(Photos: Joyce McClure)
Colonia, YAP. The satellite phone connection was shaky as the voice on the other end asked for help. Two commercial boats had been bottom fishing with hooks and lines in the waters around Fedrai, one of four inhabited islands in Yap’s Ulithi atoll, filling the holds with live catch. The boats had arrived on Jan. 3 and the Chinese crews were overfishing the waters, the caller said. No one on the remote atoll had been told about the operation. He had a copy of the contract that allowed the fishing, but it was “suspect.” He would send the contract and corroborated statements from several local residents to the mainland. “Please get them into the right hands and let people know what’s going on out here,” he pleaded.
It’s a one-page agreement: “This is a simple contract agreement entered between Topside Enterprise (known as the Company) and the people of Fedrai Island in Ulithi Atoll.” It states that the “Company” will provide “goods and services to the people of Fedrai Island, and in return the people will fish and sell to the Company for “$1.20 per pound.” The goods and services include “free transport for the people to and from Yap Island and Fedrai Island” as well as “food stuffs” and petroleum products “for the people to go fishing, and if possible to also provide a 15hp Yamaha [boat engine] for the community…” The local fishermen were to be responsible for fishing and bringing their catch to the “Company’s fishing vessels for off-loading and processing...”
The contract was signed on Dec. 29, 2017 by Fernando Moglith, Fedrai Island chief; Henry Mailbe, Mangyan Island chief; and Philip T. Ranganbay, owner of Topside, a Japanese car import business based in Yap according to the company’s website, and a member of the board of directors of the Yap Fishing Authority. Ranganbay’s affiliation with the YFA is considered a conflict of interest. Confronted about this, he said that he will step down when open board positions are filled, but he’s still serving on the board. In Yap, a new business license is required for each business. How a car sales company—Topside—can sign off on a fishing contract is a mystery.
The documents accompanying the agreement confirm that Mailbe was not present at the signing of the agreement in Yap proper. Rather, a resident of Fedrai who was in Yap for medical reasons and “in no way previously associated with any part of this contract,” was effectively coerced into signing for Mailbe who was unaware of the forgery. Mailbe pulled out of the agreement.
No meeting was held on Fedrai before the signing of the contract to discuss what the people wanted, nor was the paramount chief in Mogmog notified of the fishing operation. Moglith “simply used his ‘executive power’ to enter into the contract without regard to what the people on Fedrai may have wished,” said one of the statements. Moglith “seemed to go out of his way to avoid radio conferences and attempts to contact him.” Resident Martin Yolbuwei was told by Moglith that he had no authority. That Yolbuwei “is not the chief” and Moglith is.
The documents were hand-delivered to the traditional Council of Tamol as soon as they arrived on the flight from Ulithi. Yap’s two Councils are charged in the State Constitution with performing “functions which concern tradition and custom.” All agreements and activities in Ulithi must be presented to COT for approval, but it’s unclear how these “customs and traditions” connect with government regulations and laws.
A meeting of the Council a few days later overruled the Moglith agreement, ordering the company to cease all fishing activities until further notice. The ships remained anchored side-by-side in Yap’s harbor awaiting further instructions.
Are the ships “foreign” in the sense that they are owned or managed either wholly or partially by non-FSM citizens? If so, the fishing business needs a foreign investment permit. During a public hearing in early January concerning YFA, Ranganbay was asked about the two ships which had recently begun fishing in Fedrai. He asserted that the boats were privately owned by Topside but did not add that he was the owner of the business. He was also asked repeatedly who the manager of the company was but never responded directly, only reiterating that Topside was locally owned. One of the senators in the hearing noted that the Attorney General’s office was conducting an inquiry into the fishing operation due to the complaints that had been coming from Ulithi’s residents since the boats first arrived. That inquiry is still ongoing.
When asked on another occasion why the crew was Chinese, Ranganbay is reported to have replied that locals know how to “fish and kill” but do not know how to keep fish alive and the Chinese do not have time to train them. The Chinese know how to keep the catch alive in the hold for transport to Hong Kong, raising another question. How are the fish being transported to Hong Kong since there is a legal limit of 50 pounds that can be sent out of state? No answer has been forthcoming.
After the COT meeting, Hilary Tacheliol, Chief of Mogmog and a COT member, gave approval for the boats to return to Fedrai to transport people and goods that had been ordered prior to the suspension of fishing. They were also given approval to continue fishing in Fedrai since it was the only island specifically identified in the agreement. The boats arrived and set anchor. A text message from the island reported surprise that they were back and that they intended to remain in the area until February 25th. By February 9th, the boats were fishing again and were seen as far south as the island of Piig, a clear breach of the contract and despite the locals’ requests to remain in the area around Fedrai.
Meanwhile, traditional Mogmog leaders were raising questions about “illegal harvesting and marketing to the Chinese of endangered and environmentally important species of beche-de-mer and the spotted grouper.”
Tacheliol responded, saying, “It is a fact that the Chief of Fedrai has breached our cultural integrity and the Council’s policy.”
COT has demanded that Topside identify what the catch will be used for, whether propagation, aquaculture or the live fish trade. Since the catch is being put in the holding tanks, Hong Kong is assumed to be the destination of the catch where prices can go as high as $50 to $60 per pound or more with exports to the Chinese mainland realizing thousands of dollars per ton. Compared to the $1.20 per pound being paid to the people of Fedrai, the profit is heavily weighted in favor of Topside.
The contract says the locals will do the fishing, but in fact, the Chinese crew is doing it, weighing and paying out “heedless to local customs regarding the distribution of fish or the local fish tax,” according to the written statements. Customs and traditions recognized by Yapese law and included in its state constitution, require that when a natural resource belonging to the community is exploited or harvested, something must be given to the community in return every time the resource is accessed. In this case, a small amount of fish, mostly grouper, was given to the island for consumption. Grouper spawn only once a year and are not traditionally eaten in Ulithi. Many of the grouper sent to shore were deemed to be “unfit for human consumption” and were fed to the pigs. It has since been reported by Senator Ulith that $10,000 was paid to the community.
On the other hand, ethnic Chinese are the largest consumers of grouper and it is the basis of a multimillion dollar trade in China with up to 60 percent of the fish re-exported into mainland China from Hong Kong. According to a 2017 report compiled by ADM Capital Foundation about the live fish trade titled The Trade in Live Reef Food Fish – Going, Going, Gone, “a disturbing pattern has emerged of overfishing, illegal trade, tariff avoidance, of conservation threats to several species, destructive and damaging fishing methods and even corruption…” The annual retail value of the fish, according to the report, is estimated to substantially exceed US$1 billion, with some species fetching in excess of US$600 per kg at retail.”
A recent article published by Aquanue, an aquaculture supplier of “intensively-farmed live Grouper to the Asian market” states, “The extent of overexploitation is clearly evidenced by the serial depletions of LRFF fisheries, whereby the trade takes advantage of once easy and voluminous catches when initiating a fishing and export operation in one area, then moving on to new fishing grounds when catch rates decline, oftentimes leaving behind severely degraded fisheries and dislocated communities.”
In other words, China's fishing industry is stepping up the worldwide search for new fishery resources as competition for depleted global fish stocks intensifies.
Ulithi residents continue to ask why there is no oversight and why the boats are still operating despite the order by COT to cease fishing. Two local “observers” are supposed to ensure that no illegal fishing was going on and that there was no environmental harm. They were to make sure the vessels were only going in designated areas and record the amounts of fish taken and the amount of money made each day by the locals. Although the observers are not being paid by Topside, it is not known who is paying them or whether they are trained and certified as required. Eyewitness reports stated that they “did not spend much time on the fishing vessels during the day when the fishing was going on” and one experienced, certified observer noted that he had never been aware of either of the local observers being trained.
COT will meet again in March. In the meantime, a public meeting was held in Colonia on Feb. 21. Moglith was asked to attend but, after agreeing to be there, suddenly left the island for “medical reasons” the night before. Ranganbay also agreed to attend but did not show up. Only Senator Ulith kept his word and was present to tell what he knows, why he attended meetings with Moglith and Ranganbay, and answer any questions that he could with the facts as he knew them. He noted that Moglith is scheduled to return to Yap in Mar. 4. Another meeting is being discussed that
he and Ranganbay will be asked to attend, along with the chiefs.
“We simply want transparency and accountability for the sake of us, the people of Ulithi, to make better decisions for all,” said Anthony Tareg, Jr. who organized the meeting on behalf of his fellow Ulithians. Meanwhile, a petition is being signed on Fedrai to stop the operation. “One People One Reef” is the unifying cry of the humble people who inhabit this rich, remote marine environment that their ancestors have inhabited for thousands of years. But they are now expressing concern and anger that it is being pulled apart by a few individuals intent on personal gain who are not including them in decisions that will directly impact future generations. “Not showing up is some kind of admission of guilt,” was overheard being muttered as the meeting adjourned.