For a long time there has been concern about coconut crab numbers in the Torres Group, in northernmost Vanuatu.
Following these concerns the Department of Fisheries put in an annual quota of 5,000 crabs for the five islands of the group.
This goes roughly like this — Tegua has a quota of 1500 crabs, Hiu 1500, Loh 500 and Metoma 300 crabs although the island never used the quota.
“This was good, but there was abuse and over-harvesting until 2006 when then Sato Kilman government put a total ban on harvesting,” Torba MP Christophe Emelee explained.
“And when it was reopened the community was concerned about unsustainable harvesting and met with then Minister of Agriculture, Livestock, Forestry, Fisheries and Biodiversity, Kalvao Moli and later with his predecessor David Tosul and the Director of Fisheries Moses Amos with the President of Torba Province, also attending.
“The main concern at that time was the lack of data on harvesting and under Tosul a Regulation on harvesting of coconut crabs was enacted for sustainable harvesting of the resource in Torres,” MP Emelee explained.
Under the regulation, no payment for the crab is to be made outside of Torres. All buyers of the resource must arrange to purchase their supplies at the airport in Torres.
“It is for buyers, who are licensed business owners, who must make their payment in Torres before their supplies of coconut crabs leave the island.”
Emelee is concerned that now, the law has been interpreted differently by the Department of Fisheries that is now requiring communities in Torres to form association and buy licenses that cost a total of Vt180,000 for one license before they can legally sell the crabs.
“The law requires hotels and others who are licensed businesses to buy crabs in the islands but now they are targeting the resource owners.”
“The regulation is good, but something is wrong because it is now targeting resource owners while government is losing revenue.This should not be blamed on government but the technicians of government,” he added.
The regulation set a price of Vt1,000 per crab, so when you get 180 crabs, that’s Vt180,000 which can go to help children from the Torres group with school fees and other important commitments.
MP Emelee related the story about the confiscation of crabs by Fisheries officers in 2015. On August 31, 2015 the ban on coconut crabs was lifted and harvesting reopened and on October 31, the ban was back in place.
On November 1, the Air Vanuatu plane arrived in the Torres, and with prior agreement with the Fisheries Department to assist families with school fees, the crabs harvested before harvesting closed again, were ferried to Port Vila being the destination for sale. Because of a big harvest, Torba MP Christophe Emelee also chartered a plane to help take some of the crabs to Port Vila but they could not finish flying the lot.
“When the plane returned to Torres for the last lot of crabs from the harvest that Fisheries had agreed they could sell those harvested before closing date, the whole consignment was confiscated at Pekoa Airport, Santo by Fisheries staff in Luganville.
“They did not want to know about Vila and they released the crabs at Turtle Bay. To this day we don’t know why they did that. There was no explanation.
“You would think that if they were concerned about depleting stock in Torres they would take the crabs back and release back in Torres.”
For the latest incident of confiscation of 200 crabs also destined for Port Vila by fisheries on Santo, MP Emelee said it was funny that it all should happen in such a way because the former Area Council Secretary of Torres went to the ship and accessed his freight of crabs sent by family members and took these to roadside markets where his wife was said to be selling them, he alleged. It was alleged further that the same former Area Council Secretary returned to the ship with the Fisheries officers who confiscated the crabs for Port Vila.
“If the community in Torres was breaking the law, why not prosecute them,” MP Emelee asked. “If they do, the judge will see that it’s a case of abuse of power.”
He concluded saying if they (fisheries people) talked to the people before taking action they would find that some people needed help, like the chief who needed medical treatment in Noumea and children’s school fees and assistance to guardians for school children.
“And then they may be able to make some compromises with the people concerned,” he suggested.