Chiefs of Torres Islands have warned they are considering taking legal action over the latest confiscation of their coconut crabs in Luganville, Santo, by people they say are believed to be from the Department of Fisheries.
The chiefs have had enough, they are angry at the way they are being treated.
Chief Richman Selwyn, the Chairman of Area Council of Chiefs of Torres — representing the chiefs of Torres, Chief George William, and Friwen Willie met with the Daily Post and expressed their frustration over the latest situation that happened last weekend and similar incidents in the past.
A total of 200 coconut crabs from the northern-most islands of Vanuatu arrived on board the Kiwi Trader at Simonsene’s Wharf in Luganville destined for the market in Port Vila, but was confiscated allegedly by staff of the Department of Fisheries on Santo, allegedly for dealing in coconut crabs without a license.
Now the chiefs and their people in Torres still do not know who exactly took and crabs and where the consignment was taken.
Manager, Compliance of the Department of Fisheries, William Naviti, says the department is investigating the issue and will issue a report to ensure it is not repeated. He says according to their record there is only one license holder for sale of coconut in the Torres and that is Thomas Norris.
“70 of the coconut crabs belonged to Topara Association, set up by the people of Torres with the assistance of MP for the islands, Christophe Emelee, to trade in the group’s resources to assist the members with finance for schools fees and others that money is most needed for.
“This association has a license to buy and sell coconut crabs in Port Vila or other markets in the country,” Friwen Willie countered however.
Last year, when the school board of Arep Secondary School removed some Torres students for unpaid school fees, the association paid all their fees and they were all allowed back in. Every now and then parents provide coconut crabs to the association to refill the association’s bank account, he said.
“The other coconut crabs in the consignment were sent by families on the island, some are for sale by license holders for sale of coconut crab. Some coconut crabs accompanied students who were coming to schools in Port Vila to be sold for school fees and some to give to guardians of the students, as is Vanuatu custom to assist those the students will be staying with,” Willie explained.
“Another one is wild yam. For Torres, it is the island where the delicacy is in abundance and they can give the crabs to support their children’s guardians in Port Vila. Sadly, fisheries reportedly grabbed everything.
“Normally, no one should not know about the consignment until it arrived in Port Vila.
“But we received reports from Torres that a business competitor reported to Fisheries agents on Santo suggesting they go and confiscate the coconut crabs.
“The crabs did not belong to the MP but they belong to the association because when the people meet such a situation as with Arep school students, because government is not assisting us in this regard, the association can assist us,” Willie, a member of Topara Association said.
Chief George Williams: “I rang Santo after the incident happened and asked and they said a former Area Secretary of Torres went to the ship and collected his consignment of crabs before the fisheries people arrived and confiscated the whole lot, as long as it’s coconut crab. We do not know where the crabs were taken to.
“I called a fisheries officer, and he said they only allow crabs by Thomas Norris, who has a valid license but not others,” he said.
“We do not know, who exactly confiscated the crabs,” Friwen Willie said, “and we do not know why because the crabs were destined for Port Vila and there is a fisheries office in Port Vila.”
The reports say those who confiscated the crabs gave absence of a license as the main reason but the chiefs of Torres say the crabs came via Topara association’s license and a second license for the community of Tegua Island, which the community paid for the license in January.
The Daily Post has a copy of the Tegua Community license to deal in coconut crab, valid until December 31, 2017, issued on January 30, 2017 for which they paid Vt20,000 and received receipt No. 0004781. According to their accountants the funds were debited from their account on February 2, well before the date the crabs were confiscated on Saturday, February 4.
According to Willie, the community of Tegua, paid Vt140,000 for the license, and a copy of the invoice the DP has received shows a total of Vt146,250.
George Williams said the community is now thinking of taking legal action over the matter because he said this is the third or fourth such incident. One incident involved fisheries people on Santo confiscating the consignment from Air Vanuatu when the destination was Port Vila. To this day the question remains as to where the crabs were taken because the farmers from Torres do not know. Willie, said at that time, his crab, a cooked one was in the consignment, but it was taken too.
The Chairman of the Area Council of Chiefs of Torres explained that at that time, the crabs were harvested before closing date but could not all be loaded on to the plane for the Vila market and when the plane went back and collected the other half of the load, it was confiscated for reason they believed the fisheries people thought the crabs were harvested after the closing date, which was wrong, and no one has gone back to explain to the people what has happened to their crabs.
In 2014 the coconut crab was listed in Vanuatu as an endangered species following shipments to meet high demand in the urban centres.
Meanwhile, last week, Air Vanuatu cancelled its flight to Torres and a whole lot of lobsters did not come to the market.