Earlier this month Reef Builders brought you the news after a long wait, EcoAquarium PNG resurrected sustainably-collected marine fish from Papua New Guinea and is pushing to bring PNG-collected fish to the aquarium market. Reef Builders went beyond EcoAquarium PNG’s initial press release to get answers to the questions that a market now “once bitten, twice shy” on PNG, must be asking. Daniel Navin, Director of EcoAquariums PNG LTD, shed more light on the next chapter in PNG marine aquarium fish exports.
ReefBuilders: How is EcoAquariums (EA) going to be different from its predecessor, the Government and EcoEZ partnership of SEASMART (SS)?
Navin: EA is a privately funded company, while SS was a government funded program. EA will be focusing on the same core principles as SS (sustainability, equitability, high quality) but in a more market driven, and fiscally responsible fashion. We have a much more efficient business model than SS ever did, all while being able to offer more species to our target market. EcoAquariums will be relying on the NFA to carry out most of the reef surveys in the future, and to establish the TAC’s that we abide by.”
ReefBuilders: Being a privately funded company, who are the stakeholders in EA?
Navin: I have a local partner here who invested into 10% of the company. He is also a Fisherman Island resident and his name is Iga Ware. Iga invested in the company with his boat, time and experience. The rest of the investors are Americans, who shall remain anonymous, for now. I will say that they have no affiliation with the aquarium trade. I am the sole director.
ReefBuilders: Besides yourself, are there any other ex-SEASMART employees playing a role in this new firm?
Navin: Iga Ware, who is part owner, is a former SS employee. Additionally, all of the village-based fish collectors were collectors for SS. They are not actually employees of the company though but more like their own little businesses, who catch the fish and sell them to EcoAquariums.
ReefBuilders: Regarding the village-based fish collectors, point-blank, we’re going to ask — can you show us a real world example of the price chain on a common fish so we can unequivocably say yes, the people of PNG are being payed much better, and more fairly, for their collections? We realize we’re asking for far more transparency than is normal here. We’re asking on the grounds of turning a new leaf in the industry and “putting our money where our mouths are.” Don’t just say it’s equitable, prove it!
Navin: I agree, this information should be out in the open. While we are still finalizing our price list, for our clients, as well as our fishers, I will say that different species will have different markups depending on how difficult they are to catch, and how much effort, and fuel, the fisher must put into catching them. Fish like blue tags (hippo tangs) are difficult to catch and are a bit of a boat ride. These fish we would not mark up as much as something easily scooped up, like a percula. This ensures that the fishers are getting a higher price for the fish they are working harder to catch. More on this in much more detail soon.
ReefBuilders: We noticed the mention of deeper collections (fish that need decompression) and perhaps a less strict avoidance of fish that SS would have avoided collecting on the ground of “they don’t do well in captivity typically.” Should we expect an expanded species availability from EA in comparison to the shallow-water-only policies of SS?
Navin: Definitely expect an expanded species list. We are still finalizing our species and price list, but when it is finished, I’ll send it out to you. With SS, only shallow water fish were collected. At that, it was only the shallow water fish that could be collected easily which were collected. Now that we will be introducing scuba, we will have almost double the species on offer that SS could regularly provide. PNG has a wealth of species diversity and SS only scratched the surface.
ReefBuilders: SEASMART cited a few reasons that they chose to avoid scuba when designing the policies of SS. The concerns included safety, costs, reef monitoring issues, and a concern to ensure that only PNG natives were doing collection.
How is EA addressing the issue of safety as it relates to assisted diving collecting?
Navin: Safety is of paramount concern. Safety always has, and always will, come first. No divers will be using scuba without holding a dive license issued by an internationally recognized authority, such as PADI.
We will be using one, possibly two ex-pats to train our local divers on the many various tips and tricks to effectively catch fish while on scuba. All PNG citizens collecting on scuba will be collecting with an ex-pat trainer and mentor for at least the first few months. It takes way more than a PADI license to be able to go out and catch fish effectively with a scuba tank. Any fish that an expat trainer/mentor collects while diving, EcoAquariums will pay the value of said fish to the village that the fish came from, split evenly amongst the fishers from that village. Expat trainers will be paid a salary and not paid per fish, like the collectors are. Eventually, when we have enough PNG citizens trained on scuba collection, we will phase out our ex-pat trainers.
ReefBuilders: Alright, you’ve addressed both safety issues and concerns regarding non-native fisherman working as collectors. How does this all get paid for?
Navin: Collecting on scuba is critical for reaching the myriad species that PNG has to offer. Free divers can only collect fish from the shallows, and at that, only the fish that are easily caught on a breath hold. That pretty much rules out most of your cryptic, reclusive fish in the shallows like most gobies and blennies, and anything that likes to hang below five meters depth.
Having even just a few scuba collectors will allow EcoAquariums to offer a much wider range of species to our clients than SS ever could. Having scuba collectors will almost double the amount of species that we could offer otherwise.
Having a large species mix on offer, with a number of “higher value” fish available to mix into a shipment, is what drives customers to place orders. No one wants to order a few hundred kilograms of damsels and common butterflies. But add a few higher value, in-demand species to that order, and suddenly everyone wants to order from you.
So, having scuba collectors will help us to get more of a species mix on offer, which will help us to attract more clients, which will in turn allow us to sell more of the fish that the free divers are collecting. The scuba collectors are essentially driving the sales of the free dive collected fish.
ReefBuilders: And the issue of monitoring collections?
Navin: Regarding monitoring, Total Allowable Catch figures still apply to scuba collectors. A TAC is a TAC, whether you’re holding your breath, or using a scuba tank.
ReefBuilders: Our understanding is that the existing surveyed areas, and the TACs for those areas, were limited to shallow waters, and thus, shallow water species. Can you explain how scuba-based collection will work given that to-date, deeper waters have not been surveyed nor had TACs established yet?
Navin: With the TAC’s, it is true that the original TACs established during SS were performed with shallow water collection in mind. The reef surveys never went deeper than 10 meters in most cases. However, those surveys still encountered, and established TACs for, over 500 fish species that could be targeted for the trade. [So] we [already] have TACs established for the majority of the species that we will be encountering with scuba. If and when we encounter a new species that we don’t have a TAC for, we will perform rapid species-specific reef surveys to get an idea of the number of those fish out there, so that we can formulate a TAC.
The TACs will be adjusted in the future, when the new round of surveys is complete, which will include deeper water surveys. But the fact is that the current TACs will be more than effective for scuba collection. I say this [because] when we start diving deeper, we are expanding the size of our collection area, which means that we are theoretically capable of removing a higher number of fish sustainably [RB: quantities higher than the current overall TACs would permit]. Remember, the TACs are calculated by factoring in the density of fish in a given area. Expand that area, and encounter more fish in that expanded area, and you increase the TAC. The new round of surveys should reflect this, and increase our TACs for most species.
The NFA is forming a seven-man team that will be dedicated to overseeing and monitoring the aquarium fishery. This team will also be responsible for performing the future reef surveys, which should begin next month. The majority of this team will be made up of former SS reef surveyors. I eventually want to post all the TAC information on our website, so that the public can go on and see just what our TACs are, and how many fish we have exported.
ReefBuilders: Once you have collected all these fish, before they are exported, where are they going? What can you tell us about your facilities?
Navin: At this stage, we are building a simple, open air style warehouse facility that will serve as our fish holding and export station. The facility is being constructed as we speak.
ReefBuilders: So when can we expect the first shipments of fish from PNG?
Navin: We expect to be fully operational in the next two months.
ReefBuilders: We know SS was actively pursuing a coral farming project. Will EA be trying to resurrect this project?
Navin: Coral farming will definitely be a big part of EA’s business model. I came to PNG originally to work as the coral mariculture operations manager for SS and I definitly plan to continue my efforts to make coral farming a reality in PNG. At this time, PNG does not provide CITES permits to export corals, even farmed corals. But that will hopefully change soon and the NFA is very supportive of the idea of exporting sustainably farmed coral. Hopefully, we are just a few meetings away from securing the permits! I am planning to kick start coral mariculture efforts in the coming weeks.
ReefBuilders: We look forward to more news out of PNG in the near future. And hopefully, among many other fish, you’ll be able to bring in some of the new Eviota dorsopurpurea gobies that we wrote about Thanks for taking the time to talk shop with us Dan!