-maker.

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